From Frogs, Logs, Dogs, Slogs, Bogs, Hogs, and Pollywogs - It's the Methow Conservancy Blog!
Occasional posts - from the quirky to the momentous - on the life and times of the Methow Conservancy.
(What you won't find in E-News)

Friday, April 3, 2015

"It's Complex" Fire Ecology & Recovery 2015 Conservation Course - Class #6 Notes

Summary of March 2, 2015 class by volunteer Nick Thorp and course coordinator Julie Grialou

The final week of the 2015 fire ecology conservation course coincided with what feels like an early spring in the valley. With daytime temperatures well above freezing for several weeks, snow melting rapidly, and shoots of grass popping up, a sense of the the change of seasons and the coming summer is growing. With summer comes fire season and everybody’s question of what this year will hold following the Carlton Complex fire of 2014. The answer to that question follows the theme of the course: it’s complex.

Richy Harrod, Fire Management Specialist with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, joined the class to present his thoughts on what the future may hold for the Methow and ways that we as a community can live with fire. Following an extreme fire event like the Carlton Complex, there is generally a low risk for fire in burned areas. Plants and grasses will begin to repopulate these areas in the next several years without much fuel to allow for flammable conditions. It is not until about 15 years after a fire that dense shrubs will establish and a real fire danger returns. While this may ring true for some burned forests in the Methow from the Carlton Complex fires, other areas are at risk or will potentially be at risk in the future.

Last year’s fires, combined with the Tripod and other large fire events in recent history, have burned from Canada to the Columbia River. But large tracts of land and forests on the western side of the Valley from the Twisp River drainage down to Lake Chelan have not burned in many years. These areas are home to dense, homogenous forests: prime environment for large, intense fire events. Coupled with the threat of cheatgrass, a highly invasive and flammable grass that can take over burned shub-steppe landscapes following a fire, the danger for fires in 2015 remains present.

So how do we ensure that people and structures are safe while allowing fire to play its natural role in surrounding lands and forest? According to Richy, it takes everybody from the Forest Service, to landowners, to communities, in partnership, to achieve that this goal. From a high level perspective, forest restoration is key and several overarching strategies that impact each other need to be at play including:
* Management of whole landscapes
* Management for patterns
* Restoration of native fire regimes
* Placing fire treatments in strategic places
* Restoration of natural patches in landscape
* Restoration of fire tolerant structures like Ponderosa Pine
* Long term planning

As the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest District builds and puts forth plans to include these approaches, each year they are continuing to address the identification and direct treatment of high priority areas, and high fire threat areas. To do so the Forest Service does a detailed characterization and analysis of a watershed broken down in many small sections based on differences in plant type, age, size, tree density, topography, and more. Combined with historical data and future projections, the Forest Service is able to determine priority areas for treatment.

While the Forest Service is working in the woods to conduct fire treatment, landowners and communities can also do their part to protect homes and developed areas. Just as the Forest Service builds fire lines to block fire progression, homeowners should be doing the same to their property. Removing flammable material and sources of ignition from within 30 feet of a home, keeping an irrigated lawn around homes, and ensuring trees within 70 feet of a home are planted sparingly can all go a long way to protect property. Firewise provides more detailed information and recommendations.

To truly protect homes and people, the old saying rings true: it takes a village. Communities and their residents need to work together with each other and with entities like the Forest Service and Department of Natural Resources. Collaborative planning and fire prevention treatment by people, communities, the private sector, and the public sector are key to living with fire.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Mary's Grad School Update #5

by Mary Kiesau, Methow Conservancy Educational Programs Director
My time in Bellingham is coming to a close soon, and I'll be back in the Methow full-time in a couple more weeks!  I'll continue to work on projects for my Masters in Education throughout 2015, but I will not have to commute regularly to Bellingham anymore. 

This quarter was been demanding and time-consuming with a lot of very "real world" project work in curricula building, lesson plans, evaluation, data analysis, assessment of learning, essay writing, and more.  Sounds very exciting, right?  Well, it's not exactly fun, but I have been totally engaged, and I feel very fortunate to be able to apply much of what I learn and think about directly to the Methow Conservancy (and my interests) and create graduate school projects that serve the Conservancy.  I love being able to serve multiple purposes!

