by Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D.
Director, Western Fire Ecology Center
[Published in Proceedings, Fire Effects on Rare and Endangered Species and Habitats Conference, Couer d’ Alene ID, March 29-April 1, 1998]
In October, 1991, arsonists ignited the Warner Creek fire on the edge of a Habitat Conservation Area set aside for the Northern Spotted Owl. Over the course of 13 days, the wildfire burned across 8,973 acres, including the entire 6,800 acre Cornpatch Inventoried Roadless Area, becoming the second largest, costliest wildfire in the history of the Willamette National Forest. Seventeen pairs of owls had some or all of their habitat range burned by the fire, and approximately 2,060 acres of superior spotted owl habitat experienced high fire mortality. At that time, the conventional wisdom was that fire and owls do not mix, however, spotted owl pairs continued to inhabit and successfully reproduce in the Warner Creek fire area. Regardless, Forest Service officials claimed that fire-killed trees were no longer suitable habitat, and would create a fire hazard for future developing spotted owl habitat. When the agency proposed salvage logging in this HCA (now a Late-Successional Reserve), it set in motion a six year collaborative effort by “citizen-scientists” in the research community to propose permanent protection for Warner Creek as a Fire Ecology Research Natural Area. This would be the first fire disturbance process RNA. In 1996, all salvage logging plans were withdrawn, and the Warner Creek Fire Ecology RNA is an idea whose time has come. This paper will present five main topics: 1) the effects of the Warner Creek Fire on the habitat and resident population of northern spotted owls; 2) a critique of agency assumptions about fire effects, and its proposals for managed recovery of spotted owl habitat; 3) the intellectual development and series of events that generated the RNA proposal; 4) the role of citizen-scientists from the research community who advocated for the RNA proposal in administrative, legal, and political channels; and 5) future prospects for developing an inter-regional network of fire ecology RNAs throughout the West.
On October 10, 1991, arsonists ignited the Warner Creek Fire on the Willamette National Forest in Oregon. This was the first large wildfire to burn inside a Habitat Conservation Area (HCA) for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). In this special habitat reserve, commercial logging including salvage of any downed or standing trees was supposedly prohibited. When the 8,973 acre Warner Creek Fire was finally contained, it had become the second largest and costliest wildfire in the history of the Willamette National Forest. Soon after the fire was controlled, the Forest Service announced the beginning of a “Fire Recovery Project” that proposed salvage logging the fire-killed trees. The agency’s reasoning was that severely burned stands were no longer “currently considered suitable habitat” for spotted owls. Moreover, the agency claimed that the numerous snags and logs created by the wildfire posed a threat of another imminent “catastrophic wildfire” to adjacent unburned and future developing spotted owl habitat. Consequently, the Forest Service argued that the size of the wildfire presented a “special situation” that warranted an exemption to the normal restrictions against logging in HCAs. This sparked a six-year firestorm of controversy concerning the relationship between arson fires, fire suppression practices, salvage logging policies, and habitat conservation strategies for endangered species.
One of the many unforeseen outcomes of the Warner Creek Fire was the collaborative effort by “citizen-scientists” from the region’s research community who participated in the Warner Fire Recovery Project and advocated for the Burn to be managed as a Research Natural Area (RNA). These citizen-scientists were affiliated with local schools and universities, private businesses, and various State and Federal land management agencies, including the Forest Service. Their involvement produced a number of precedents in public participation in Forest Service planning, most notably the publication of “Alternative EF: Ecology of Fire” in the Recovery Project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement. This alternative proposed managing the entire Warner Creek fire area as a RNA for the long-term protection, research, and restoration of post-fire disturbance natural recovery processes. Since the effort to salvage log the Warner Creek Burn was abandoned in 1996, the RNA proposal has continued to evolve and grow. This paper will discuss the history and development of the RNA proposal, tracing its origins in the Warner Creek Fire incident and the subsequent Fire Recovery Project. In so doing, a number of “burning issues of our time” will be raised concerning the challenges of managing landscapes for both wildlife habitat conservation and wildland fire restoration.
