ST. PAUL -- Planes, a helicopter and teams of the nation's top forest firefighters are ready.
They've been preparing for two years to fight the Super Bowl of fires predicted for one of the country's jewels: The 1.1-million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
So far, that blaze hasn't erupted and foresters are working to avoid such a disaster, but some say the danger could linger for years to come in the area devastated by a windstorm on July 4, 1999.
"Ten years," Barb Soderberg says simply about how long the U.S. Forest Service and state officials need to keep their guard up. She is the BWCA manager for the Superior National Forest.
By that time, most of the remaining wood should be shaded by the post-blowdown canopy, making it damp and much less likely to fuel a major fire. A large wildfire or several small wildfires before the 10-year mark also would shorten the danger period, she said.
But some experts believe the threat from the downed trees already is starting to diminish.
"By the end of next summer, I doubt the fire danger will be any worse than it was before the blowdown," said Lee Frelich, one of North America's leading experts on fire suppression in boreal forests.
The BWCA hasn't had a large-scale fire since the early- to mid-1900s, although a few larger wildfires broke out in the early 1970s.
Part of the reason is that the forest is more humid and rainy now than it used to be.
BYLINE1:By ASHLEY H. GRANT
ELY -- Two years after a windstorm ravaged one of the nation's beloved wildernesses, 25 million dead trees lay rotting beneath a surge of new growth -- a perfect laboratory for scientists.
"Wind now has made a footprint in a huge way," says Bill Mattson, a U.S. Forest Service scientist coordinating research in the blowdown area of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Whether or not fires occur, pines -- especially red pines -- probably won't be as dominant in the future. Areas that used to be blanketed by pines now are filling with fir, birch and aspen.
The 1.1 million-acre BWCA, a region along the Canadian border best known for its hundreds of pristine lakes and canoe routes, likely never again will look as it did before the 1999 windstorm. Some 477,000 acres in and alongside the BWCA were hit hard.
And because wilderness areas are protected from most human intervention such as logging, the region is prime for research.
"It's an opportunity that hasn't presented itself anywhere in North America," said Mattson, an insect ecologist. "A rare opportunity to see how nature responds to such an event."
Kristina Reichenbach of the storm recovery team at Superior National Forest hopes research on the 30-mile swath will document the blowdown's long-term effects on the ecosystem.
"It's creating quite an opportunity for research," she says. "What will the area look like in 10, 15, 100, 200 years?"
Lee Frelich, a University of Minnesota forest ecologist who has done more than 10 years' research in the BWCA, has spent much of his time since the windstorm determining what happened and trying to predict what happens next.
Frelich and others have determined that the storm wasn't just straight-line winds, as first thought. They believe now that it included about 12 intense downbursts that snapped or uprooted trees in a 30-mile swath.
Trees' vulnerability varied with their size and type. Those along shore were stronger because they had spent their whole lives exposed to more wind. And trees such as birch that were more likely to bend in the wind also were more likely to survive.
Frelich crouches down to point out tiny fir, aspen and birch trees that finally are making their way skyward after living for hundreds of years beneath larger red and white pines sapping the light and nutrients.
"Red pine has probably been on this island for thousands of years," Frelich says. "It's really a major transformation of this forest."
Red pine are more susceptible to being crowded out than other trees because red pine need intense sunlight to grow.
"There's no way they can compete with lush understory," Frelich says.
If there were a major fire, the region's firs might also have trouble recovering, leaving more room for birch and aspen and perhaps other trees that haven't traditionally been common in the BWCA such as red maple, Frelich says.
As forestry officials begin the first prescribed burns inside the Boundary Waters this fall to get rid of some of the dead and dying trees, Frelich will be studying the effects on the area's trees -- particularly jack pines.
One of the burns is scheduled for Three-Mile Island at Seagull Lake -- an island that traditionally has been home to a large number of that type of tree. Jack pines have serotinous cones, meaning they only open with the help of heat. Normally, that would be a small fire in the understory or sometimes hot, dry weather.
It's unclear what will happen when professionals set the fires that likely will destroy many live trees along with the dead ones. The heat initially may help release the jack pine seeds, but it also might destroy them if the fires burn too hot or too long.
"We should know by next spring -- one winter after the burn," Frelich says.
His findings could change the way prescribed burns are done in the future.
In all, seven research projects are happening in conjunction with the blowdown, including two by Frelich.
Among them: How ancient white cedars have survived disturbances, the effects of wind and fire on long-term forest succession, boreal forest beetle diversity, the blowdown's effects on small mammals and fire hazard perceptions.
"I'm sorry to tell you, the list is small," Mattson says. "In fact, I'm bitterly disappointed that the list is small."
Money is the driver, he says. And in the Great Lakes area, most researchers' tables already are filled with current projects for which they already have money.
"To get them to change their horses, they need grants," he says.
It would take $2 million to $3 million per year do undertake the kind of organized, connected research Mattson and others envision and that has proved a difficult task.
"So far, that big effort has fallen flat on its face," he laments. "In five years, we're at the absolute point of no return in many areas."
On the Net:
Superior National Forest: http://snf.superiorbroadband.com
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: http://www.bwcaw.org
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