Currently, I'm working on a large curriculum project on the natural history of the Methow.  It will need a lot more work (and programmatic details) before it might ever be put into practice, but it's a fascinating exercise to think about what to include, what the objectives would be, how to evaluate people, and how to create lesson plans.  

For another course, a fellow graduate student and I conducted 16 one-on-one interviews for a possible assessment/evaluation of the Methow Conservancy's education programs.  A combination of staff, Board members, volunteers and class instructors were interviewed.  They provided insight, suggestions and concerns that will be extremely useful to the Methow Conservancy broadly and with regards to its educational work.  

What makes an assessment fair and valid?
Lately, I've had to teach classes of undergraduates, which is both fun and terrifying for me.  This past week I lead an hour-long session on "Assessment of Learning," where I talked about why and how diagnostic, formative and summative assessments can be done, indoors and outdoors, formal and informal.  A few weeks ago, had someone asked me what these terms meant I would have starred back blankly.  One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it, as the saying goes!

This coming week, I'm "teaching" a nearly two-hour class on "New Directions in Nature Writing and Emerging Authors" to the American Literature of Nature & Place class, in which I'm normally a student. 
Prairie-star will bloom within the month!

With two big projects to finish and two more papers to write, the next two weeks are going to be a blur of long nights and fresh coffee, but I do enjoy the work and feel like the whole experience has been extremely worthwhile and thought-provoking.  Still, I can't wait to be back in the Methow and to go on my first hunt for spring wildflowers!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"It's Complex" Fire Ecology & Recovery 2015 Conservation Course - Class #5 Notes

Summary of Feb 23, 2015 class by Heide Andersen

This class on "fire and wildlife" was co-led by Bill Gaines (wildlife ecologist and director of Washington Conservation Science Institute) and Ken Bevis (WA Dept of Natural Resources Stewardship Wildlife Biologist).

Bill was an appropriate
The Pipestone (here, before 2014's fire) is fire-adapted land.
presenter for this portion of the course, having worked on both natural resource management and research focused on fire and wildlife. Within the Methow Valley, there are fire regimes and wildlife adaptations to fire that result in a “fire disturbance ecology.” There are some species, such as the whitebark pine that occur in areas known for experiencing high severity (stand replacement) and less frequent fires. From there, the subalpine fire and then the ponderosa pine stands fall under the mixed severity fire regime and the grasslands are in the low severity fire regime, where fires have historically been more frequent, but much patchier.

The over 400 species of wildlife found in our part of the country each have their own adaptations and behavior related to fire. In general, wildlife have the ability to live in a fire-prone area and escape from direct mortality during events. The big exception would be species that are not mobile and live above-ground (such as the Chelan mountain snail). Species with smaller or more fragmented populations tend to be more affected, whereas species that are associated with snags and understory habitats tend to immediately benefit from fires.

High severity fire areas and wildlife
The Canada lynx is associated with areas that have historically experienced high severity fires. Although they might avoid the big open clearings from a burned stand, they will use the edges and the mosaic habitat created near the edge for hunting. They will use large downed trees for denning habitat and the young lodgepole pines that emerge are great habitat for their primary prey, the snowshoe hare. Snag-dependent species, such as the three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers, increase in numbers when there is a maximum number of snags post-fire. They come in after the insects and are primary cavity nesters. As the forest begins to regenerate, and the density of snags goes down, other birds appear that favor the new shrub layer and the Lewis’s woodpecker, who favor larger openings and fewer snags, will flourish.

A Northern goshawk in a Douglas fir in the Methow

Mixed severity fire areas and wildlife
The northern goshawk and northern spotted owl are two species known to seek out areas with a mixed severity fire regime. Both of these species like closed canopy forests with multiple structural layers, mistletoe (which is very flammable), and that are generally more susceptible to fire and yet will nest in areas with a low fire severity regime.

