The savaged high-mountain wilderness: a narrative

To visitors hiking toward Desolation Valley Wilderness along the Pacific Crest Trail, the first signs of environmental damage caused by initial Forest Service activities under the Upper Echo Lake Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project are not dropped trees and scattered limbs. It is the inexplicable gaps in the shrubby understory of the small forest patches that punctuate the slopes above Lower Echo Lake.

There in autumn of 2013 the Forest Service hacked and pulled up knee-high huckleberry oak and montane manzanita that form a near-continuous cover on otherwise exposed soils amidst glacially polished granite sheets and boulders. The intent apparently was to reduce continuous ground fuels and potential ladder fuels. The outcome was certainly very different.

The scattered vegetation at the west end of Lower Echo Lake offers no possibility of wildfire; with less than a third of the landscape with any vegetation at all. No risk of fire bounding beyond a small area of ignition exists. But the agency nonetheless pulled up and chopped back the existing shrub layer over several dozen acres, leaving a patchwork of damaged rock gardens.

Healthy, living chaparral has been replaced with bare patches of soil interspersed with highly flammable piles of dead stems and leaves. Three- to five-foot-high stacks of dry chaparral remnants fill new openings in the scrub. In some circumstances, the past two winters with little snow cover have allowed high winds to scatter the piled material over the surrounding living vegetation. But, 18 months after the Forest Service’s assault on the vegetation above Lower Echo Lake, much of the landscape is festooned with piles of dry shrub leavings are embedded hard up against old growth pines and the remaining understory vegetation, and exposed soils show signs of erosion to the lakeshore below. Local fire-ignition sources where none existed before; point sources for sediments and nutrients that will be washed into the lake where none existed before.

At the same time, just one growing season later, many of the decapitated stumps of huckleberry oak and manzanita are re-sprouting, marking the beginning of the ecosystem’s struggle slow recovery. Leaving unanswered the question – what possible purpose is served by “reducing fuels” in a land with few trees and no risk of wildfire?

Contributed by Dennis Murphy

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