Wildfire Recovery at The Niobrara Valley Preserve – Spring Green Up

Spring is finally changing the color of The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in north central Nebraska.  After last summer’s wildfire and drought, much of the Preserve was barren and brown all winter.   Now, the area has had several small rainfalls during the last couple months, followed by a hard 3 inch rain on May 19.  That moisture has combined with the (finally) warming temperatures, and the Preserve is starting to look green again.  I traveled up to the Niobrara last week and took some photos to share with those of you who are interested in the site’s recovery.

The headquarters of the Niobrara Valley Preserve with sandhills prairie behind.  If it wasn't for the ponderosa pine skeletons in the foreground, it would be difficult to know that a major wildfire had occurred last summer.

The headquarters of the Niobrara Valley Preserve with sandhills prairie behind. If it wasn’t for the ponderosa pine skeletons in the foreground, it would be difficult to know that a major wildfire had occurred last summer.

.

The sandhills prairie - as expected - is greening up very nicely.  Many wildflowers are blooming, including this hoary vetchling (aka peavine or Lathyrus polymorphus).

The prairie in the sandhills - as expected – is greening up very nicely. Many wildflowers are blooming, including this hoary vetchling (aka peavine or Lathyrus polymorphus).

.

The recent big rain washed much of the remaining ash off the slopes north of the river.  At the bottom of this photo, you can see the accumulation of the black goo that washed down.  It was thick enough in some places that the road was closed when I was there last week.

The recent big rain washed much of the remaining ash off the slopes north of the river. At the bottom of this photo, you can see the accumulation of the black goo that washed down. It was thick enough in some places that the road was closed while I was there last week.

One of the things we’ve been watching for and wondering about is soil erosion on the barren slopes – especially underneath formerly dense stands of pines and/or cedar trees.  When I arrived at the preserve, several days after the big rain, the road along the river was closed because of an accumulation of black goo that had washed off the slopes above it.  It was hard to tell, but it appeared to be mostly ash, mixed with some organic matter.  Seeing that on the road, I was worried about what I’d find when I climbed the slopes.

A closer look at the black goo, seen here in a low pocket further up slope.

A closer look at the black goo, seen here in a low pocket further up slope.

However, as I climbed the ridge north of the river, I was pleasantly surprised.  There was some soil erosion, but much less than I’d expected.  Green plants were popping up across the ridges, forming thicker carpets in areas where tree density had been lower.

Green plants dot the upper slopes, especially in places where pines and cedars grew less densely.

Green plants dot the upper slopes, especially in places where pines and cedars grew less densely.

.

Annuals are abundant, including this

Annuals were abundant, including this Chenopodium species.

Many of the green plants were “weedy” annuals, taking advantage of the sudden lack of competition for light and moisture.  However, numerous perennials were growing too – including leadplant, puccoons, skeleton weed, peavine, several species of grasses and sedges, and many more.

Perennial plants

Perennial plants and shrubs were mixed in with the annuals.  A the lower left of this photo is skunkbush sumac.  Perennial grasses can be seen in the background.

.

As bad as it got.

This was about as bad as it got for soil erosion on the steep slopes, and I had to look for a while to find many examples like this.  Rather than large scale slides or obvious losses of top soil, multiple rivulets formed in many places.  In between the rivulets, however, perennial and annual plants were growing and helping to stabilize the remaining soil.  The lightest colored steep bluffs are mostly devoid of soil, but were like that prior to the fire rather than as a response to it.

.

Erosion pins

We have erosion pins in a number of places to help measure soil loss.  The pins were installed in December and are being measured right now to see how much soil we’ve lost.  The arrays of pins are located on a range of site types, varying in slope, aspect, and vegetation type.  Additional erosion pin arrays will be installed in the coming weeks.

.

