A Path to Awareness

This is one of the photographs that Patricia and her husband, Philip, captured while documenting our forests after the 2011 Las Conchas Fire. (Photo by Philip Metcalf)

By Patricia Galagan

“Why are you photographing dead trees?” someone asked, when my husband, Philip Metcalf, and I first began to show our photos of the aftermath of the 2011 Las Conchas Fire. Why, indeed?

When the Las Conchas Fire began to burn on June 26, 2011, and wasn’t contained for more than 30 days, it was impossible to ignore. From our house in Santa Fe, we watched smoke clouds climbing thousands of feet skyward every day, and at night we saw hotspots lighting up the dark mountains. 

As landscape photographers, we’d hiked and photographed in the Jemez Mountains, and we were impatient to see how the huge fire — more than 150,000 acres burned — had changed the forest visually. As soon as Route 4 reopened, we went to the Upper Frijoles Canyon Viewpoint via the Blue Trail, a short walk through pine and aspen woods to the rim of Upper Frijoles Canyon, with a view over Cochiti Mesa and beyond. Nothing prepared us for what we saw that day. 

The first part of the trail, through a ponderosa grove, had been burned so fiercely that big pines had burned up completely, including their roots, leaving negative spaces in the ashy soil that flared around our boots as we walked. Other trees were still standing but completely blackened, their tops burned away. Further on, we saw aspen trees charred and toppled, their bark curled away from their trunks by heat. The air smelled of burned wood. There were no birds and no animals — not even so much as a lizard. Our mental construct of a forest on a summer day — green, pine-scented, cool — had been erased. The only colors in sight were black and shades of gray. 

We pressed on to the canyon rim, where the visual shock was even more profound. Wave after wave of mesas and the canyon walls and floor were studded with thousands of black, burned trees, presumably dead. We told each other it felt like gawking at a terrible accident.

It was visual curiosity that drew us to the fire, but it was the forest’s extreme physical transformation and the way it began to change over time that kept us coming back. We traded our sedan for a second-hand car with high clearance and big tires so we could use forest roads and dirt tracks to reach remote parts of the burn scar. For the next seven years, in all weathers and seasons, we haunted the forest in search of scenes which conveyed the essence of what we felt.

By year two, we had nearly 1,000 digital images each, about a dozen of which were satisfactory to us from an art perspective. With each season we saw more growth, but the forest that was emerging no longer resembled the one that had burned. We wanted to know more about the science of what we were seeing. As research ecologist Craig Allen told us, the future of the forest was “shrubbier.” The transformed forest, he said, was a bellwether for others in times of increasing heat and drought due to climate change. His tutorials, and the writings of environmentalist William de Buys, gave context to our photographs of the fire’s aftermath. 

By year six, it was clear that our two portfolios illustrated a universal story about climate change. Larger and hotter fires were erupting in New Mexico. Parts of the Amazon, the Arctic, and Australia were burning. We decided to create a book. 

The cover of the Fire Ghosts book, which contains Philip and Patricia’s portfolios from documenting the forest’s growth after the Las Conchas fire.

Allen and deBuys contributed essays, as did the New Mexico Museum’s photo curator Katherine Ware, who was the person who first asked why we were taking photos of dead trees. In discussions about the photographs, she provided an answer — because such photos need to be seen when the world is on fire. Their beauty can be a path to awareness.

We hired book developer Joanna Hurley and book designer David Skolkin to help us. Fire Ghosts, containing Philip’s and my portfolios, the three essays, and a map of the burn scar by artist Carolyn Tourney Florek, was published in October 2019 by George F. Thompson Publishing. Learn more about this project on the Fire Ghosts website.

Patricia Galagan is a fine art photographer, drawn to the landscape of New Mexico. Her husband, Philip Metcalf, also a fine art landscape photographer, died in November 2019. Fire Ghosts is available at Photo-Eye Bookstore and Collected Works in Santa Fe. You can also purchase a copy for curbside pickup through PEEC ’s online shop.

Brambles’ Affinity for Fire

June 1, 2020

Dear New Mexico Butterfly Fans,

Bramble Hairstreak (Callophrys affinis) nectars at flowers of Fendler’s Buckbrush (Ceanthus fendleri) in the Zuni Mountains of Cibola County, NM. (Photo by S.J. Cary, taken on May 29, 2020.

