A Visual Update of Wildfire Recovery at the Niobrara Valley Preserve

Back in April, I wrote about our timelapse project at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Working with Moonshell Media, we’ve got nine cameras set up around the Preserve to document changes over time as the site recovers from a major 2012 wildfire.  We only have photos from April through early July so far, but even those are very compelling.  Eventually, we’ll put together videos that will show the entire timelapse story from each camera, but I wanted to share just a few examples of what we’re seeing so far.

I’ve selected two images from each of three cameras to give you a taste for the kind of stories we’re getting from the cameras.  The first pair of images is from the north ridge of the Niobrara River where the wildfire wiped out our ponderosa pine woodland.  We set up a camera to capture a close-up view of a steep slope.  Overall, erosion is not as bad as I’d feared it might be, but there was some significant soil loss during the first several months of the 2013 growing season, especially on steeper slopes like this one.

Erosion

This photo was taken on April 28, 2013, shortly after the camera was installed.  In fact, you can see some of our footprints in the loose soil in front of the camera.  Note the location of the rocks in the image – particularly the tall one in the top left quarter of the photo.  The pine and eastern red cedar density had been high in this location prior to the wildfire, and few perennial plants were able to grow in the shade beneath them.  Because of that lack of established vegetation and the steepness of the slope, we expected to see significant erosion here.

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erosion b

This image was taken on July 21, 2013.  Some of the rocks from the previous photo have washed downslope and out of the frame. Others have become much more exposed as soil has washed away from them.  Annual vegetation is starting to fill in the bare areas, but is still spotty, and very little – if any – perennial vegetation (grasses, forbs or shrubs) is evident.

We had some undergraduate students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln collecting data on soil erosion and water runoff/quality this summer.  They are still analyzing data, but it’s clear that erosion was highly correlated with tree density, especially that of cedar trees.  Where the density of cedar trees was high before the fire, very little perennial vegetation grew beneath the trees, so those areas were the most prone to significant soil erosion after the fire.  The good news is that there is still sufficient soil to support vegetation growth, and there are numerous patches of perennial grasses and other plants nearby that can colonize these areas over time.

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The next pair of images shows a broad landscape view of recovery through the early part of the growing season.  Just as in the first pair of images, annual vegetation can be seen colonizing the bare slopes.  If you look carefully at the top right quarter of the photo you can see that the sandhills prairie and woodland along the south side of the river is greening up very well.  The woodland on that side of the river only burned intensively in a few places; for the most part, flames stayed low to the ground and didn’t impact the trees on the relatively cool, wet north-facing slopes.

Landscape

Looking downstream from the north ridge on May 24, 2013.  Some green can be seen in a few areas in the distance, mostly where tree density was low and native sedges and other grassland plants were coming back after the winter. Much of the rest of the landscape is pretty barren.

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landscape 2

The same scene on July 3, 2013.  Annual vegetation has colonized much of the landscape, especially where topography was less steep and tree density had been lower prior to the fire.  The landscape looks lush and green in the distance, but much of that is made up of those short-lived colonizing plants, so there is a long recovery period ahead before perennials take their place.  The future of ponderosa pines on this ridge is pretty bleak for the next several decades.  A few pines survived at the very top of the ridge, but colonization from those and other locations will likely be very slow.  

Over the next decade or two, we hope to see grasses spread back across the slopes north of the river.  Those grasses will be important because they will allow us to use prescribed fire to control the eastern red cedar trees that will also be colonizing the same area.  If we don’t get sufficient grass growth, we’ll have to find other ways to control cedars, which could prove to be very difficult on those steep slopes.

