environment and natural resources


CORVALLIS - Oregon State University Extension Service will explore a series of sustainability issues on a new cable network modeled after C-SPAN. Beginning Thursday evening, Dec. 9, viewers with cable access can tune in to some of OSU Extension's award-winning programs on the new Oregon Public Affairs Network (OPAN).

The series of eight 30-minute programs cover current public issues from rural community development to urban runoff to watershed restoration. Most stations will air the series on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. Check local listings.

The first program, "Towns in Transition," follows the fate of three natural resource-dependent communities in the Pacific Northwest as they manage changes in their local industries.

Following each program, viewers can go to a special web site to learn more. Online, they can access hundreds of publications and videos produced by OSU Extension experts.

OPAN is a new nonprofit television network bringing public issues and government to the living rooms and computer terminals of Oregonians. Modeled on the nationally successful C-SPAN, OPAN is a partnership among OSU, the State Legislative Media Service, the Oregon Wireless Instructional Network (WIN) and local cable access centers in six counties - Multnomah, Lane, Polk, Linn, Benton and Deschutes.

OPAN is broadcast from 6 to 8 p.m. each night, and also will provide daily gavel-to-gavel legislative coverage in Portland and the Corvallis area. Programs can also be viewed online at http://www.opan.org.

The eight OSU Extension programs that will air on OPAN include:

  • Dec. 9: "Towns in Transition: Managing Change in Natural-Resource- Dependent Communities"


  • Dec. 16: "The Miracle at Bridge Creek"


  • Dec. 23: "Rethinking the American Dream and Why Should I Bother? Waste Prevention in the Work Place"


  • Dec. 30: "Beyond Recycling: Waste Prevention in Manufacturing and Distribution" and "Better Than Recycling: Waste Prevention in the Office"


  • Jan. 6: "Strangers in Our Waterways"


  • Jan. 13: "We all Live Downstream"


  • Jan. 20: "After the Rain: Urban Runoff"


  • Jan. 27: "Life on the Edge: Improving Riparian Function and Buying Time: Instream Restoration"

Local cable networks that will broadcast the OSU Extension series include: the Eugene area, Channel 21; Corvallis/Albany, Channel 27; Washington and Clackamas County areas, Channel 28; the Portland area, Channel 29; Monmouth/Independence, Channel 17; Bend, Channel 11; Lane and Douglas County areas, Channel 9.

For more information about OPAN programming, see: http://www.opan.org. For more information about OSU Extension programs and publications, see: http://extension.oregonstate.edu.

Story By: 

Lynn Ketchum, 541-737-0802


CORVALLIS, Ore. - Research about wolves that began in Yellowstone National Park has been replicated in an adjacent area, and a growing body of evidence leads scientists to conclude that this historic predator may have an ecological impact far more important than realized in the American West.

The near extinction of the gray wolf across most of the West in the past century now appears to have removed the natural element of "fear" from these ecosystems. It has triggered a cascade of ecological effects on everything from elk populations to beaver, birds, fish, and even stream systems - and helped lead directly to the collapsing health of aspen and some other tree species and vegetation.

Two recent studies by forestry scientists from Oregon State University, published in the journals BioScience and Forest Ecology and Management, outline a role for the gray wolf that is complex and rarely understood, but helps explain many major problems facing western streams, forests and wildlife.

"It would appear that the loss of a keystone predator, the gray wolf, across vast areas of the American West may have set the stage for previously unrecognized and unappreciated ecological changes in riparian and upland plant communities, and the functions they provide," the scientists concluded.

The studies were authored by William Ripple, a professor, and Robert Beschta, a professor emeritus, in the OSU College of Forestry.

In their research, the scientists explore a concept that has been called "the ecology of fear."

The ecological and historical significance of wolves is only partly due to the actual impact they have by preying on other animals, both large and small, the OSU researchers have found. Just as important is the fear that many larger animals have of wolves, and the resulting behavioral changes in elk and some other grazing animals.

"Prey species will alter their use of space and their foraging patterns according to the features of the terrain and how that affects the risk of predation," Ripple and Beschta noted in their study. "They forage or browse less intensively at high-risk sites."

Some of those sites, the researchers say, are streamsides rich in aspen, cottonwood, willow and other edible vegetation. When healthy and normal, such areas naturally grow large trees and other streamside vegetation that provides the basis for supporting beaver, other wildlife, fish populations, native bird communities, and stable channel banks.

