Fire: A Prescription for the Forest

Low-intesity flames travel across the forest floor during a carefully planned prescribed fire at the Museum.
Low-intensity flames travel across the forest floor during a carefully planned prescribed burn at the Museum.

This spring, one cloudy May day, we watched flames creep across the floor of part of the Museum’s ponderosa pine forest. For a long time, we had been carefully planning for this prescribed burn of a portion of our acreage. The fire, though low intensity, still left a somewhat dramatic sight for our visitors the next day.

While some understood what we’d done and why, others came with questions. Some were curious, a few concerned. Why would we set the beautiful forest on fire, leaving the ground blackened and stumps smoldering? In short, for the health of the forest and the safety of the Museum and our community. It’s called a prescribed burn for this very reason.

Flames belong in the forest, an ecosystem that has evolved to withstand, and benefit from, the heat. Historically, low-intensity wildfires would burn through a ponderosa forest every five to 20 years. This would help to clear out shrubs, saplings and some of the pine needles and other litter lying beneath the trees. Larger trees would remain intact, their thick bark serving as a shield. The heat would open ponderosa cones and enable them to release seeds, continuing the natural cycle.

For centuries, people have suppressed wildfires in the West. Fuels have built up on the forest floor, and shrubs and trees have grown into unnaturally thick stands, depriving certain wildlife and plants of the habitat they need to thrive. When lightning or human actions start fires, as they inevitably do, they therefore often burn unnaturally hot and can inflict substantial ecological damage. A high-intensity wildfire would also threaten the Museum, our artifacts and the wildlife in our care. The damage that an out-of-control wildfire could cause is eye-watering — much more so than the smoke from our prescribed burn.

We are grateful to the U.S. Forest Service for partnering with us to plan and implement our burn. The process began with removing shrubs and small trees, reducing the fuels that had built up. We checked for ground-nesting birds before we mowed.

Some visitors have wondered aloud whether we could have just mowed the forest and left it at that. A low-intensity burn offers some unique effects, however. It increases the availability of nutrients, encouraging native plants to thrive. Fires can also create snags, which provide food and habitat for woodpeckers, bats and others. Only a portion of the property was mowed and burned, increasing the diversity of habitat types for the benefit of a wide range of species.

Ground fuels are measured after the Museum's prescribed burn to calculate what percentage was removed by the fire.
Measurement of ground fuels help U.S. Forest Service managers calculate the percentage of fuels removed by the Museum’s prescribed burn.

Over the years, we have been seeing fewer raptors and ground-nesting birds on the property. Both trends might be due to the density of vegetation and forest debris. More ground squirrels and other small mammals are able to stay safe under thick cover. Ground-nesters, such as quail, then face pressure from ground squirrels, for whom bird eggs make a tasty meal.

The burn has created a more diverse habitat, with some bitterbrush remaining, but also more open areas. As a result, hawks should now enjoy improved hunting success, which in turn will help to keep the rodent population in check.

Forest managers always weigh potential benefits against the actual and potential costs of a prescribed burn. In this case, the benefits dwarfed any negatives and we were excited to return fire to the forest. The result should be a revitalized and resilient ecosystem that supports an abundance of native plants and wildlife.

The new interpretive signs along the Museum’s Fire in the Forest Trail offer visitors a chance to understand the important role of fire in ponderosa pine habitats.
This burn also provided a fantastic opportunity to connect our community to the importance of forest restoration. Together with the U.S Forest Service, we took photos before and after the burn in specific locations, and will continue to do so for years to come. In doing so, we will capture the restoration process and communicate the important role of fire to our visitors. We also took measurements of the fuels on the ground, so that we can calculate the percentage of fuels that the burn successfully removed.

In addition, we have renovated our fire trail, Fire in the Forest, with additional signs along the loop to further explain the role of fire in ponderosa pine ecosystems. Have a look next time you visit the Museum! And watch, too, for the incredible regeneration that will happen in our forest over the next few months and years. We are already seeing small signs of new life.

The Bee-All and End-All

“Every third bite of food you take, you can thank a bee or other pollinator for… ”
E.O. Wilson, Forgotten Pollinators.