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The third pair of images comes from a camera mounted about 15 feet in the air above the sandhills prairie south of the river.  The camera is pointing straight down at an 8 foot by 10 foot patch of prairie that burned in the wildfire last year.  I am really looking forward to watching this little piece of grassland change over time – not just as it recovers from the wildfire, but also as it responds to future prescribed fires, bison grazing, and weather changes.  For now, these two images show how well the prairie plant community rebounded quickly between late April and early July, 2013.

green

This first photo was taken on April 26, 2013.  There was a little fall regrowth after the late July fire, but the ground was nearly bare through the long winter.

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green2

This photo was taken a little more than two months later, on July 2, 2013.

The second of the two prairie images shows a wide diversity of plants growing vigorously within the 8×15 foot frame of the photo.  There are two grayish-colored plants of leadplant (Amorpha canescens) on the left and right edges of the photo, numerous purple coneflower (Echnicea angustifolia) blooming throughout the frame, and a few yellow coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera) as well.   The small silver-colored spikes throughout much of the image are wooly plantain (Plantago patagonica), an annual plant that is often abundant in sandy prairie after fire or grazing events.  The larger silver plants are white sage (Artemisia ludoviciana).  There are two species of sunflower in the photo as well, including stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) and plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris), though neither was yet blooming by July 2.  I’m not sure what the blueish green grass in the photo is, but my best guess is switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), which is joined by several other grass species I can’t yet identify from the photo.

It should be fun to watch plants move in, out, and around the frame over the coming years.  Some, such as leadplant, should stay relatively stationary through time, but others -especially plants such as stiff sunflower and white sage, which can reproduce through long rhizomes – should move around quite a bit.  After the area has not been burned or grazed for a year or two, grasses will begin to dominate the frame and most of the shorter-lived plants will decrease in abundance.  However, when we burn the site again, bison will graze the area pretty intensively, knocking the vigor of perennial grasses back, and allow opportunistic plants such as annual sunflower and wooly plantain to rise up once more.  It’s one thing to track that kind of community change with data, but it will be much more interesting to see it visually.

There will be much more to come from these cameras!  While it’s useful to see paired images that show how things look differently a few months apart, videos of numerous images showing incremental change over long periods will be much better.  Those will be put together when we have more images and time to assemble the videos.  Stay tuned!

Capturing Post-Wildfire Recovery Through Timelapse Photography

Last week, I posted that I’d been up at our Niobrara Valley Preserve, helping to set up timelapse cameras to document the recovery of that site from the wildfire last July.  Back in February, photographer Michael Forsberg, Jeff Dale, Rich Walters, and I picked out preliminary locations for nine cameras.  Jeff then built the camera systems, and we got them installed and started up last Tuesday and Wednesday.

Mike and Jeff are part of Moonshell Media, the group we’re contracting with for this project.  You may have seen their work before – most of the Moonshell Media staff are also working on the Platte Basin Timelapse project, which includes video from one of our Platte River wetland restoration projects, along with numerous other stories of water and the Platte River from headwaters to mouth.

A timelapse camera, taking a photo every daylight hour, will record the change in this landscape view over the next several years.

This timelapse camera will be taking a photo every daylight hour for the next several years, recording the recovery of this landscape from the Fairfield Creek wildfire in July 2012.

The timelapse project at the Niobrara Valley Preserve is being funded by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, as part of a larger project to study the aftermath of the wildfire and generate information to help reduce negative impacts from similar events in the future.  Eacn of our nine cameras will be taking one photo every hour, during daylight hours, for at least several years.  An additional camera will be a mobile unit that we’ll move from location to location to document short-term changes or events.  The cameras will help us tell the overall story of wildfire recovery, but will also link with and help illustrate the results of several research projects happening in the same places.

Here are some photos of the installation last week, along with descriptions of what some of the cameras will be documenting.  I will, of course, let you know when/where videos from the project can be viewed when its time.

Jeff Dale fastens a camera mount near the top of a windmill tower.

Jeff Dale fastens a camera mount near the top of a windmill tower.

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The "windmill cam" will capture a wide view of bison-grazed sandhill prairie as it greens up this spring, but will also follow it over the next several years, as dynamic patterns of bison grazing, weather, and prescribed fires shape its habitat structure and species composition.