THE WARNER CREEK FIRE INCIDENT
The Warner Creek Fire was ignited without warning in the worst possible set of weather, fuel, and terrain conditions. The arsonists lit their fires in the late fall following a severe summer drought, when fuel moisture levels were at record-breaking lows. The ignition site was located at the base of a steep, south-facing slope on the southern boundary of the Cornpatch Inventoried Roadless Area. Propelled by undisclosed ignition devices, the fire behavior was extreme, and overwhelmed the initial attack fire crew. Over 2,500 firefighters were dispatched to battle the blaze, supported by two fire camps and an armade of tankers, dozers, bombers, and helicopters at a cost of over $1,000,000 per day. Safety hazards were extreme in the cliff-strewn, rugged, remote terrain. Night duty was canceled due to numerous falling snags and boulders, and hand crews often retreated to the roaded perimeter at the peak of the afternoon burning period. During an east wind event, the wildfire surged across 3,000 acres in a single afternoon, leaving a large, contiguous stand of giant old-growth trees completely charred from ground to crown. Thereafter, the weather became progressively colder, wetter, and eventually snowed.
Warner Creek was the first large wildfire to occur in the newly-created HCAs, and immediately raised issues surrounding the appropriate suppression response for sensitive areas such as spotted owl nest groves. Resource advisors from the local Oakridge Ranger District were assigned to the fire. They helped map and flag spotted owl activity centers, provided guidance to firefighters on minimum impact suppression tactics, and did emergency consultation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The resource advisors reported that firefighters were very interested and supportive of efforts to minimize their impacts to owl habitat. However, back in 1991, resource advisors were a relatively new presence on fires, and some advisors felt that “Overhead” (fire bosses) were reluctant at times to accept recommendations for “light-hand” tactics. Fortunately, the resource advisors on the Warner Creek Fire had years of experience in fire suppression and working on the Oakridge District, and had the support of the crews on the line.
Some “heavy-handed” impacts did occur, such as retardant drops in streams, excessive felling of snags along a hiking trail, and a mile-long dozerline deep inside the Roadless Area, but the resource advisors were able to save the Black Creek bog from being bulldozed. The Incident Command Team wanted to put a dozerline in through the bog because they believed that the wildfire could not be officially declared “contained” until it was completely encircled by a standard fireline, even if this meant cutting a fireline in a swamp! Resource advisors successfully convinced Overhead to put in a handline and burnout instead (though it took several hundred gallons of slash fuel to get the bog to burn!), and thus prevented a major disaster from occurring. Fire scientists from the University of Oregon later discovered that the Black Creek bog has a near-perfect record of deposits going back several millennia, which could have been ruined by a bulldozer. The bog now represents a vital “anchor point” for paleoecological research needed to reconstruct the area’s fire and vegetation history.
The Warner Creek Fire highlighted a major agency oversight that continues to plague the National Forest system–the lack of prior fire management planning, especially for sensitive areas such as wildlife habitat conservation areas. Pre-planning for wildland fires is essential for avoiding unnecessary or inappropriate suppression tactics that can result from emergency, crisis decision-making that occurs too often on wildfire incidents. Fire planning should include a full range of options for the appropriate management response, from standard contain-and-control strategies to simply monitoring ignitions as “prescribed natural fires.” These options can also occur simultaneously on the same wildfire incident. In the Warner Creek area, such plans would have likely prohibited the use of snag-falling in owl nest groves or dozerlines in riparian areas (e.g. the Black Creek bog). The Interagency Scientific Committee had mandated fire management plans for all HCAs. According to the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review, new fire management plans are now required “for all areas subject to wildland fires.” Had the planning been done, the job of resource advisors might have been much easier during the Warner Creek Fire incident. Fire management planning should be a top priority for any future RNA in the Warner Creek Burn, and could set a model for fire planning needed for similar areas of special concern throughout the National Forest system.