The OSU scientists, in previous work, documented that the loss of aspen and cottonwood trees in Yellowstone National Park dated almost exactly to the extermination of the last wolf packs in the park in the mid-1920s.

The elk moved in, ate young trees before they could become established, and the entire riparian ecosystem began a slow demise that was only reversed recently - when wolves were re-introduced to the park.

In their newest work, the researchers have found exactly the same forces at work along the Gallatin River in southwestern Montana. Coincidental with the return of wolves to that area, there has been a dramatic recovery of willow populations along streams, and other possible factors such as changing climate conditions have been ruled out as a possible cause.

A modest recovery of willows may not seem that significant. But the OSU researchers say it has set the stage for ecological "spin-offs," including an increase in plant biomass, improved streambank stability, better floodplain functioning, reduced soil erosion, and better food web support for everything from beaver to river otter, fish, birds, amphibians, and insects. Biodiversity will increase and rising beaver populations will lead to even more changes, including sediment retention, wetland maintenance and nutrient cycling.

And the story, the OSU scientists say, appears to be much larger than just Yellowstone National Park or the mountainous regions around it, as demonstrated by a broad range of research.

One study suggested that the loss of wolves has allowed increases in deer populations across much of North America, which led to a browsing pressure on plants that was unprecedented. Predation effects involving wolves and elk were also found in aspen growth in Jasper National Park. In Grand Teton National Park, the local extinction of grizzly bears and wolves caused an increase in herbivory on willow by moose, and ultimately decreased the diversity of neotropical migrant birds.

The role of fear, while emphasizing the value of wolves, is not exclusive to them, the scientists said. Even the fear of human sport hunters has a role.

One study in Montana showed that elk adjusted their foraging behavior by browsing far from roads to avoid human contact and possible predation. And research in Colorado has found that aspen was far more heavily browsed, and used year-round by elk, where sport hunting was excluded.

Ultimately, however, the value of large predators needs to be reconsidered, the reports conclude. The body of evidence has become compelling, the OSU researchers say, that predation by top carnivores, especially wolves, may be pivotal to maintaining biodiversity in some ecosystems.

More information on this research can be found on the Web at www.cof.orst.edu/wolves.

"The ranges of large carnivores are continuing to collapse around the world," the scientists note in their report. "In North America, the gray wolf and the grizzly bear have faced nearly complete extirpation in the lower 48 states, although populations of these carnivores have been increasing in recent years."

"Growing evidence points to the importance of conserving these animals because they have cascading effects on lower trophic levels."

A similar point, they said, was made by the great naturalist Aldo Leopold in 1949, who predicted this crisis.

"I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves," Leopold wrote 55 years ago. "I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death."

Story By: 

William Ripple, 541-737-3056

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Aspens in Yellowstone National Park

A withering stand of aspen in Yellowstone National Park reflect a phenomenon that researchers from Oregon State University believe is now far more widespread - the loss of wolves in the American West leading to the decline of tree and stream ecosystems.

Twenty-five years later, volcano research is booming

CORVALLIS - If Mount St. Helens caused many tragic deaths when it exploded 25 years ago, it has also saved lives - possibly thousands of them - as the lessons learned and the studies spawned by this catastrophic event set the stage for a new generation of scientific research into the world of volcanoes.

Geologists at Oregon State University say that the May, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens gave researchers an unprecedented opportunity to see and monitor volcanic forces in action, obtain data and develop new avenues of research on volcanism.

Those efforts are still picking up speed, they say, and millions of dollars of promising studies are under way at OSU that are trying to trace volcanic action to its geological foundations deep in the Earth.

"Being able to actually see and monitor the ground deformations and 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens really opened some eyes in our research community," said Frank Tepley, an assistant professor of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU. "We learned a tremendous amount from that event and used it to help understand what we see elsewhere in the geologic record. We're now in a position where we can make pretty rapid progress in understanding volcanism at a very basic level."

Although the Pacific Northwest landscape is dominated by towering volcanoes, the science of plate tectonics is well-established, and monitors can record every hiccup of active volcanoes, there is still much that scientists don't understand about these awesome geologic forces.

"In general terms, we can tell you the environments where volcanoes occur, why they are there, where the heat comes from, and how eruptions occur in a crude sense," said Adam Kent, an assistant professor of geosciences at OSU, and one of a group of experts working in volcanology and petrology.

