What Are Experimental Forests and How Do They Help?

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According to the USDA Forest Service, tens of thousands of wildland fires erupt each year and cover millions of U.S. acres. In 2012 alone, managing and suppressing these fires cost the USDA Forest Service over $1.4 billion dollars. While wildland fires are essential to the forest ecosystems and are a natural part of North American ecology, it is important to make sure they don’t get out of hand and damage the land. These public lands provide a great benefit to our nation, including the preservation and nurturing of plants, timber, wildlife and wildlife habitats, recreational opportunities, and freshwater systems.

To better manage wildland fires, fire scientists around the country have worked year after year to develop tools that can help capitalize on the benefits of wildland fires while reducing the negative social and ecological effects. These efforts include fuel hazard reduction, smoke forecasting, post-wildfire rehabilitation, and education.

What Are Experimental Forests?

An experimental forest or range is an area demarcated to provide space for land management research, including how to best suppress fires and manage the ecosystems of public lands. These forests range in size with most between 116 and 55,000 acres, large enough to contain complex stream systems and experimental watershed study sites.

There are presently 80 experimental forests and ranges, many over 50 years old and some dating back to the early 20th century. These woodland areas have allowed researchers to create substantial records and educational materials about environmental change in forest and rangeland ecosystems.

Let’s take a look at some additional benefits these forests provide.

Benefits of Experimental Forests

Experimental forests offer insights into forest and stream ecosystems, records of climate change, shifting forest dynamics, and other facets of the ecosystem. These forests also offer the opportunity to build and participate in long-term field experiments and provide access to a wealth of information collected by scientists.

Fire science experiments make up an important portion of the research that’s conducted in these lands. It’s these types of experiments that inform firefighters on how to manage wildland fires safely and efficiently. Fire research studies commonly focus on topics such as:

  • Soil heating
  • Fire behavior modeling
  • Ecosystem responses
  • Fire danger estimations
  • Smoke emissions, dispersion, and chemical content measurement
  • Fire effects on air quality, forest ecosystems, and fire behavior
  • Computer simulated fire management program development
  • Resource tracking system development
  • Product development to address national and regional fire issues

The Anatomy of a Fire Experiment

Of the many fire experiments conducted in experimental forests, one of particular note was the Tenderfoot Creek Research Project conducted by the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, a part of the Rocky Mountain Research Station. This research project studied silvicultural treatments and prescribed burning to attempt to restore multi-aged lodgepole pine forests.

As one of the most widely distributed conifers in the nation, the lodgepole pine is well adapted to severe fires but also burns in low- to mixed-severity fires. This recognition has inspired study efforts to attempt to restore the tree more ecologically. The study focused on the success of combining silviculture (the growing and cultivating of trees) with prescribed fire treatments in the Northern Rocky Mountains. Five different fire and silvicultural treatments were implemented over a four-year period to test how to maintain and restore the lodgepole pine.

Their results indicated that thinning alone or combining the effort with prescribed fire treatments is not recommended. Fire does not spread well in lodgepole under the typically prescribed fire burning scenarios without prior mechanical treatment. Therefore, a heterogeneous two-aged lodgepole pine stand can be cultivated with or without prescribed burning by using a treatment known as shelterwood (cutting forests progressively to establish new seedlings without planting).

This evaluation of the biological and ecological effects of a restoration treatment is a perfect example of how experimental forests help preserve the ecology of our public lands.

Firefighting Benefits of Experimental Forests and Wildland Research

Research conducted in experimental forests can help local land managers use the most effective treatments to lower the chance of a catastrophic fire and to help firefighters better manage future fires. By applying well-researched treatments, land managers can slow the spread of a fire occurrence, and rest assured that they have helped equip their forests with the best opportunity for preservation and regrowth. Forest areas that have been pretreated can force fires to slow down and redirect, helping firefighters get a handle on the progression of the fire and control its path.

By understanding modern fire behavior, firefighters also have a greater chance of staying safe when out on the job. Fire modeling and predictive software can help firefighters stay out of the ‘line of fire’ and position themselves effectively.

Fire research is crucial in helping keep firefighters safe as well as preserving public lands, adjacent populations, and sensitive ecosystems — experimental forests make that research possible.

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