Regrowth

Most oak trees were resprouting from their bases.  Oaks that had been burned less intensely hadn’t started their spring growth at all this year, so it’s still unknown whether some of those will be able to continue growing from the ends of their branches.  Unburned oaks were leafing out, so we should see something from the “lightly” burned ones in the next couple of weeks.

.

For better or worse, deer tracks were common.

For better or worse, deer tracks were common.  Some of the oak resprouts were clearly being nipped back by deer and/or other wildlife, as were sedges and other green plants.

I don’t know what the future will hold for the Preserve, but I’m still optimistic.  The sandhills and other prairies will clearly be fine.  The woodlands will be slow to recover, but there are positive signs already.  It’s hard to know how much erosion will occur or important that is.  So far, even the most vulnerable slopes seem more resistant to erosion than I’d guessed they would be.  Regardless, the Preserve is recovering, and will continue to be a beautiful place and important biological resource.  And it’ll be very interesting to watch!

Other than steep slopes conifers were dense, the green up is well underway.

Other than steep slopes where conifers were dense, the green up is well underway.

About these ads

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
This entry was posted in General, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Wildfire Recovery at The Niobrara Valley Preserve – Spring Green Up

  1. elfinelvin says:

    Thanks for the update Chris. Nature seems to be programed for recovery. I don’t know a lot about what occurs after a wild fire like this. Do you know what’s likely to happen with the pines?

    • Given that Ponderosa Pine does not re-sprout from the stump or roots, they are gone – the looks of the photos show a “stand replacement” fire. As far as what plant community it will be replaced with, I’ll leave that to Chris.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      As Jameson said, the existing pines are dead (though a few at the very top of the ridge may yet survive). Over a long period of time, we expect them to come back, but it’ll be my kids and grandkids who get to hike beneath them. In the meantime, the existing herbaceous plants will expand into the areas formerly covered with pines and cedars, creating excellent habitat for a new set of wildlife. We will be assessing the changes to ensure that whatever comes back contributes to a diversity of plant species and habitat conditions.

      • Len Gilmore says:

        Chris, thanks for keeping us updated on Niobrara. This is a great example of secondary succession and to see how this ecosystem responds to the impact of the fire. You made a good point that it will be beyond our lifetime before this system gets back closer to the climax community. I’m sure the annual plants are happy but let’s hope the invasives don’t take advantage of the situation.

  2. TimBoucher says:

    Nice to know that one of my favorite places is recovering well – and great to see all the experiments and monitoring!

  3. Nice series of images and commentary, Chris. Plus, I just received the latest issue of “Ecological Restoration” and see that you are a co-author on one of the articles (which i have not yet had a chance to read).

  4. Tim Upham says:

    Native Americans did “fire farming.” They did it to improve grazing for buffalo herds. They obviously did it more, after they got the horse in the 18th century. Native Americans on Spanish missions, learned how to provide care for horses.

  5. Patrick Swanson says:

    Liking the updates! Just curious: what is the plan for the bison herd? Is it the intent to grow the remaining herd through natural births or import some additional stock?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Patrick – I don’t know of any plans to import animals. I think the staff will just change up the way they manage the herd to keep more young animals and increase the herd size.

  6. James C. Trager says:

    I don’t think anyone who “knows” nature doubted that there would be recovery. The questions was more, “To what state or new condition?” Great to see the documentation you all are doing. I have a couple of questions about the pictures:
    What are those plants growing out of the black goo? They look like Japanese honeysuckle and tall fescue, but I hope I’m wrong.
    Also, what are the oak species that grow there?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      James – not sure of the grass in that photo, but I don’t think it’s fescue. The shrub is Symphoricarpus. Probably S. orbiculatus. The only oak species at the Preserve is bur oak.

      Chris

      • timupham says:

        Bur oak grows in the open, away from forest canopies. It grows close to water, and it is fire-resistant. It is also drought-resistant, because of its long taproot. A perfect tree for the prairies.

PLEASE COMMENT ON THIS POST!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s