Long-time botanist friend of mine, Chick Keller, recently photographed a butterfly, emailed the pic to me and asked what it was. After glancing at the spectacular green wings atop a yellow flower, I told him: “This is Callophrys affinis, Canyon Green Hairstreak or Western Green Hairstreak.” Apparently my reply was not as clear as I intended because he soon got back to me: “How do you tell a western from a bramble?” To that I relied, rather lamely, that those were all names for the same butterfly.

Bramble Hairstreak has gone by multiple names, Latin and English, over the past few decades, as reflected in field guides of different regions and different vintages. “Bramble Hairstreak” is a sprawling, complicated group of similar-looking critters. Scientists are still struggling to make sense of which are full species, which are merely subspecies, and which is which. If scientists aren’t consistent about taxonomy and nomenclature, then we can’t realistically expect the common English names to be clear either.

Chick said there were quite a few Bramble Hairstreaks on the Jemez Mountains trail where he got his photograph and I believed him. It was the third or fourth Bramble picture I had been asked about from the Jemez Mountains since early May. It made sense to me that there would be a lot of them because of all the thousands of acres that forest fires have burned in the Jemez over past two decades.

Resurgence of wildfire over the past 20 years in New Mexico’s montane landscapes has reinvigorated natural plant communities and food webs which evolved with fire but had gone without it for decades. Admittedly, those wildfires pose stiff challenges for us humans, nor are they perfect replicas of the fires that prevailed in our landscapes previously. Nevertheless, those burns are helping to regenerate native plant communities and food chains that are not merely fire-tolerant, not merely fire-adapted, but truly fire-dependent.

Bramble Hairstreak exemplifies that fire dependency because its caterpillars eat one of those fire-dependent plants: Fendler’s Buckbrush (Ceanothus fenderli; Rhamnaceae). Fendler’s Buckbrush is a modest, prostrate, white-flowered shrub, a popular forage for deer (hence the English name). It inhabits ponderosa pine savanna openings and may survive for, say 30 years. All that time it produces seeds which tumble to the ground in autumn. Covered with a waxy coating that repel water, buckbrush seeds are not tempted to germination. Unable to sprout, they accumulate in the litter and soil around the plant for years, perhaps decades, even as the parent plant may senesce or be shaded out by forest succession.

What does it take to germinate buckbrush seeds? It takes a fire warm enough to melt the paraffin coating, but not hot enough to kill the seeds, what foresters call a “cool” ground fire – maybe 200 degrees F. After the waxy coating is gone, the next wet season triggers germination of hidden banks of stored buckbrush seeds. Naturalist Terry Foxx* explained that this plant sprouts prolifically after fires from seeds that accumulated in soils. I suspect this is what has happened in the Jemez Mountains. Maybe my botanist friend, Chick, will get back to me on the current extent of Fendler’s Buckbrush in the Jemez.

Late-stage larva of Bramble Hairstreak on stem of Winged Buckwheat. Seen on Burnt Mesa at Bandelier National Monument. (Photo by S.J. Cary. Taken on July 17, 1990)

A second plant that seems to be in that “fire-climax” category is Winged Buckwheat (Eriogonum alatum; Polygonaceae). It is a slender, sparsely foliated, biennial forb that grows up to four feet tall in the same habitats as Fendler’s Buckbrush. During the 1990 Los Alamos Butterfly Count (now the Dorothy Hoard Memorial Count), we found Bramble Hairstreak caterpillars chewing on Winged Buckwheat, confirming that plant species as a larval host, too.

Fire has consequences, good and bad, but so does the absence of fire. During the 1990s, my colleague Dick Holland and I were concerned about the dearth of Bramble Hairstreaks in the Lincoln National Forest of Sacramento Mountains complex in south-central New Mexico, where there had been many decades of generally successful wildfire suppression. There were a handful of older Bramble records in around 1961-1978 from New Mexico State University’s Montgomery Biological Research Station north of Ruidoso, so we knew it had once been there. Between the two of us, however, we could not find any. Upon revisiting the site of the NMSU research station in about 1999 we found no Brambles and no Buckbrush, so we presumed that colony had been extirpated by ongoing plant succession and lack of fire.** We did not find it anywhere else in those mountains either and we were concerned that it might simply have vanished because its host buckbrush had become rare due to rampant and unabated forest succession. I’ll leave the rest of that story for another time, as former radio personality Paul Harvey might have teased.

