Monday, September 03, 2007

Expert rues humanity's effect on BWCAW forests

A University of Minnesota forest scientist says it's time to take a proactive approach to minimize humans' rapid toll on the wilderness.

Date: March 23, 2006
Byline: JOHN MYERS, Duluth News Tribune

Change is constant in nature, but it used to move more slowly.

Over the past 150 years, humans have been changing the forest of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness faster than during any time in the previous 3,000 years.

And we're doing more every day, says Lee Frelich, a University of Minnesota forest scientist.

First, it was logging more than half the BWCAW, allowing aspen to become a dominant species where pines once ruled.

Then it was Smoky Bear and the end of fires that regenerate naturally.

Now exotic plant species are creeping in. So are European earthworms, reducing leaves on the forest floor and pushing out native wildflowers.

Whitetail deer have replaced native caribou and are growing in number, munching on white pine faster than the trees can grow in some places. New tree diseases and insects, most brought here by people, are taking their toll.

Global climate change may seal the deal, pushing some of the species we associate with trips through the Boundary Waters out of the area.

Suddenly, the federal definition of wilderness, "untrammeled by man," loses some meaning.

"We're changing it so much that you really need to question what wilderness means," said Frelich, who will speak on the subject tonight at Vermilion Community College in Ely. "The Boundary Waters (forest) as we've known it won't be here 50 years from now."

Frelich said it's time to reconsider the official federal "hands-off" policy of wilderness management and begin taking a proactive role in reducing humans' impact.

"What's more of a wilderness, to have an exotic species like buckthorn take over for the native species, or to go in there and start fires and regenerate species that belong there?" Frelich asked. "What the wilderness is going to look like from now on is more of a social choice than a biological choice. Humans are impacting it every day whether they admit it or not."

Frelich is proposing large changes in federal wilderness policy to retain or return to a more natural forest.

First and foremost is a more liberal policy of letting fires burn in the BWCAW. Though federal policy has slowly changed to allow more wildfires, it hasn't been enough to allow widespread natural regeneration of keystone species such as jack pine.

The Forest Service is burning small chunks of the 1.1 million acre wilderness to help get rid of trees blown down in the 1999 windstorm. Where those fires have occurred, natural regeneration of pine and paper birch has been successful. But Frelich believes the agency should keep going and burn part of the wilderness each year.

By burning jack pine often, not only will new cones open and sprout, but the species will regenerate under warmer climates each generation. Without encouraging that adaptation, jack pine will be pushed out of Minnesota as our climate continues to heat up, Frelich said.

Barb Soderberg, public service team leader for the Superior National Forest that oversees the BWCAW, said fire policy has evolved to appreciate the role wildfires have in forests. Slowly, the agency will allow lightning fires in the BWCAW to regenerate the forest -- but only if they don't threaten developed areas.

"The law says we can intervene only to allow the natural process to happen," or for public safety, Soderberg said. "But we can't go in there and do vegetative manipulation because we don't like a certain species that's thriving."

Soderberg said the Forest Service may have to take a closer took at what role to play as forests change because of a warming climate and exotic species brought by humans.

"It gets to be an interesting discussion, trying to bring the wilderness back to some sort of earlier state," Soderberg said. "But what do you try to bring it back to? 1600? 1800? 1920? What would the natural process (of change) have brought us to at this point without the impact?"

Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Hardwood Ecology and the leading authority on the natural history of Minnesota's boreal forests, said the Forest Service also needs to look at reseeding and planting species such as white pine in areas where they are not regenerating naturally.

And Frelich said the agency should start collecting seeds from species like ash that are doomed to extinction if imported pests such as the emerald ash borer continue to rout the nation's forests.

"We expect to see all of the nation's ash species extinct within a couple decades because of the emerald ash borer," Frelich said. "If we don't try to preserve something, we'll never get them back."

Originally posted at:

More Information on "climate change forest wilderness impact" - web page search results | site link search results users agree to the site disclaimer as a condition for use.

Networked by - Forest Conservation Portal, a project of Ecological Internet, Inc.


Post a Comment

<< Home