FIRE EFFECTS ON SPOTTED OWL HABITAT
The Warner Creek Fire resulted in a classic landscape mosaic of fire effects, and although it was ignited by an unnatural source (arson), the effects mimicked the natural fire regime of the westside middle Oregon Cascades. A total of 3,599 acres had complete crown mortality, and these stands were mostly located on southerly aspects, especially the steep south-facing slope of Bunchgrass Ridge. A total of 4,862 acres were underburned with varying degrees of tree mortality (or tree vitality, depending on your focus), and these stands were mostly located on northerly aspects or canyon bottoms. Although the fire perimeter encompassed 8,973 acres, the fire actually burned only 8,461 acres. In the heart of the Warner Fire area in the deep, steep canyon where the Kelsey Creek Old-Growth Grove is located, a temperature inversion coupled with relatively high fuel moistures caused the wildfire to skip over the basin, leaving that stand of massive, ancient trees completely unburned. Agency fire experts estimate that fire has not entered the Kelsey Creek basin for at least two prior fire cycles that go back over 800 years. In general, differing fire intensities “created a jigsaw pattern of patch sizes and stand densities.”
From the use of aerial photographs, the agency determined that 2,060 acres of formerly suitable owl stands experienced 50% or greater canopy reduction, and therefore were no longer “currently considered suitable habitat.” The 8,973 acre Warner Creek Fire area represented 12% of the 74,380 acre HCA, but 25% of the HCA was unsuitable owl habitat due to past commercial logging activities, and another 25% were non-forested areas. Thus, the 2,060 acres of severely burned owl stands represented a loss of 5% of the 38,030 acres of existing suitable habitat in HCA 0-10. The Forest Service estimated that these high-mortality stands would not return to suitable nesting habitat for at least 250 years. However, inexplicably an owl nest site was discovered within the Warner Creek Burn in a stand that had experienced greater than 70% mortality in a fire approximately 65 years ago. Conflicting reports of owl use and non-use of high-mortality stands raised questions among the public, including spotted owl experts from local universities, about the validity of the Forest Service’s carefully-worded phrase on suitability. On the other hand, stands that were underburned leaving 50% or greater vitality were considered either currently suitable or merely short-term losses of owl habitat. The agency admitted, however, that “There is little information available on how fire affects suitable spotted owl habitat and habitat recovery.” This information gap on the relationship between wildfires and spotted owls would prove to be crucial to the legitimacy of the RNA proposal.
While the effects of the wildfire on spotted owl habitat was subject to differing interpretations and debate, the effects of the fire on the resident owl population challenged the agency’s assumptions about the need for managed fire recovery activities. The home ranges of seventeen owl pairs overlapped some portions of the Burn, and nine pairs had their core Habitat Activity Centers entirely within the fire area. Six of these Centers were underburned by the wildfire, yet only one owl pair relocated their nest site a short distance away after their original nest tree was consumed by the fire, and a pair of great horned owls moved into the grove. In the spring of 1992, seven pairs of owls within the Warner Burn attempted to nest, and six were successful at fledging young. This was a remarkable reproductive success for this species, especially considering the fact that the first spring following the late fall wildfire there was minimal understory vegetation and a greatly reduced prey base. Since the full protocol owl surveys that were conducted in 1992 and 1993 as part of an Environmental Impact Statement, some recent surveys have discovered some mortality and displacement of spotted owls has occurred due to the presence of great horned owls and goshawks into this area. Throughout the Burn, spotted owl prey populations such as mice, voles, and shrews have skyrocketed. Although the flying squirrel population initially declined after the fire, this is expected to rebound with all the new cavity-forming snags available.