Wildfires are terrible phenomena that destroy many things, but lightning and square miles of fuel make them inevitable: fire is a natural process in our ponderosa pine forests. Their predictable destruction creates new opportunities which infinite nature is fully geared to exploit. Now Bramble Hairstreaks are appearing as fingernail-size, green triangles on sunny shrubs or nearby yellow flowers. They are glistening emeralds when fresh from the chrysalis but they become dusty, gray-brown after flying for a couple weeks. They now are mating, then placing eggs on Fendler’s Buckbrush and Winged Buckwheat. Those eggs will hatch and larvae will munch. If we have decent rains this summer, those youngsters will pupate and ultimately take wing as adults in August.

I hope you get a chance to see one, wherever you are in New Mexico. If you do, please contemplate that wildfire connection.

Steve Cary, Santa Fe

 “You know what you’ll see if you stay home.” – Richard Holland, New Mexico Lepidoptera legend

* Foxx, Teralene S. 2013. Fire Effects on Plants of the Jemez Mountains and the Pajarito Plateau. Published by the Author. 119 pages.

** Toliver, M. E., R. Holland and S, J. Cary. 2001. Distribution of Butterflies in New Mexico (Lepidoptera: Hesperioidea and Papilionoidea). 3rd ed. published by the authors. 450 pages plus tables.

Reflecting on Our Home’s Future

The Sierra de los Valles viewed from the Los Alamos townsite after the Cerro Grande Fire. (Photo by Terry Foxx)

By Kathryn Laintz

Twenty years ago, the Cerro Grande Fire permanently altered Los Alamos. The devastation brought on by this fire is something so many people had to live through. I’m too young to have experienced life pre-Cerro Grande, so I can only imagine how hard it was for people to see the once densely forested Jemez completely decimated.

I did live through the Las Conchas fire in 2011. It was difficult for me to revisit the areas of wilderness I spent so much of my life exploring after they had been destroyed. I, like so many other New Mexicans, am incredibly fond of our ponderosa pine and aspen forests, and hope for their preservation. Unfortunately, these ecosystems are currently under threat. 

Compared to places that have been ravaged by wildfire, any well-forested area in the Jemez might outwardly appear healthy. However, there are many factors acting against our forests that make them great vectors for megafires — a scientific term used to categorize forest fires that burn over 150,000 acres, which is an unnatural occurrence. Both the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas Fires fall into this category. 

In order to fully explain why megafires like these happened, and understand why the forests of the Jemez are still at risk today, it is necessary to examine the historical environment of the area, and what the forest looked like before people first settled here. 

The truly undisturbed environment of the Jemez dates back before the 1900s. Back then, forest fires in the Southwest were categorized as low-intensity, surface fires that mostly burned through grassy undergrowth. Frequent, but small and slow-burning fires were beneficial for healthy forest conditions by maintaining an open understory and maintaining large stands of coniferous trees. 

The balanced forest structure between mature and old-growth trees, aspen, and openings with understory grasses, flowering plants, and shrubs prevented uncharacteristically high-intensity and severe fires. When severe fires did occur, they were a result of prolonged drought and lightning strikes during the summer months. These patterns are evidenced in fire scars in old-growth trees, however these fires were rare and typically burned in small patches. 

Then, when railroads connected New Mexico to the rest of the country in the 1880s, people settled in the Jemez and human activity started to impact the environment. Activities such as overgrazing cattle, logging, and fire suppression all had detrimental effects on the ecosystem that have made it more susceptible to fires. 

What proves to be the biggest threat to Jemez’s forest ecosystems is the same factor jeopardizing all at-risk ecosystems across the globe — climate change. On top of human activity dramatically shifting the natural state of the forest for over a century, climate change has brought increasing temperatures, drought, less available water (due to increasing demand for it), and extreme weather to the Jemez. All of which contribute to more severe fires that burn hotter and are harder to contain.

