University tries to piece together Tahoe fire history
Old stumps common across the Tahoe Basin landscape are more than simple reminders that logging took place more than 100 years ago. To one research project, the tree stumps are windows to the past, which yield valuable information about what forests were like prior to European settlement.
“Most of the data suggests that this area was once open stands, mainly pines,” said Matthew Beaty, a graduate student from Penn State University, who is leading the summer research crew. “After logging in the Comstock Era, the forests came back as mainly dense, large fir forests.”
Working closely with the U.S. Forest Service, the crew from PSU has been studying old stumps from the Comstock mining days 120 years ago, Beaty said. Some stumps, especially those on the East Shore, are well preserved because they are protected from sunlight. Beaty said the stumps have “basically cured in the sun.”
Many times when a fire burns through an area, it will scar the outer portion of a tree leaving the rest intact. During the years, the tree attempts to heal itself by slowly folding over the scar. These folds of tress tissue on both the stumps and living trees, when compared to the tree rings, can reveal when the fire occurred. This ultimately tells the researchers what the forest was like in a given year and how the fire changed it.
“There are some locations in the basin that contain trees that are 300 to 400 years old. Those trees show that fire was definitely present on the landscape,” Beaty said. “By cross-dating the stumps with old, live trees we get a regular pattern. By knowing the patterns, we can determine a precise year that a fire occurred.”
Taking it one step further, the researchers will also compare the ring sizes to determine what the climate was like that year. Small rings mean a lack of water, while large rings mean a wet year, Beaty added. These rings will help to find a correlation between fire and climate.
While there are several goals to be accomplished with the project, the main one is to find a way or ways to return the forests to the healthy state before the region was settled by Europeans. It is a five-year study in its first year. The first year is collecting data on the East Shore, the second is collecting data on the West Shore, during the third year researchers will study climate and fire relations, while in the fourth year a reconstruction of forests on the West Shore will be determined, and the fifth year all the data will be “synthesized,” Beaty said.
This year, 250 stumps have been analyzed and cross sections of 70 stumps have been collected and will be shipped back to PSU to be analyzed. The stumps are located in the region are above Zephyr Cove and Sand Harbor.
“We will sand them (the cross-sections) down to get a good face and then cross-date them,” Beaty said. “It will provide the basics, how often a fire occurred? During what season? How widespread were they? How they varied across space?”
To the forest service, studying the past will help lead to the future.
“It is very exciting to have an opportunity to work with a crew like this one from Penn State,” said Linda Massey, public information officer with the forest service. “We believe it will help us decide on future fire management strategies and overall ecological strategies.”
Although the study is in its early stages, one thing officials are discovering is that the lack of fire over the years has immensely changed the vegetation.
“If we want to introduce fire back to the landscape, this (study) can gives us information on how to do it,” Beaty said. “Hopefully, it will help us determine how to reduce the density of the stand and how to get the area back to what it was.”
Beaty, who is studying geography, and his team of three undergraduate students have wrapped up their research for the summer. Alan Taylor, an associate professor in the department of geography at PSU, who is conducting the five-year study, as well as others in the area from the Oregon border to Tahoe, will be sending another team back next year for data collection on the West Shore.
“We probably won’t see any major improvements in our lifetime, but we are making progress and seeing some improvements,” said Joel Grossman, fire prevention technician, referring to the forest health.
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