Beyond the effects of the wildfire on old-growth trees and spotted owls, the vegetative response was truly astounding. A record year for cones in 1991 resulted in highly successful natural regeneration even in the most severely burned portions of the fire area. Douglas-fir seedlings averaged 15,400 per acre in high-mortality crown scorched stands, and personal estimates by agency specialists went as high as 500,000 seedlings per hectare in some areas. This far exceeded the minimum standard of 150 seedlings per acre required for “successful reforestation” in clearcuts. Forest Service silviculturists believed that needle-fall provided an essential mulch layer enabling seeds to sprout, while the abundant large-diameter snags kept the seedlings shaded from the sun and wind and maintained high soil moisture even during record-breaking high temperatures in the summer of 1992. The Interdisciplinary Team Leader for the Warner Fire Recovery Project came to the conclusion that salvage logging for the sake of reforestation was not justified; moreover, proposed helicopter logging and slash burning activities would effectively kill 100% of the natural regeneration on those sites. In the face of a remarkable natural recovery of native flora and fauna that environmentalists hailed as a “miracle of Nature,” the Forest Service had a difficult time justifying to the public the need for any kind of managed recovery project. Even so, numerous mysteries surrounding this natural recovery process enticed the local research community to further explore the fire area.
THE WARNER FIRE RECOVERY PROJECT
Barely two weeks after the wildfire was controlled, the Willamette National Forest announced the beginning of a “Fire Recovery Project.” The purpose and need for the project was twofold: to recover spotted owl habitat affected by the wildfire, and to increase knowledge about owl habitat and owl habitat recovery. The latter need was a clear invitation to craft a research-oriented proposal; indeed, the Draft and Final Environmental Impact Statements contained over 100 statements about the agency’s lack of knowledge and need for further research. A fundamental question was raised as to how do human beings recover habitat since all hitherto existing owl habitat was the result of natural ecological processes; moreover, by definition, it would take centuries for new suitable nesting habitat to develop. Successful tree regeneration and continued owl occupancy of the Burn were already accomplished. The project Decisionmaker opened the door to managed recovery actions by defining “recovery” to mean “protection from future large-scale disturbances, especially fire.” This rationale centered on the fear that a future reburn through stands of fire-killed trees would destroy newly-developing and adjacent unburned owl habitat stands.
Historically, the Warner Fire Recovery Project was one of the first projects to use the rationale of logging-for-firefighting in a special wildlife habitat reserve for a species threatened with extinction from the effects of past commercial logging. The Decisionmaker proposed clearcutting (called “minimum snag retention units”) as a management tool to construct fuelbreaks and reduce fuel loads with the stated objective to “lower the resistance to wildfire control.” The agency claimed that large-diameter snags and logs produced the highest spotfire potential and posed the greatest safety hazard to firefighters. Several individuals and government agencies took issue with the Forest Service’s concept of habitat recovery defined as wildfire control, crudely measured in terms of fireline construction rates. Moreover, there was no research available demonstrating that pre-suppression fuels reduction had any beneficial effect on spotted owls, nor any discussion of alternative strategies and tactics for suppressing wildfires in owl habitat stands. Fire experts from the research community argued that the wildfire potential in proposed salvage sites was essentially zero for the next decade or more because nearly all small-diameter ground fuels necessary to carry fire had been consumed. On the other hand, logging operations and their subsequent slash accumulations would have created an immediate increase in both fire risk and fuel hazards. Even more confusing to the public was the fact that agency fire experts calculated a mere 6% probability of a future “catastrophic” wildfire in the Warner Creek Burn regardless of whether the area was logged over of left alone.
The Draft Preferred Alternative proposed extracting 40 million board feet of trees from 1,197 acres of the Burn. This produced a nationwide outcry by citizens who believed that salvage logging an arson-burned spotted owl sanctuary was not only morally outrageous, but would set a terrible precedent making other HCAs vulnerable to criminal arson-for-salvage schemes. Indeed, over the years the Warner Salvage Sale became one of the most controversial and contested timber sales in the nation–especially when the logging volume was doubled during the Salvage Rider. Attempts to get the salvage cut out were thwarted three separate times. First, in 1992 the Forest Service’s own Owl Oversight Committee rejected the Draft Preferred Alternative, determining that it violated the spotted owl conservation strategy established by the Interagency Scientific Committee headed by Dr. Jack Ward Thomas. Second, in 1995 a Federal District Magistrate rejected the Final EIS and its Record of Decision, finding that the Decisionmaker violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) by wrongly excluding the issue of arson-for-salvage from the scope of the recovery project. This decision was overturned by a higher judge in the first court ruling on the Salvage Rider. Third, in 1996 during the heat of the presidential campaign and in the face of nationwide protests, the Clinton Administration canceled all pending salvage sales and bought back all previously awarded sales. In a case of “three strikes and you’re out,” the Willamette National Forest has declared that due to public demand it has no intention of logging inside the Warner Creek Burn in the foreseeable future. Into this management void, the RNA proposal has been given renewed hope and opportunity.