Today, the forest ecosystem of the Jemez looks a lot different than what it would be if left undisturbed by people and climate change. The natural forest structure of the Jemez should be groups of trees of different ages and sizes. Instead, there is a dense, continuous canopy of young and mid-age trees. Additionally, continual fire suppression has also allowed conifers to invade once naturally-occuring meadows, shrinking them down. 

Climate change and human activity have shifted the forest structure in the Jemez, and the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas fires have dramatically damaged the environment. Not only have the trees and meadows been affected, but riparian and aquatic systems also have been degraded. Watershed areas without meadows or big trees allow more sediment to pass into stream banks and stream-road crossings, harming both plant and animal life. Streams have also become straighter and narrower due to shrinking meadows, reducing quality habitat for fish.

Beyond the watersheds and aquatic environments, the aftermath of megafires in the Jemez has led to habitat loss for important species like the Jemez Mountain salamander and the Mexican Spotted Owl. Non-native and invasive species introduced by humans have decreased biodiversity and weakened ecological communities in the Jemez environment. Examples of invasive plant species currently growing in this area include Pigweed, Ragweed, and False Tarragon.

A Jemez Mountain Salamander. They are an endemic species, and can be found only in this area. (Photo by J.N. Stuart)

On a more positive note, there are many ongoing efforts to restore the environment in the Jemez back to a healthy state and repair some of the areas that have been ravaged by megafires. Some examples of current ecological repair are: 

Even still, the threat of climate change is on the global scale. I cannot help but continue to worry about the future of the forests surrounding Los Alamos, and if they will still be here for future generations to enjoy — as I have been so lucky to. My greatest hope is that New Mexicans will continue to support efforts to understand and help alleviate climate change, and that we continue to support agencies that are working to repair our forests so that they are less susceptible to megafires.

Week 7, Day 5: Forest Restoration

Firefighters work to ensure that a prescribed burn does not impact the village of Tyuonyi at Bandelier National Monument. (Photo by Sally King/NPS)

The forests of Northern New Mexico are much denser today than they were historically because of the legacy of 150 years of fire suppression in our wildlands.

Today in Take It Outside, learn about efforts to return the forest to healthier conditions. Look for a bonus blog post on our website tomorrow and then join us to learn about bugs next week!

Upcoming Events:

PEEC is hosting a few virtual events this weekend! Join us tonight at 7 PM for a Stump the Astronomers live-streamed panel. Bring your toughest questions and try to stump our team of experts! Learn more and register here.

Additionally, join us on Sunday for a virtual yoga class from PEEC’s Christa Tyson at 10 AM. Sign up for that class here.

We have a variety of other events coming up in May! Check out our public events calendar to see what we’re offering and register for these programs.

Blog Post:

Read about the efforts that are being undertaken in the Jemez Mountains to restore our forests in today’s blog post, which is based on an interview with Bob Parmenter, Chief of Science and Resource Stewardship at the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Craft:

Restoring riparian areas, as we will see in our bonus blog post tomorrow, often requires slowing down running water to allow it time to soak into the ground and to avoid eroding too much soil. Today, build a dam! Find a small running stream in a canyon bottom, and put rocks and sticks in it to make a dam.

What happens to the water? Can you slow it down? Can you make it flow in a different direction? Can you see any signs of erosion around your dam? Be sure to clear your dam when you’re finished playing.

If you can’t get to a stream, you can follow these instructions to make a stream and dam in a container at home.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Can you spot the Brown Creeper on the trunk of this ponderosa pine tree? (Photo by Craig Martin)

Look for signs of a healthy ponderosa pine forest:

  • Some large trees: too big to get your arms around the trunk
  • Patches of sunshine shining through the tree canopy
  • Grass and flowers growing on the ground
  • Signs of wildlife: birds, squirrels, deer, predators, etc.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Find out the tree density of a forest near you. Historically, ponderosa pine forests might have had a density of about 40 – 60 trees per acre. In very overgrown forests, there may be up to 2,000 trees per acre!

Go to a forested area near you. Walk off an area of about 66 x 66 ft (about 30 steps in each direction). Mark the corners of your area. This will be about a tenth of an acre. Now count the trees inside. For a historical density, there would be 4 – 6 trees in your plot. Depending on where you are, you might find more like 100 trees or more! Can you imagine how a historically-dense forest would look compared to a very dense forest? How would the sizes of the trees differ? What would happen if lightning started a fire in your plot?