Low severity fire areas and wildlife
Species that prefer lots of space where trees can get quite large with lots of openings and gaps will be found in these areas. Sharp-tailed grouse is one of these species. Many ungulates prefer these areas as well. Although they may experience a decrease in food resources following a fire and a potentially severe winter from a forage perspective, generally there will be an increase in food resources in the long-term following fires in these areas. The Chelan mountain snail favors these areas and will burrow in the dry soil to reach moisture, so they will tend to be deeper during fire events, depending on the timing. All of these species benefit from prescribed fires that can lessen the impact from larger and more severe wildfires.

Restoration Strategy
We have altered fire regimes and are experiencing the impacts of climate change. We no longer have the old trees that used to reach over 64” in diameter that were the most resistant to fire. The combination of fire seclusion and harvesting of the older specimens has left a habitat that is less resilient. Bugs exacerbate the fuel loads and our snowpack has been changing over time. It is predicted that we will have 2 to 4 times the amount of fire by the 2040’s that we have now.
When we look at forest restoration treatments and how they relate to wildlife, there are several things to consider. It is important to look at the reference condition, i.e. whether there were landscape-level fires in an area versus smaller scale events, what the focal wildlife species and their habitat requirements are, and integrate restoration priorities to address habitat resiliency. Stand level considerations should include elements such as keeping the old and large trees, incorporating snags and having spatial variability.

Lewis's Woodpeckers and a snag with lots of cavity holes

Ken Bevis, “Managed Wildlife Habitat and Fire”
In dry forest management, we should have a goal to retain the large trees. We should also recognize that dead trees give life to other species. (See a great article by Ken on this topic here) Important elements in forest management follow the acronym “SLOPPS” which stands for snags, logs, openings, piles, patches, and shrubs. Ken showed some schematics of what these elements look like and how they might be incorporated into a managed stand or a restoration effort. He demonstrated how habitat piles can be created on individual properties that are very valuable to wildlife.

In looking at whether salvage logging should occur post-fire, Ken said people should be very careful. With the likelihood of soil damage from such practices, it needs to be done thoughtfully, with caution and with an eye toward what the desired future condition of the site will be.

Our landscape is resilient, but we do need to get back to a more resilient dry forest type historically characteristic of our Methow Valley.

All the classes are being filmed too. Videos are on our website here: Scroll down for the 5th class.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"It's Complex" Fire Ecology & Recovery 2015 Conservation Course - Class #4 Notes

Summary of Feb 17, 2015 class by course coordinator Julie Grialou

The fourth Conservation Course presentation featured Dale Swedberg, the Okanogan Lands Operations Manager and Prescribed Burn Program Manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Dale explained the importance of understanding historic vegetation and fire regimes and patterns to be able to understand and appropriately manage current shrub-steppe habitat. Historically, fire ran through the shrub-steppe with a high-frequency, and included both natural ignitions and Native American intentional burns. With this frequent fire, the shrub-steppe contained less shrub and more grass than we currently have. Dale also explained that we have lost a lot of the shrub-steppe habitat in our area, primarily due to conversion to agriculture, fire exclusion resulting in increased encroachment of conifers, and poor grazing management.

Elderberry 4 weeks post-fire
Dale then moved on to the topic of the Carlton
Complex fire and shrub-steppe recovery. Dale explained that the bunchgrasses and many shrub species (e.g., elderberry and serviceberry) sprout well following fire. Bitterbrush is more inhibited by fire and most often does not sprout following fire. The dead bitterbrush “skeletons”, though, provide perch sites for birds.

Dale explained that the highest priority action for post-fire shrub-steppe is weed control. Now is the time to inventory, map, and treat weedy areas. Treatments can include hand-pulling, digging, and/or spraying. Releasing bioagents is an option for some weed species in areas that have established high concentrations of weed populations. Any weed control method should include regular follow-up visits. In disturbed areas, planting with native, preferably locally-sourced seeds is a good management tool.