ALTERNATIVE EF: THE ECOLOGY OF FIRE
Over the last seven years, several proposals to manage the Burn for natural recovery research have been made by various groups representing the research community. The first group to recognize the research values of the fire area was the Inter-Disciplinary Team (IDT) assembled to produce the EIS for the recovery project. When the project began in the fall of 1991, the IDT believed that salvage logging was prohibited in HCAs; therefore, they considered managing the fire area for non-manipulative research of natural recovery processes. Several members from a “New Perspectives” citizen advisory group appointed by the Forest Service to work with the IDT enthusiastically endorsed this idea, and called for an RNA Alternative to be included in the EIS. The Decisionmaker, however, determined that an RNA was “outside the scope of the project” since it did not provide for recovery of owl habitat, i.e. did not reduce fuel loads for fire protection. Likewise, he viewed the “No Action” alternative as satisfying the requirements for a future RNA. Regardless, members of the citizen advisory group drafted their own alternative recovery plan which they called “Alternative EF: Ecology of Fire,” and delivered it to the Decisionmaker on February 12, 1993, the last day of public comment on the Draft EIS.
Alternative EF proposed managing the entire Warner Creek Fire area for natural recovery research, with the idea of establishing a Research Natural Area sometime in the near future. The authors of Alternative EF facilitated ideas submitted by scientists from across the Pacific Northwest, and the proposal was carefully crafted to be different from the “No Action” alternative by offering specific ideas for research and restoration to recover the Burn. Dubbed the “Know Action” alternative, it proposed a number of management activities to provide infrastructure for field research and fire monitoring, as well as restoration ideas like road obliteration and management-ignited prescribed fires. For example, instead of clearcutting to make fuelbreaks, Alternative EF proposed making a trail system to provide for safe firefighter access, efficient burnout operations, natural fire monitoring, and navigation routes for field researchers. Importantly, Alternative EF mandated the development of a fire management plan that would allow for low-to-moderate intensity management-ignited and Prescribed Natural Fires (PNFs), require Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics (MIST), and encourage natural confinement strategies in order to avoid suppression impacts on future wildfire incidents. The main strategy of Alternative EF was to restore natural fire ecology processes as the primary means of recovering owl habitat and reducing fuel hazards. In so doing, the research community indicated that they were less concerned with recovery from fire, and more interested in the recovery of fire, redefining recovery and wildfire protection not as continued fire exclusion but as fire ecology restoration.
Endorsements from The Nature Conservancy and prestigious members of the research community, including scientists who helped design President Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan, helped legitimize Alternative EF in the eyes of agency administrators. Hundreds of concerned citizens toured the Burn on guided fire ecology hikes and annual field conferences organized by the non-profit Cascadia Fire Ecology Education Project. Many of these participants wrote eloquent personal letters extolling the beauty of the Burn to various political representatives. The student governments of Oregon’s two largest universities passed official resolutions in favor of Alternative EF and sent them to Forest Service Chief, Jack Ward Thomas. Most importantly, the Oregon Natural Heritage Advisory Board used the Warner Creek Fire and Alternative EF as inspiration for creating a new “fire disturbance process” cell for their network of RNAs. The Forest Service’s Regional RNA Coordinator and ecologists from the Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experimental Research Station then drafted their own proposal for an RNA in the Warner Burn after the Station Director, Charles Philpott, stated that the Warner Creek fire area had “high potential” for an RNA. After months of lobbying different levels of the Forest Service and the Clinton Administration, the Decisionmaker finally relented and allowed Alternative EF to be fully developed, analyzed, and published in the Final EIS.