I was once a field biologist, lucky enough to call catching and identifying butterflies part of my
job. On one particularly hot afternoon, though, my pursuit of a rare butterfly was not going as
planned. It would fly close by, only to slip my net at the very last second. As the white wings
fluttered away for what felt like the hundredth time that day, I gave a resigned sigh. I let my net
slide to the ground. But mere moments later, I glanced down and there, resting gently on my
sleeve, was the butterfly. It was one of the most perfect, beautiful things I had ever seen. A new
appreciation of these insects was born.

Butterflies offer much more than beauty. Along with bees, hummingbirds, moths, wasps and beetles, they are pollinators whose small stature belies their importance. Pollinators transfer pollen and enable many plants to produce fruits and seeds. This makes them vital to the reproduction of many native and commercial plants. Our native flowering plants are key to healthy soils and clean air and water. Plus, more than 150 different crops, such as apples,
almonds and tomatoes, rely on them — a 2016 report estimates that pollinators are essential to three-quarters of the world’s crops, worth more than $577 billion. Pollinators and the plants they support also hold rich cultural values that no dollar amount could ever cover. Pollinators are under threat on a global scale. Pressures include habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive species, disease and the widespread use of certain harmful pesticides. Despite this, I am feeling optimistic. Last spring, we held an event to shine a spotlight on efforts to protect pollinators. The City of Bend, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sisters Middle School and Your Garden Companion shared their conservation successes and answered audience questions about how to support pollinators of all kinds. Their passion and commitment to this cause, and the enthusiasm with which audience members responded, gave me hope for the future of pollinators.

At the Museum, we are all keen to contribute to these local conservation actions. This summer, we look forward to celebrating National Pollinator Week and helping visitors to contribute to the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas. We are also planning to plant a pollinator habitat of native flowering plants on the grounds. In the fall, we will begin a professional development program to help teachers to establish pollinator habitats at three different Central Oregon schools.

If you are keen to support local pollinators yourself, a few things to consider:
• If you have a yard or patio space, plant some native plants that the pollinators will love.

Get inspiration from the Xerces Society, or chat with experts at your local plant nursery.
Build a bee condo!
• Tell your friends and family about the importance of pollinators.

I am no longer out in the wilderness identifying butterflies for a living. But my role at the Museum is to
connect people to why such species matter and how we can help them to thrive for generations to come
— and that, for me, is even more fulfilling.

Photographs by volunteer Museum photographer Abbott Schindler

Give a Bird a Home

Nest boxes are a fun and simple way to help backyard birds this spring.

Last spring, I watched in wonder from the window as a pair of mountain chickadees built a nest and raised their young in the front yard. I would perch, tea in one hand, binoculars in the other, excitedly reporting my sightings to my partner and our dog. It was such a perfect start to my day.

To see birds create and care for a nest, then witness their young fledging, is a delight. If you’re lucky, birds might naturally select a site near your home, but a nest box will improve your family’s chances of seeing this phenomenon first-hand. Many High Desert bird species are in decline due to a combination of pressures including habitat loss and fragmentation, window collisions and predation by domestic cats. A small but meaningful way to support them is to provide a safe, dry place for them to raise their nestlings.

Nest boxes are available at specialty and most hardware stores. It can be less expensive and more fun to make your own box, however, as some folks did recently at the Museum’s Nest Box Building workshop. If you’d like to do the same, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Nestwatch.org offers a variety of building plans and information about nest monitoring.

Bird species vary in nesting behavior and therefore in their nest box preferences. The American robin tends to prefer a shelf, for example, while the northern flicker requires a deep box, filled with wood shavings, that it can excavate as it would a tree. When considering what type of box to provide, think about the habitat around you, what species you’ve seen in your area and which birds you’d most like to attract.

You can help to keep birds safe from predators by providing a secure, perch-free box that blends in with the surroundings. Predator guards are also available. If you or your neighbors have an outdoor cat, place your nest box in an area your feline friend cannot access.

It can take a while for birds to adopt a newly installed box, so be patient. Providing food and a reliable source of water can help to attract them.

As I watched the chickadees fledge last year, I felt an enormous sense of gratitude for the opportunity to watch them at such close-range. Now that spring is here, I’m looking forward to seeing the whole process all over again.

Treading Lightly on Nature

Responsible recreation benefits us all.

Like many people who are drawn to live in the West, I’m happiest when I’m out in nature.