A slow-moving grass and shrub fire
Dale then talked about the importance of prescribed fire (and controlled fire) in maintaining and restoring the shrub-steppe habitat in our region in general. As with forests, in the absence of fire, fuels (in this case, bitterbrush), accumulate in the shrub-steppe and create conditions in which a fire that does come through is more likely to burn hotter and over a broader area. By using prescribed and controlled fire, fuel loads are reduced and a habitat mosaic (e.g., areas that are mostly grasses and areas with more shrubs, etc.) that is
Bitterbrush is thick and tall in many areas of the Methow
more reflective of historic conditions and that can better witihstand future wildfire is created.

Dale also discussed unique effects of fire that are different than just thinning types of fuels reduction treatments. He talked about fire “by-products”, like charcoal (which increases the water holding capacity of soils, amongst other things), ash, smoke and heat; and fire “effects”, like reducing fuels, rejuvenating vegetation, and providing more ground water.

All the classes are being filmed too.  Videos are on our website here:  Scroll down for the 4th class.  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"It's Complex" Fire Ecology & Recovery 2015 Conservation Course - Class #3 Notes

Summary of Feb 10, 2015 class by volunteer Nick Thorp

Right not, as the Methow experiences abnormally warm temperatures and rain in the middle of winter and sees the rivers and creeks rise, the topic for the 3rd week of the Conservation Course coincided well with the weather as it explored the impacts of the fires on fish.  Fisheries biologist Jennifer Molesworth joined the group this week to present on the subject and provide insights on the potential effects the Carlton Complex fires may have on the various fish populations of the Valley.

The watershed of the Methow Valley is roughly one million acres in size, stretching from the Canadian border to the confluence of the Methow and Columbia Rivers in Pateros.  The rivers, creeks, and lakes that make up our watershed provide habitat for a variety of fish species, with the most well-known including: spring and summer Chinook salmon, steelhead and rainbow trout, westslope cutthroat trout, Pacific lamprey, sculpin, and whitefish.  Just like the plants and trees we learned about during the previous weeks, the ability of these fish to recover from disturbances like fire is based on various factors that allow them to be resilient.

From a historical perspective, fish have been bouncing back from disturbances like fires and landslides for thousands of years.  While the immediate effects of fire (and debris flow) can include high mortality rates on fish populations due to high water temperatures, turbid waters, and related conditions; in the longer term, the effects of fire and related landslides and debris flows generally include improvements to fish habitat, and fish populations often increase in size in the first few years following fire. Two of the main reasons for this response are habitat creation and nutrient loading.  

After the fire, many creeks and rivers flooded and eroded soil
As fires burn through an area, trees and woody debris make their way into the rivers and creeks both through dead trees falling over and landslides carrying them in.  These materials in the river, provide cool, shaded habitat for fish. With landslides and debris flows in the mix, new pools are created, rivers and creeks forge new channels, and the diversity of habitats for fish can expand.

The second impact of fire that can aid fish in a strong recovery is nutrient loading.  Just as trees and vegetative debris that enter the water create habitat, they also bring with them large amounts of nutrients. In the right amount and diversity, nutrients can help boost the growth of algae that serves as the basis for the food web and supports the ecosystem of rivers and streams.

The big question of course is: with the size and severity of the Carlton Complex fire, how quickly will the fish bounce back? According to Jennifer, as with all things related to the fire…it is complex.  The high intensity of the fire that spiked water temperatures, the large amount of ash that flowed into rivers and creeks during the intense rains after the fires, and the severity of the debris flows all contributed to fish mortality during and following the fires.  These will also make it harder for fish to bounce back.  Luckily, the fish who survived the fires because they were not present during the fires or the floods can recolonize the streams in the burned areas, especially since undersized culverts and other fish barriers have mainly been addressed by past restoration projects.  The
Some debris flows were over 8 ft high
re-colonizing fish will gain from the longer-term habitat and nutrient-input benefits from the fire and debris flows.

