Heading Home from Missoula

Heading back east. The fire conference in Missoula was fun. I got some new insights and lots of things to think about.

Conditions in Virginia are way different from those in the West. Lots of the things that work in our SE ecosystems would be a bad idea out here and the reverse is also true. You really cannot make a policy that works for the whole country.

Today’s talks were useful for me, since they talked about the SE a little more. I was afraid, however, when the first speaker talked about tree mortality and said that trees that were scorched 90% would probably die. We just did a burn that scorched ten acres of loblolly. I was relieved when the next speaker pointed out that, indeed, in the West this was true, but in the SE scorch does not usually kill pines.

We talked about the different fire regimes. I think I added a little to the discussions talking about how spacing affects the heat plumes. I have seen this from experience. The research did not account for changes in convention related to spacing (a tighter canopy hold the heat) and said she would think about it as a factor in her research going forward.. The other comment I made was that I thought that backing fires destroy duff, while head fires often scorch. Some of the research conflated the duff destruction with scorch. The two are often inverse. Backing fires look more benign, but they fry the roots. Anyway, it was fun today. It was good to mix the research with the field observation.

A guy from Georgia gave a talk about growing season burns versus dormant season. His research indicates no difference in hardwood suppression, especially dealing with sweet gum. This goes against some of our traditional wisdom, but it is a good thing, if true. It is safer to burn in winter. I got the guy’s information and will follow this.

My pictures show the usual beer drinking. Since it is my birthday, we went to a place called “Jake’s”. My relatives know, but my friends may not, that was my nickname when I was a kid. The next picture is a gas station in big sky country. Finally is a photo from one of the morning lectures, showing convention and its effects on trees, in theory.

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Fire Conference in Missoula

Got to Missoula for the opening of the Fire Continuum Conference on wildfire. Great so far. Tony Incahola from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes explained how Native Americans successfully used fire as a management tool in the years before settlement. Members of the Salish and Kootenai also performed a welcome ceremony. You can hear it in the video below.
Dave Calkin, PhD, Supervisory Research Forester, Human Dimensions Program, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station gave the keynote for the conference. I have linked to an article about it in comments.
He called wildfire a “wicked problem.” By this, he did not mean evil. A wicked problem is one that defies solution because information about it is incomplete and contradictory. Feedback is difficult to recognize and may not be meaningful and requirements are always changing. He proposed we make it less wicked by making evidence-based decisions, recognize risk and commit to its management. Each fire is unique in some ways,but like others too. Fire managers need to share information and together become a learning organization.
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Road Trip – Montana

Visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The geography has not changed much since we were last here, but the interpretation of history is different. It has come back to balance.

When I first heard about Custer, it was the “They Died with Their Boots On” story. Custer represented the light of civilization versus the darkness. The reaction to this dominated during the 1960s. Custer in this version was a cowardly, foolish clown, who deserved to die at the hands of noble savages. Now we can appreciate heroism and bravery on both sides.

After events pass from living memory, they become the common heritage of humanity. I thought of that when I saw the monument to the Sioux dead that sits maybe 100 yards from the place where Custer was killed. It is certainly appropriate. At the exhibit in the visitors’ center said that 42% of Custer’s troopers were foreign born. The Native American Crow and Arikara who rode with Custer were the hereditary enemies of the Sioux. My point is that there was great diversity on both sides and the sides were ephemeral.

All these diverse groups are part of the tapestry of America today. Consider that 40% of Americans today can trace an ancestor to Ellis Island, which opened for immigrants only in 1892 and we can see that it makes no sense to take sides on this historical event, but we can all learn from it and appreciate the participants. The events became our American history and the descendants of those who fought here are Americans, like those of us whose ancestors showed up after the battle.

My first picture is me in front of the memorial to the Sioux and Cheyenne who fought at Little Bighorn. Next is “Last Stand Hill.” They marker in the middle is where Custer fell. Next is a healthy stand of ponderosa pines in the Custer National Forests and last is a Sinclair Station. I like to buy gas there for the very irrational reason that there used to be a Sinclair station near my house in Milwaukee and I like the dinosaur.


Finished up the day in Billings, Montana. Not a big city, but it has a whole district of breweries and distilleries. My pictures are from the Billings Brewery District, except the last one. That one is from a rest stop on I-90. It is kind of clever to provide a fire hydrant for traveling dogs.

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Road Trip – South Dakota

Mount Rushmore is iconic and worth seeing and worth going to see if you are nearby.

The ponderosa pine forests near Mount Rushmore were interesting. It looks like the Park Service, or Forest Service or others are doing a good job of thinning and maybe burning. We drove through here in 1997. Back then, the woods were too thick. They were asking for attack by beetles and fire and the request was, unfortunately, granted. Management looks better now.