The Final EIS became essentially a contest between two new recovery plans: Alternative EF and Alternative LNSA, which proposed salvage logging 12 million board feet of trees. Knowing the widespread popularity among members of the research community (including Forest Service scientists) for the RNA alternative, the Decisionmaker included a 4,200 acre “Natural Succession Area” in his final Record of Decision. Located in the inner core of the Burn, this “NSA” was set aside for possible future designation as an RNA; however, it was going to be surrounded by salvage clearcuts and fragmented into six sections by fuelbreaks. Unfortunately, since they both appeared for the first time in the Final EIS, the public never had an opportunity to offer comment on either Alternative EF or LNSA. The IDT analyzed Alternative EF as having a “High Plus” number of opportunities to study natural recovery processes, but also believed that it would have the most amount of delayed owl habitat recovery because of its proposed prescribed burning. The Decisionmaker selected Alternative LNSA as the final plan because its planned fuelbreaks, fuel reduction units, and fire exclusion policies were deemed to best “recover” owl habitat. Ironically and unbeknownst to the authors of Alternative EF, the fire and fuels management team for the California Spotted Owl Technical Assessment (called the “CASPO” Report) assumed that commercial logging would be prohibited from spotted owl Protected Activity Centers (PACs), and instead, urged that prescribed underburning be the priority treatment to protect owl stands from future severe, stand-replacing wildfires.
THE WARNER CREEK FIRE ECOLOGY RNA PROPOSAL
Since all salvage logging plans were withdrawn in 1996, the No Action alternative was the default decision for the Warner Fire Recovery Project. The community of citizen-scientists who created Alternative EF has continued to promote an RNA in the Warner Creek Burn, though. Formal proposals were submitted to the Regional RNA Coordinator first in June, 1996, and again in September, 1997. Unfettered by the former recovery project which restricted management ideas to the area within the wildfire perimeter, the current RNA proposal is now a stand-alone document whose boundaries have ventured beyond the Burn to incorporate other outstanding natural features and research values needing protection. For example, the Black Creek bog located on the northeast edge of the burn is proposed for inclusion in the RNA, along with adjacent Koch Mountain and the Black Creek basin to buffer and protect the bog. The entire length of lightning-prone Bunchgrass Ridge from the Warner Burn to the Waldo Wilderness Area is also proposed for inclusion in the RNA. The current RNA proposal covers nearly 44,000 acres, incorporating most of a Late-Successional Reserve, numerous Riparian Reserves, six Inventoried Roadless Areas, and forested wildlands bordering a designated Wilderness Area. By linking these areas together, the RNA proposal adopts lands that have for the most part already been removed from the commercial timber base. Additionally, linking up the Warner Burn with the Waldo and Three Sisters Wilderness Areas allows the possibility of creating a uniform fire management plan conducive to research and restoration of fire ecology processes across a landscape-scale area. Finally, the boundaries are located where fire management activities (including suppression) could safely and effectively confine wildland fires within the RNA.
The intent of the Fire Ecology RNA is to protect in perpetuity a landbase of sufficient size and logical boundaries necessary to do longitudinal research on fire ecology processes. In the infrequent, high-intensity fire regime of the cool, moist forests of the “wetside” Cascades, wildfire patterns and processes naturally occur on very long temporal and spatial scales. For example, the fire return interval on the north aspects of the Warner Creek Burn is estimated to be 450 years, and it has not burned in the Kelsey Creek basin for the last 800 years. The Warner Creek Fire burned across 14 square miles–with wildfire spreading across nearly five square miles in a single afternoon. A large area provides for numerous comparative studies of burned and unburned sites, and several replications of a single field study. Such research designs are necessary for statistical validation of data and extrapolation of research findings. At the time of this writing (spring 1998) it has been rumored that the Willamette Forest Supervisor intends to make a counteroffer to the citizen-scientists’ 44,000 acre RNA proposal by resurrecting his 4,400 acre NSA idea. Whereas the larger RNA is designed to study ongoing fire ecology processes that include future fires, the smaller NSA would be designed to study the post-fire disturbance patterns created by the Warner Creek Fire. The implication is that the Forest Supervisor intends to maintain a fire exclusion policy for the Burn because wildland fires are “not currently considered suitable” for regrowing late-successional habitat. Members of the research community plan to push for a NEPA process that includes the widest possible amount of input from the general public, research community, and fire specialists. Advocates hope that this public process would include the best of the RNA ideas generated over the years by Forest Service researchers and the community of citizen-scientists.