There are also other factors working to the advantage of fish. One is the location of fish during the fire event.  Many of the year classes of salmon and steelhead were out at sea during the fires and flooding and so missed the excitement.  For those that were in the Methow, some anadromous species, such as spring Chinook, were already up valley away from the direct impacts of the fire and debris flows.  Secondly, while the debris flows dumped high loads of sediment into our rivers and streams, we’ve been experiencing a mild and wet winter with river levels and flows that has been helpful in clearing out that sediment.  The more that is cleared, the more opportunities for fish to find good habitat conditions as they travel up and down the rivers and creeks.

While with all things of fire recovery, time will tell.  Disturbances like fire, flood, and debris flows are important for renewing habitat conditions in the long-term.  Overall, estimates for impacts on fish, taking into consideration both the positives and negatives, may turn out to be neutral or positive.  The resiliency of fish, vegetation, and of nature in general have allowed them to bounce back before.

All these classes are being videoed!  Watch the classes online at our website here:

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"It's Complex" Fire Ecology & Recovery 2015 Conservation Course - Class #2 Notes

Summary of Feb 3, 2015 class by volunteer Nick Thorp

With a solid understanding of the historical role of fire in our valley and the changes that have occurred over the past 100 years under our belts, the second class moved deeper into the complexities of fire and the Carlton Complex, and examined the effect and post-fire recovery of forested areas and factors such as insects and fungus that can both impact that recovery.

Susan Prichard, a Research Scientist at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, kicked off the evening by presenting on forest recovery and what we can expect to see in the burned landscapes around the valley. She began with a reflection on the Carlton Complex fire: its intensity, its uniqueness, and how these factors will impact recovery. An eight day stretch of 100+ degree heat…winds gusting at 30-35 miles per hour…an extremely dry land . . . all fueling a fire that grew at incredibly rapid speeds, burning 160,00 acres in a 24 hour period.

How does such an extreme fire like this impact forests? Like everything related to this fire, it’s complex. Susan framed the answer to this question by looking at the adaptations of plants to survive fire, broken down in four categories:
  • Resisters:
    Ponderosa Pines are fire adapted
    Trees such as ponderosa pine and western larch are adapted to survive fires with their thick bark and lack of low lying branches.  In the fires of last summer, with an ember driven front that ignited trees before the flames hit, ponderosa pines, even with their adaptations, experienced an abnormal 100% mortality in some places. Without planting, recovery of these high-severity burned areas may take decades, and some of these areas may convert to grass and shrublands for some period of time.
    Burned aspens resprouted quickly after the fire
  • Endurers: Plants like aspen, balsam root, and elderberry. While the above ground vegetation burns, the roots below ground can survive.  Since the fires moved so quickly, these plants should do great in recovery. In many places we saw re-growth taking place in the months and even days following the fire.
  • Invaders: Plants that range from lupine, to cheatgrass, to fireweed. These plants come into open areas following a burn and are able to thrive. Some are native while others are new, invasive species that can crowd out others.
  • Avoiders: Plants and trees like the subalpine fir. These survive by simply being out of harm’s way and existing in places with low fire frequency.

The second presenter of the night, Connie Mehmel, a Forest Health Specialist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, shared how various insects (e.g., wood-borers and bark beetles) and pathogens (e.g., fungi) interact with fire. Some of these insects are attracted to the heat and/or smoke of the fire, and depending on the timing of the fire relative to the flight period of the insects (as well as some other factors), the insects can invade the burned stands. Wood borers, which feed on dead trees, generally come in first, followed by bark beetles. The bark beetles generally feed on damaged and dying trees, but can move to adjacent living trees.

Bark beetles, a natural part of the ecosystem, increase when trees are stressed
In addition to insects, various species of fungi can both be activated. For example, the teapot fungus is activated by fire and can cause damage to seedlings in the first two years after fire. . “Good” fungi, like mycorrhizal fungi, that help the roots of new saplings and other plants take hold in their beginning stages of growth can be damaged by hot fires, taking away a key natural aid to landscape recovery. On the other hand, fire can rid areas of tree-damaging fungi. For example, fire can consume the fungus responsible for various root rots.

Connie also talked about dwarf mistletoe, a pathogen that has generally become more common in our region due to fire suppression. Among other things, dwarf mistletoe causes trees to grow low branches, making a given stand more susceptible to crown fire. There is a negative feedback loop here, with fire generally killing mistletoe.