Some of the best, most inspiring moments of my life have happened while running, hiking or horseback riding on trails. Here in Central Oregon, we are blessed with world-class recreation opportunities just outside our front doors. Outdoor recreation supports our health and wellbeing and brings economic benefits to the local community. I would rather see a packed trailhead than a packed shopping mall on a Saturday, as it indicates that folks are out experiencing and forging personal connections with nature — and will, hopefully, care more about it as a result.

But as Lauri Turner and Brock McCormick of the U.S. Forest Service recently discussed during one of our thought-provoking Natural History Pubs, while making humans healthier, recreation can harm wildlife and our public lands. Land managers must therefore balance their goals for recreation, habitat restoration and wildlife conservation. Most outdoor recreationists appreciate and respect the trails and the habitats they lead us through, but mounting issues include people dumping trash, leaving poop unburied, and forging new, unofficial trails. Some people also approach wildlife far more closely than animals can tolerate. While slightly less than 200 feet is felt to be an acceptable distance by recreationists, about 500 feet is the actual flight distance of mule deer, bison and pronghorn. Even those of us who set out with the best leave-no-trace intentions have unseen impacts on the many species who call the forest or desert home. We may contribute to soil compaction and erosion, tree-root damage, or cause deer to flee long before we spot them.

The decisions we make on the trail — and about which trails we use, and when — impact numerous species, from salamanders to elk. Wildlife responds best to predictable disturbances. For example, if trails get busy at certain times of day, they may learn to avoid, or at least expect, that disturbance, only returning during quieter times. If you roam far off-trail in the early morning and meet a deer, it’s likely to be startled and make a hasty retreat. Body fat that the animal had stored for winter survival may end up being used for running, instead.

No-impact outdoor recreation doesn’t really exist, but low-impact recreation can! What can we do, as a community, to reduce our impact while continuing to enjoy our trails? A few actions to consider include:
• Keep to designated trails. We have enough official trails (not including user-created, BLM, Bend Parks and Recreation or State Lands) in the Deschutes National Forest for a person to hike 38 miles per weekend, May through September, without needing to repeat a single inch of trail.
• Respect seasonal restrictions in sensitive habitats.
• Give wildlife space. This is especially important when nesting or mating is occurring, and during the winter. Invest in a pair of binoculars, rather than getting too close.
• Try to keep your dog on a leash or under control. This is especially important during the winter and spring.
• Clear up your trash. Follow the Leave No Trace program, including Seven Simple Principles.
• Share responsible recreation tips with friends and family.

Please see the U.S. Forest Service’s website for further information about how we can reduce our impact on the flora and fauna that make this region so beautiful.

Turn Off the Lights for a Brighter Future

The Museum’s staff is thrilled to have recently become a partner of Lights Out Bend, a volunteer-operated education and advocacy program that seeks to highlight the issue of light pollution and inspire the community to reduce light pollution. In becoming partners, we join fellow local organizations keen to make a difference. This includes the Deschutes Public Library, East Cascades Audubon Society and Ruffwear.

What is light pollution and why should we care? Simply put, light pollution is the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light, and human activities are lighting our night sky like never before. You’ve probably seen many businesses and homes leaving lights on at night. While this may seem harmless, it has major implications for native wildlife species. They evolved with predictable phases of light and dark, and many species are guided by celestial sources of light—such as the moon, stars and planets. Artificial lights interfere with these natural rhythms and behaviors. Bats, birds, moths and other species may suffer reduced hunting success, collisions with windows, disorientation and numerous other problems. Light pollution puts lives on the line.

Luckily, the solution comes with a simple flick of a switch! By turning off unnecessary lights, using motion sensor lights or lower intensity bulbs or installing fixtures that don’t direct light up into the night sky, we can improve the lives of birds and animals with whom we share the High Desert. We can also close our curtains at night to reduce the amount of light that can escape to the outside environment. While these actions are meaningful year round, they are particularly important during spring and fall migratory seasons.

Protecting the starry night sky saves wildlife. We also benefit from energy savings and a better view of the stars. It may even improve our health, as electric lights are thought to influence our own biological clocks. The Museum’s staff is committed to switching off all unnecessary lights at night. We hope you’ll join us.

For more information about this issue and what actions you can take to help, visit Lights Out Bend or the International Dark Sky website.