We also went to Wall Drug. For those unfamiliar, it is a complex of kitsch. You see signs every few miles as you drive up I-90. It is not far from the highway and worth stopping. Last picture shows some silos in Wall, SD. I just thought they looked cool.

Drove across South Dakota facing a bodacious wind strong enough to worsen our gas mileage. Funny thing is that we saw lots of windmills in Iowa and few in South Dakota. Must be differences in laws or subsidies.

South Dakota presents a variety of ecosystems. The place along the Missouri River is a lot like the upper Mississippi. You go west into great flat vastness. It has been rainy lately, so it is unusually green – almost Land of Oz green.

We took a side-trip through the Badlands. They are interesting to look at and there are lots of roadside notices talking about the unique ecology, but they are really just a lot of erosion, the kind of thing you might find in an abandoned gravel pit or abused farmland.

On the plus side, the area has largely left alone because it is not valuable for agriculture and it was hard to travel through. Lots of wildlife still exists here. My first and last pictures show bighorn sheep. Next is me with the Badlands in the background, followed by a closeup of some of the erosion. You can see the wind in the next picture and the green-green grass.

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Road Trip Iowa & South Dakota

Most of what I know about Lewis & Clark beyond what I learned in HS comes from “Undaunted Courage,” a great book by Stephen Ambrose. It is a book I recommend. But the cover of my book has an error. It shows Lewis & Clark dressed in buckskins. It fit my frontier image garnered from watching Walt Disney’s “Davey Crockett,” hardly a work of strict historical scholarship.

I learned today that Lewis & Clark tended to wear their dressy uniforms. This should really not be much of surprise. Consider how well dressed officers were in civil war armies.

We went to visit the Lewis & Clark museum in Sioux City, Iowa. There is not much there, but it is nicely done and worth the visit if you are passing through.

The Lewis & Clark expedition was instrumental to the expansion of our country. It was an expedition of exploration and science that captured the imaginations of Americans of the time and every generation since, even if most of us do not know the details.

My pictures are from the museum and the grounds. They had a robot Thomas Jefferson, not exactly “West World” but lifelike.

We finished up in Sioux Fall, SD after a day of driving across Iowa. It is so different from Virginia. Lots fewer trees and lots more row crops. And the soil is black or brown, not red as in Virginia.

Ash trees are still alive in Sioux Falls. It is nice to see them. I know that it is possible to defend trees against emerald ash borers, but it costs a lot. I am hoping that native birds or bugs learn to relish the EAB and keep their numbers down. It is heartbreaking to contemplate having no more ash.

My first pictures are from Granite City Brewery. It was a very pleasant place. Last picture is the Lego version of Lewis & Clark. Beth Harvey Barch might want to share this will Lee, as I think he likes things like this.

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Driving across Ohio, Indiana & Illinois

Drove through Ohio, Indiana & Illinois. As we move west, the land becomes a bit dryer and flatter.

The death of the ash trees made me sad. Ohio & Indiana were full of ash trees. The emerald ash borer has killed most of them. There are vast ghost forests along the the highways. Ash trees were wonderful trees. They were fast growers, adaptive to a variety of conditions and resistant to many pests. Until now.


My first picture shows ash trees at a roadside, dead. Next is a living white ash tree in Quincy, Illinois. Magnificent trees. Picture after that is a very large bur oak tree and next are a grove of hickories. Last picture shows some linden trees. They are blooming and I just love the fragrance. Midwest forests with their widely spaced trees, oaks, hickories, are woods of home.

We are spending the night in Quincy, Illinois. Never heard to the place before, but it is a nice old city. It has seen better days, but is still pleasant. I didn’t know that this was a venue for one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

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On the Road – Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio

On our way to Missoula, Montana for a conference on fire science. Missoula is a center for the study of wildfire, so when I saw a conference on the subject in that place, I thought it would be great to go at least once.

A few interesting sites along the way. One is a rest stop in Maryland that you see in the first picture. It has to be one of the best rest stops I have ever seen. Next is a place that claims to have invented the hot dog, at least in its current form. We checked into it. There are other claimants. This place was a little cramped. Worth seeing but not worth going to see. Chrissy had the hot dog. It was like other hot dogs. Later that day we stopped at Jackie O Taproom in Athens, Ohio. It is not named after Jackie Onassis, but they admit that it is a draw. Next two pictures are our usual beer drinking pictures.

Also on the road are pre-Columbian earth mounds in Chillicothe, Ohio. The people who built them disappeared from the archeological record around 1500 years ago. While they are probably related to some contemporary groups, there is no direct line.

