Those forests now burning south of Fauquier and Edgewood, and northeast of Winlaw? They’re not coming back.
That’s the stark assessment of Greg Utzig, a Kootenay-based conservation ecologist who has studied how climate change affects forest regeneration for 20 years.
“The forest in some places won’t be back at all, and in other places it will be very different from what is there today,” he told the Valley Voice.
Utzig says the temperate forests of the Arrow, Slocan and Kootenay Lakes areas that locals love are going to be replaced in the next few decades by rock, scrub grass and dust, as a result of human-driven climate change.
It won’t happen all at once, and not everywhere. But by 2080, it will be a very different looking Kootenays.
That’s because the fires burning this year aren’t part of a usual cycle of destruction and forest regrowth, but the signal of a wholesale change in the ecosystem. A change to a climate likely much dryer, and certainly much hotter, he says. One that will far more closely resemble the southwest US, rather than our familiar temperate rainforest.
After the fire
We’re taught that fire is good for a forest. But that’s not completely true, all the time. Fire is certainly a regular part of the natural order, and in places like the East Kootenay the forest has adapted to thrive with fire every few decades.
But Utzig has also studied forests near Revelstoke where there’s no evidence of fire affecting the ecosystem for hundreds of years. So when climate change-driven fires hit those areas, the forest isn’t adapted to it – and that ecosystem doesn’t recover.
The size, frequency and intensity of the fires is also increasing. Trees may not have a chance to regrow to full size before being wiped out again.
That is, if there are seedlings to replace the burned trees in the first place.
“If they’re high intensity fires – which many of them are – because it’s so hot, it kills all the trees so there’s no seed source,” he says. “And so the forest doesn’t come back because there’s no seed.”
With the canopy gone, and hotter-than-usual fires burning deep into the soil, the next generation of trees is being decimated, says Utzig. Those that do survive will wither away in the heat and parched conditions as average temperatures slowly climb 5-7°C in the coming decades.
“They all need water to survive. So there’s incredible competition for water in a year like this, and the ones that don’t make it die,” he says.
Other problems are complicating and reinforcing the destruction. Drought-weakened trees are prey to beetle infestation, killing them and increasing fire fuels; clearcutting reduces ecosystems’ resiliency; extreme weather events mean more blowdowns and lightning to spark fires in the dying woods.
The cycle of destruction continues until there’s nothing left. And all that is happening so fast that traditional forest recovery is impossible.
“So I’m not going to say all these areas are not going to re-forest,” says Utzig. “Some of them will, but the ones that are in the driest sites won’t.”
And the species that do come back won’t be the familiar pine, cottonwood, birch and hemlock either, but ones more adapted to drought conditions and fire.
“It won’t slowly transition,” he says. “A major burn will happen, then we may get two to three years of dry, and those areas won’t come back. Or, if the next two or three years are wet, well, they will come back for a while – until they burn next time.”
So are we looking at an Okanagan-style landscape in the future?
“No, that’s too easy,” says Utzig. “Our models had to go much farther than that to find a similar climate match to where the Interior is heading. And it’s more like southern Idaho, Wyoming, even Nevada.”
So what vegetation will likely replace the fires in those burn areas this year?
“Knapweed,” says Utzig. It doesn’t sound like he’s joking.
It pays to have a gallows humour if you’re a climate scientist these days. But Utzig bristles at the suggestion there’s nothing that can be done to avoid the climate catastrophe.
“There’s lots of things that could be done,” he says. “The first thing is, we can stop making it worse.
“To say there’s nothing we can be doing is ridiculous. But finding the will to do it: that is the problem.”
Utzig points to the sale of coal from our region for industry as our biggest ‘contribution’ to the greenhouse gas problem. That has to end for the sake of the planet, he says, as do new pipelines and fossil fuel development.
And Utzig says the Province has to change its entire approach to logging to keep ecosystem resiliency at the forefront.
“We could be redirecting forestry harvesting to increase resilience to ecosystems to climate change. We know what kind of treatments need to be done… those came out of our work 10 years ago and nothing has been done.”
The FireSmart program, he says, has to be reimagined to try to save more than homes and infrastructure.
“What I’m talking about is saving ecosystems,” he says. “Its basically changing the way we log to help ecosystems adapt to the changing environment. And that means stopping clearcutting, treating stands to increase the resilience to change – change that has already begun.”
It’s a different kind of logging, and a different kind of forest management that he says is facing stiff opposition from government and industry.
“People worry about people, but the fact is every living thing is being affected by this,” he says of climate change. “And it’s going to come back to bite us.”
Utzig’s theories on managing fire in a changing climate are being tested this summer. SIFCo, the Slocan Valley’s community forest, has been following his recommendations for FireSmarting with an eye to forest regeneration. In several blocks near Winlaw, they’ve been leaving Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir spaced well apart on south slopes that are most prone to fire and the first to convert into grasslands.
The theory is now being tested by the 5,200-hectare Trozzo Creek fire that’s been burning for the last month.
“It’ll be interesting to see how well they did,” he says. “Those areas may have been able to carry the fire without killing the trees.”
But it will take much more work, on many fronts, if Kootenay forests will have a chance of surviving past the next couple of decades.
“The hope is we do what we need to do,” says Utzig. “We need to get on with it, we need to wake up. Change is coming. We have elections coming, we need to put people on the spot and vote accordingly.”