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Floods, famines, fires - disaster stories don't get any better than this

I was at the Siskiyou Field Institute and the related Conference on Klamath-Siskiyou Ecology. It was a fun time, as it is every year. These events are often more fun than the tech conferences I normally attend or speak at, possibly excepting Etech. I believe it's the field work that makes biologists and ecologists so laid back and fun, or maybe it's facing scary and unavoidable conclusions changes one's character.

After some field courses at SFI, the three days of the conference went by really fast. I can summarize the conference succinctly:

We are doomed.

If that was too short, here are some highlights of the sessions.

A disease (phytophthera - same genus that caused the Irish potato famine) that is killing all the oaks in the bay area is spreading. Port Orford cedar disease (also a phytophthera) is spreading and kills 96%+ of host trees. These two diseases will remake most of the low elevation ecosystem on the west coast, and current forest management practices on our public lands are making the problems worse. Loss of these trees means no trees in many areas, which means an ecosystem collapse for which nobody can predict the outcome other than minimal wildlife and probably a lot of weeds. The oak phytophthera hybridizes with the one that causes chestnut blight (which destroyed the chestnut forests of the eastern US) and this hybrid kills poplars and willows. If that happens on the west coast then most of the western trees excepting conifers will be wiped out.

Combine the old phytophthera plagues of the east coast and Europe with the west coast and the spread of different P's in places like Australia where 25% of the plant cover is dying in some regions, and wildlands worldwide are not looking good. The diseases are becoming a permanent part of the landscape and transform it unpredictable ways. These diseases affect commercial food crops, which is where it will hit home for most people. The problems in food crops will increase thanks to companies like Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto, who focus on single-gene resistance to disease in their seed crops so they can sell new varieties every few years. Biotech is not an answer. More on this topic when I write about bioinformatics and decision support another time.

Getting away from thoughts of mass extinction, there was some talk of forest management and fire planning. The US forest service's management of federal forest land is based on almost no science other than federally mandated timber quotas. Of the little science present, most is 25 years out of date. Pity the USFS biologists, who have no power when dealing with the timber managers. Dealing with ecological problems in the USFS is like asking a wheelwright to fix your car. Most of the time will be spent looking for the horse.

Fire is normal in most forests, and serves a useful function ("duh" is the proper response to this but we need scientific publications to prove it to the Dept. of the Interior). Tree plantations created by the timber companies and the USFS create a situation where fires are both more frequently and severel. Coupled with drought, the managed lands are tinder boxes, far worse than the unlogged forests. The Bush administration will protect our communities with a new fire plan that involves, ahem, cutting down the large, old fire-resistant trees in the wilderness and doing nothing at the forest periphery or in the plantation zones, near where people actually live. Meanwhile, some new research shows more roads in the wilderness increases the frequency of fires.

My travels through the Biscuit fire area (largest in a century of Oregon history) last fall and more extensively this spring show one thing for sure: our managed lands are far worse off than the unmanaged wilderness areas. Pictures are not yet up (I need about 25 MB more space than I have available). The forests are recovering nicely from this huge fire. Flowers everywhere. Trees resprouting in the most severe burn areas. Knobcone pine seedlings starting. Some of my favorite areas were burned to a crisp, to use the technical term, yet when standing in the middle of the burned areas it doesn't feel like the disaster the national press were saying it was.

Climate research based on high-mountain lake sediments shows a shifting of plant species upward, indicating a warming trend throughout the region. As usual, long term, who can say for sure? All we know is that since the 1800s it's gotten toasty mighty fast.

On the animals front: Klamath river salmon and steelhead killed by the Bush administration in the largest fish kill in US history may take decades to recover. Mammals are decreasing in population, excepting opossum and deer mice (the mice like clearcuts - too bad they harbor human-transmissible diseases). Migratory birds populations over the past 20 years are down 50% on average, region-wide. Pacific fishers and other predators, decreasing.

I came away from this conference with a sense of foreboding. It's the feeling one might expect the protagonist would feel in a Greek tragedy as the prophet's words about the inevitable begin to sink in, or the feeling a red-shirt must have when Captain Kirk asks him to join the landing party.

Lucky for me that I'm an optimist. A cynical optimist.

For those at the conference who were interested, plant taxonomy and post-fire pictures will be available in a week or so.

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