By the time European arrived, none of the local tribes were mound builders, so the ancient culture is called “Hopewell” after the guy whose farm they were found.

The Hopewell people did not build cities or villages. Archeologists have never found remains of more than a few huts. They were mostly pre-agricultural. But they did like to build earthen mounds.

This was no easy task. They did not have metal tools or pack animals. There is evidence of long-distance trade, including copper from around Lake Superior and shells from Gulf of Mexico. My first two pictures show the mounds. You can see me in the first picture for scale. Last is a groundskeeper doing some work. It occurred to me that this guy with his metal shovel and powered vehicle could move as much dirt as a hundred guys on foot carrying baskets and digging with sticks.


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Timber Harvest – Brunswick County, May 14, 2018

Went down to the farms to see the harvest. We are thinning around 80 acres to 50 basal area (trees very far apart). We are also clearing 1/4 acre on every acre and clearing about four acres that were overstocked.

My plan is to plant longleaf on the 1/4 acre clearings and on the four acres, as well as some under the remaining loblolly. The idea is that we will do a final harvest of the loblolly in about ten years and the longleaf will be established.

In the meantime, the thinned acreage will be wonderful wildlife habitat. We will burn and plant pollinator habitat, which will also make the diverse habitat even better.

My pictures show the harvesting. Clear cuts look like hell,but they are wonderful habitat in the year after, especially for bobwhite quail. The early succession habitat provided food and the brambles that inevitably grow provide cover.

First picture shows the machine doing the thinning. The machine grabs and cuts the trees. Next shows a cutter and a chipper. After that is a log truck arriving. Last is video of the thinning. It is a little hard to see the machine.

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Brodnax Fire

Science & experience tells me that everything will be okay, but I still worry about my trees. Convention from the hot fire gets all the way up the trees and singes the needles. I expect that lots of them will fall off. I have reasonable confidence intellectually that most of the trees will grow back better than ever, but I don’t feel it.

Found time between presentations to rush down and look at my newly burned forest. The forest floor is very clear now. You can easily walk through. We are doing patch burns of 1/3 each year for three years. This is great for wildlife and it puts more life, and carbon into the soils.

You can judge the fire by the color it leaves behind. Black is good. That means the fire has put a good char w/o destroying the life of the soil. White is not good but still okay. That is ash. The fire was a little too hot, but things are still okay probably. When you see red, you got trouble. Virginia clay is red (actually kind of orange.) If you burned down to that, the fire was too hot and destructive. In the really bad cases, the fire essentially bakes the clay into a kind of porcelain and nothing much will grow for a long time. Fortunately, we got the black.

My first three pictures show the forest floor. #3 shows part of the place where my friends & neighbor Larry Walker planted some pollinator plants. It will be very pretty soon.

Picture #4 shows my longleaf and the last picture is the gas station in Lawrenceville, even cheaper than Exit 104.

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Virginia Forestry Summit 2018

At the Virginia Forestry Summit in Richmond. It is fun to hear what people have to say about forestry meet new friends and catch up with old ones. In-person events are important for that. In theory, you could learn more from watching on the web, but you miss the serendipity of unplanned meetings. I also find that I pay less attention if I am on the web. It is too tempting to “multitask” when you are sitting at home.

A good example of the personal contact has to do with CLT. I ran into a guy who works at a major Virginia firm with whom I had discussed CLT production. He said that he wanted to approach his top-management with the idea of making CLT. I forwarded some information and then looked for the DoF guy who works on CLT to make the connection. All of this was unplanned but not unanticipated in the broad sense. Personal meeting is useful.

The meeting started off talking about Carl Schenk. You may not have heard of him, but he is a big deal in forestry. He started the first forestry school in the USA.

Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, lots of people worried about a “timber famine”. We were running out of wood, since forests were being cleared and not regrowing fast enough. Schenk was trained in forestry in Germany. He quickly saw that American forests were different, but adapted techniques. We still are using some of the concepts he introduced,although much modified by our greater understanding. We can see farther because we stnd on the shoulders of giants like Schenk.

Interestingly, we no longer talk of timber famine. In fact we have a kind of “timber obesity” i.e. so much wood available that prices are very low. In the Southeast, we have a glut of mature timber. Given the low number of housing starts in the last ten years, we have an oversupply. One speaker said that we have 35% more standing mature pine in the Commonwealth than we did ten years ago. Even if housing picks up, it will take years to work through this surplus, so we cannot expect prices to go up much for saw timber, even if housing picks up. BTW – the price of lumber is going up much faster, but that is not due to cost of wood.

I will write more later. I have to get going now to attend today’s program.

Virginia Forestry Summit

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