The “windmill cam” will capture a wide view of bison-grazed sandhill prairie as it greens up this spring, and then will follow it over the next several years, as dynamic patterns of bison grazing, weather, and prescribed fires shape its habitat structure and species composition.

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Jeff Dale and David Weber install a camera that will look straight down a steep slope in the burned pine woodland on the ridge north of the river.  Among other things, this camera will help capture evidence of any soil erosion that occurs over time.

Jeff Dale and David Weber install a camera that will look straight down a steep slope on the ridge north of the river. Among other things, this camera will help capture evidence of any soil erosion that occurs over time under the burned ponderosa pine woodland.

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This camera is set up to record any sediment that pools up at the base of the (formerly) pine-covered ridge north of the river.  In addition, it will record the resprouting of several oak trees growing within the frame.

This camera is set up to record any sediment that pools up at the base of the (formerly) pine-covered ridge. In addition, it will record the resprouting of several oak trees growing within the frame.

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This camera was installed on a new fenceline - moved after the initial fence was destroyed by fire.  The new fenceline moves the south end of the bison pasture into what was formerly cattle pasture.  This camera will record differences in the recovery of prairie grazed year-round by bison (left) vs. prairie grazed by cattle.  One of many differences we expect to see is that yucca will likely disappear on the left side of the fence due to year-round grazing by bison.  Winter grazing (by either cattle OR bison) suppresses yucca, which is rarely grazed at all during the summer.

This camera was installed on a new fenceline – rebuilt in a new location after the initial fence was destroyed by fire. The new fence location expands the south end of the bison pasture into what was formerly cattle pasture. The camera will record differences in the recovery of prairie grazed year-round by bison (left) vs. prairie grazed only periodically by cattle. One of many differences we expect to see is that yucca will largely disappear in the bison pasture. Winter grazing (by either cattle OR bison) suppresses yucca, which is rarely grazed at all during the summer.

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How fast will this sandhills blowout carve away recently-burned sand prairie?  Our camera will help us find out.  Based on previous experience with summer fires, we don't expect to see any significant increase in wind erosion, but this camera (combined with aerial photograph, and perhaps on-the-ground measurements) will allow us to test that assumption.

How fast will this sandhills blowout carve away recently-burned sand prairie? Our camera will help us find out. Based on previous experience with summer fires, we don’t expect to see any significant increase in wind erosion, but this camera (combined with aerial photographs, and perhaps on-the-ground measurements) will allow us to test that assumption.

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Jeff digs a hole for the camera I'm most excited about.  This camera will focus on a 8x10 foot rectangle of bison-grazed prairie, looking straight down on it from above.  Over the next several years, we should be able to watch the plant community recover from the fire, but we'll also see yearly differences in which species bloom, and when, in response to weather, grazing, future fires, etc.  We can also record any long-term changes in the plant composition within this area.

Jeff digs a post hole for the camera I’m most excited about. This camera will focus on a 8×10 foot rectangle of bison-grazed prairie, looking straight down on it from above. Over the next several years, we should be able to watch the plant community recover from the fire, but we’ll also see yearly differences in which species bloom, when they bloom, and how they respond to weather, grazing, future fires, etc. We can also record any long-term changes in the plant composition within this area.

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We want to see how the plant community will recover in areas formerly underneath dense cedar now that those cedars are dead.  We expect lots of weeds, but hope not to see many truly invasive plants.

We want to see how the plant community will recover underneath dense cedar trees now that those cedars are dead. We expect lots of weeds, but hope not to see many truly invasive plants.

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Jeff, the technical wizard who designed most of the equipment that makes the cameras work right, explains how they work.  I got some of it, I think...

Jeff, the technical wizard who designed most of the timelapse camera systems, explains how to adjust them and keep them working.  I followed some of it, I think…