Tell us what you think in the Google Form below or by emailing us at takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about the trees and forested areas near you! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us next week to explore bugs!

Forest Restoration in the Jemez Mountains

A firefighter manages a burning pile of dead and downed wood during a pile burn operation in Upper Pueblo Canyon in January 2015. (Photo by Craig Martin)

By Siobhan Niklasson, based on a conversation with Bob Parmenter of the Valles Caldera

The forests of the American West look much different today from how they looked 150 years ago. Around that time, a handful of large and destructive fires in the United States convinced land managers and the public that fires should be stopped as soon as possible in order to protect natural resources.

However, the decision to suppress wildfires had unintended consequences. Historically, frequent fires in ponderosa pine forest removed excess growth and kept the landscape open. Historical ponderosa pine forests were described as open and park-like and it was said that you could ride a horse through the forest for miles without hitting your head on a branch. This 2011 article from The Durango Herald gives some insight into the history of the forests of the Jemez Mountains and how fire suppression changed them

Without fire to clear the landscape, many more trees were able to take root, increasing the tree density from around 40 – 60 trees per acre to 1,000 – 2,000 trees per acre in some cases. It’s painful just to think about trying to ride a horse through such a dense forest! 

An overgrown stand of trees at Banco Bonito in the Valles Caldera before and after thinning. The before photo, on the left, was taken in 2011. The after photo, on the right, was taken in 2014. (Photos by Bob Parmenter/NPS)

So many trees in the forest meant that each tree had to compete for water and nutrients with all its neighbors, surface water running in streams was reduced, sunlight was largely blocked from the ground level, leading to a dearth of grasses and other understory plants, and animals that depended on these small plants for grazing were squeezed out. Crucially, for fires, the increase in fuel in the forest turned what would once have been healthy ground fires into raging infernos that could wipe out an entire forest, and get so hot that the soil was sterilized.

Today, we have a better understanding of the importance of fire in our forest ecosystems. But the 150 years of fire suppression policy left a legacy of overgrown forests that must be returned to a healthy state, both to restore healthy ecosystems, and to reduce the risk of severe megafires.

In the Jemez Mountains, agencies have joined forces in a collaborative forest landscape restoration program to undertake this work. The first step is to thin the forest using mechanical means or cutting by hand to reduce the density from 1,000+ trees per acre to about 100 trees per acre. This means potentially cutting out 90% of the trees in the area! Once the trees are cut, they can either be removed and used for wood products, or they can piled and burned. This work is expected to be completed in the southwestern Jemez Mountains within another two to three years.

Once the forests are thinned, natural mortality will further reduce the number of surviving trees. The idea is that after another 100 – 200 years, we will end up with a mature forest with about 40 – 60 trees per acre.

With the first thinning completed, natural and prescribed fire can be used to manage the forest. It’s much cheaper and safer to manage fire in a thinned forest than it is to bring in helicopters and air crews to battle high-intensity fires that threaten lives and neighborhoods. For example, the 2011 Las Conchas fire burned over 150,000 acres, and cost almost $50 million to control.

The 2019 Redondo Fire burned at a low intensity through forest that had been thinned, with no injuries or property damage. (Photo by Brian Faith/NPS)

In 2019, a lightning strike in the Valles Caldera started a low-intensity ground fire that burned through thinned forests. Firefighters saw an opportunity to use this fire to maintain some forested areas that needed to be burned. With the cooperation of local residents, they managed to safely allow the fire to burn right up to the boundary between the preserve and the Sulfur Flats neighborhood.

For the trees, thinning makes it easier for each individual tree to secure the resources (water and nutrients) it needs to survive. This should help the trees be more resilient to rising temperatures due to climate change.

A tree can live for several hundred years. Even if we are able to reverse the trend in our greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, we can expect temperatures to keep rising for another 50 years after that, and it could be an additional 50 years before temperatures cool off again.

So while that timescale of around 150 years is a long time in human terms, it means that the trees that are living now could potentially see the other side of the climate change curve, if we can help them survive fires and beetle infestations now.

Next time you’re out, see if you can find signs of forest thinning and prescribed burns. This is important work that’s keeping our forest ecosystems healthy for everything, including us, that depends on them.

Learn more about the history of forest fire suppression here.