Study: Disasters can improve forest health

Aug. 7, 2012 at 2:42 PM
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PULLMAN, Wash., Aug. 7 (UPI) -- Forests hit by fires, although they may appear severely blighted, can actually thrive and increase an area's biological diversity, U.S. researchers say.

And it's not just fires; disturbances such as windstorms, avalanches and even volcanic eruptions can create a forest environment that enhances diversity, landscape and ecology Professor Mark Swanson of Washington State University said.

"The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, for example, has created very diverse post-eruption conditions, and has some of the highest plant and animal diversity in the western Cascades range," he said.

That runs counter to a widely held perception that most if not all rare species tend to require older forests, not younger, a WSU release reported Tuesday.

In fact, Swanson said, a substantial proportion of Washington's state-protected forest plants and animals spend some or all of their life cycle in areas rebounding from a major disturbance.

Such habitats often include woody debris, varied landscape patterns and a rich diversity of plants that can be exploited for food and shelter, he said.

For example, Swanson said, "Severe fire in the northern Rockies creates conditions for some rare birds that depend on abundant dead trees, like the black-backed woodpecker."

"It can benefit a host of other organisms, too, like elk, deer, bighorn sheep, some frog species, and many more."

The findings suggest land managers can alter their practices to enhance such diversity, creating areas with a wide variety of species including rare and endangered plants and animals, he said.

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