The class was filmed in four sections, all of which, plus the first class, are available here:

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The 2nd Quarter Begins - Grad School Update #4

by Mary Kiesau, Methow Conservancy Educational Programs Director

As many of you know, I started a Masters of Education in Environmental Education degree program at Huxley College at Western Washington University last fall.  The second 10-week quarter (and the last one I have to spend on campus) started Jan 6, so I'm well into the thick of things now.  (Scroll down the blog for three posts from the first quarter.).  

I'm in Bellingham 3-4 days a week, and am, oddly, getting significantly more sun over there than folks in the Methow.  Spring seems nearly ready to sprout in B'ham with cottonwood buds already sticky and sweet-smelling, and 2" long alder catkins hanging from trees.  I wouldn't be surprised if crocuses started blooming any day.  Coming back to my snow and ice covered yard every week is both very weird and welcomed because despite enjoying walking to campus without a coat, I miss winter when I'm over there.  

This program is set-up relatively well for working professionals in that I only have to do two 10-week quarters on campus, then the rest of the program is independent, including the Masters project, and I'll complete that work in the Methow and in-conjunction, as much as possible at least, with the Methow Conservancy.

Though the fall quarter felt fairly demanding time-wise, this winter quarter felt more intense right off the bat.  The professors must have been easing us into things in the fall!  I have the same number of classes as last quarter - three - but I'm also a "teaching assistant" (TA) for the unique environmental education "spring block" that about 20 undergrads do.  So, technically I'm taking 15 graduate credits this quarter, versus last quarter's 11, so maybe that's why I feel like I have much more to do.  Spending about 11 hours in a car commuting every week certainly cuts into my time as well, but at least I'm getting some great books listened to!  (Recommendations are always appreciated!)

My classes this quarter are:
Assessment, Evaluation and Research in Environmental Education
This course combines a major evaluation planning project with lecture, discussion, activities, and smaller assignments to teach concepts and skills emphasizing program evaluation in environmental education.  The evaluation planning project I've chosen to do is an assessment of the Conservancy's education programs with an eye towards what changes or enhances, if any, may be warranted based on community feedback.  This class is very reading and project heavy, and I'm glad to be apply to directly apply the learning and the project work to the Methow Conservancy. 

Curriculum in Environmental Education
This course examines all aspects of curriculum for environmental education, especially
in the non-formal setting of environmental learning centers, nature centers and outdoor schools.  This class interacts with the undergrad EE curriculum class by teaching the class, observing and evaluating undergrad students, and mentoring them.  We also do our own work of learning curriculum theories and designs, which we'll use to design our own individual curriculum outlines.  We'll have to teach one lesson from our curriculum to our classmates.  I'm thrilled that this class, like the one above, allows me to easily apply the learning and the curriculum project to my work. 

The American Literature of Nature and Place
This class is an upper level undergraduate course that I'm taking as an elective.  I'm one of two grad students in the class with about 25 20-year-olds.  That alone is fascinating!  The reading and writing in this class is right up my alley, but it is a lot of work.  I probably spend more time on this class, the undergrad class, than the either of the other two classes.  In this class, we primarily (1) read, discuss and write about the work of American non-fiction writers of nature and sense of place, and (2) practice descriptive and expository nature writing, critical reading and research.  I alone will also be teaching one class (about which I'm terrified).  I'm going to teach on “Future Directions in Nature Writing and Emerging Voices.”  If you have any ideas for my class (format, readings, activities...), I'm all ears!  We are required to read:
* Winter Creek by John Daniel
* The Meadow by James Galvin
* Refuge by Terry Tempest  Williams
* Riverwalking by Kathleen Moore
* and then one other book from a list, from which I choose The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley  

I'm still managing to keep up with Methow Conservancy work, though you aren't seeing me at First Tuesdays or in the office much.  You can find me there some Thursdays and most Fridays, and I'll be back to a fairly normal office routine by mid-March.  Time flies!