The core of each and every fire-related RNA proposal has been the Warner Creek Burn. This is one of the rarest landscapes in the Cascadia bioregion: a largely unmanaged, roadless, mid-elevation, recently-burned landscape containing both young natural stands and high-mortality old-growth stands. The large, contiguous block of unlogged old-growth snags in the Eagle Creek drainage is especially rare, given the Forest Service history of systematically salvage logging every large wildfire area located in “general forest” zones. The relatively large area of the Burn (and its larger RNA proposal) includes a diversity of topography, vegetation, microclimates, habitats, and fire effects, making it conducive to a broad variety of research projects. The landscape mosaic enhanced by the Warner Creek Fire includes a wide range of disturbance intensities, from high-mortality crown fire areas to high-vitality underburned areas to completely unburned stands. This pyrodiversity has in turn enhanced biodiversity; for example, formerly even-aged stands of mature Douglas-firs have now become two-aged stands. With sufficient time and number of recurring low-intensity fires thinning-from-below and stimulating pulsed regeneration, these stands may evolve relatively rapidly into the multi-aged, multi-storied habitat most favored by northern spotted owls. Baseline data should be collected and permanent study plots established now in order to facilitate scientific research of these large-scale, long-term ecological processes. In fact, nearly 100 study plots have already been set up by Forest Service ecologists and students from Oregon State University and the Cascade Science School. What is most urgently needed is permanent protection of these sites in an RNA, along with a comprehensive management plan for coordinating a diversity of valuable research topics and projects. Once the area is formally protected, it is believed by RNA advocates that this would stimulate the research community to “invest” further in research and education projects in this unique place.
The Fire Ecology RNA Proposal for the Warner Creek Fire area has had much conceptual development, but it is still a work-in-progress open to continued contributions by members of the research community. Ideas for research projects and management plans continue to be collected by the Western Fire Ecology Center. Management objectives for the Warner Creek Fire area have evolved beyond a single species to include a whole array of flora and fauna and their relationship with fire ecology processes. RNA advocates hope to “salvage” the data and “recover” the research values generated during the EIS for the former Recovery Project. The Burn also continues to be a center of fire ecology education for the general public, and plans to construct a self-guiding interpretive trail along the Bunchgrass Ridge portion of the Burn are currently in development. Witnessing with their own eyes the incredible natural recovery of the area, people touring the Burn have experienced “Gestalt switches,” newly perceiving forest fires as agents of rebirth and renewal rather than death and destruction. Indeed, many people inspired by the beauty and mysteries present in the Warner Creek Fire area have become unabashed “pyromantics,” overcoming their socially-condition “pyrophobia” (fear and hatred of fire) with a renewed “pyrophilia” (love of fire). It is hoped that this unprecedented fire ecology RNA proposal will come to fruition in the near future, and will merely be the first of a network of similar RNAs throughout the West. Such a compelling vision is dependent upon the continued involvement of citizen-scientists in the research community urging decision makers to protect and manage recently burned forests for their scientific research values. RNAs represent an investment in knowledge production made by present society on behalf of future generations. With such a network of fire ecology RNAs in place, society may someday solve some of the scientific mysteries and management challenges regarding the development of “owl”-growth forests, endangered species habitat recovery, and wildland fire restoration.