But the list of what the scientists still don't know is just as long - where the actual material comes from that becomes magma, what pathways it takes to move to the surface of the of the Earth, the time scale of these processes, what controls the magma's ascent and - most importantly - when and why a major eruption will take place.

"The biggest difference right now is we can ask much better questions about the fundamental forces of volcanism," said Roger Nielsen, chair of the OSU Department of Geosciences "We're in an era of analytical microchemistry, which will help tell us about the larger forces really at work. And we're tackling difficult issues, such as what might happen in a few years, not just tomorrow or next week."

In collaboration with experts at the U.S. Geological Survey, Portland State University, the University of Oregon, and Hewlett Packard, a whole range of new technologies have been obtained and studies are under way. They include:

  • A new $1 million Electron Microprobe Laboratory at OSU is providing detailed and improved analysis of minerals and glass, helping researchers to understand the exact composition of volcanic materials and where they came from.


  • An ICP mass spectrometry facility, including equipment for laser ablation microchemistry studies, can reveal the isotopic and trace element characteristics of materials.


  • A number of new studies of volcanic rocks that apply this new technology, and new satellite imaging techniques are now taking place in the Cascade Range.


  • An NSF-funded project lead by Anita Grunder, a professor of volcanic geology at OSU, is coordinating studies of the volcanic rocks along the axis of the Cascade Range in order to understand the geochemistry and structure of the Earth that the lavas passed through.
  • Another NSF-funded study involving a west-east transect of the Central Oregon Cascade Range is examining the chemistry of volatiles and trace elements, looking for the key signals about the deep causes of volcanic eruptions within Earth's mantle.


  • The role of ancient water that was carried by subduction processes deep into the Earth millions of years ago is at the forefront of research, since it may hold the key to understanding the explosive nature of Cascade volcanoes and the way that water affects how the materials in the deep Earth melt.


  • New clues to volcanic action are being provided by "melt inclusions," microscopic droplets of lava that have been trapped within a crystal, almost like a volcanic fossil, and can help scientists learn about conditions at the time the lava existed long before it erupted.

Despite not being able to answer questions about exactly when and where the next big volcanic event may occur - that's a little like the dicey science of earthquake prediction, researchers say - the lessons learned in recent years have already saved lives. Taken together, the information gathered will help us to understand in greater detail where the lavas come from, what they do on the way to the surface and why they behave the way they do.

"The researchers in the 1980s would be amazed at what we can do now," said Nielsen. "Much of what we learned from Mount St. Helens helped to save thousands of lives in the Philippines when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991."

An OSU graduate student, Michael Rowe, is now working with the USGS at Mount St. Helens, taking "fingerprints" of volcanic ash. Through sophisticated new tests, researchers are able to determine the age of the magma the ash came from, where the magma was and how fast it had been moving.

The science is getting better in many respects and leading to constant advances, the researchers say. But they are also quick to concede it has room for improvement and that volcanic hazards are still very difficult to predict.

A helicopter landed at what appeared to be a safe site in the crater of Mount St. Helens not long ago on a science mission - a volcanic area that has, in general, received more scientific study in the past 25 years than just about anywhere on Earth.

Just 36 hours after the helicopter's landing, that exact site blew up in a volcanic explosion.


Story By: 

Roger Nielsen, 541-737-1235


CORVALLIS - The National Academy of Sciences has appointed Wayne C. Huber, a professor of water resources engineering at Oregon State University, to chair a high-profile national research committee charged with reviewing a massive, $8 billion, 30-year restoration project in the Everglades.

Huber will serve on the Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress, part of the National Research Council, and will help prepare a report to Congress during the next two years on progress of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

"Everglades restoration is important for the whole country," said Huber, who is a professor in OSU's Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering. "The Everglades themselves are a unique national treasure, and under the 50-50 federal-state cost-sharing agreement, all federal taxpayers are paying half the $8 billion bill over the 30-year restoration project lifetime."

The historic greater Everglades ecosystem stretches more than 200 miles, from Orlando in the north to Everglades National Park, southwest of Miami, and is home to an enormous variety of sub-tropical wildlife. The whole south Florida region, and especially the "River of Grass" inland from Miami, has been encroached upon for more than 120 years, with attendant floods, droughts and pollution.

"If the restoration effort does not succeed, the ecology of Everglades National Park and other substantial natural areas may continue to decline," Huber said.

The essence of the restoration plan is to return the Everglades hydrology to as natural a condition as possible by preventing human-made drainage of water to the ocean, with the hope that the ecology of the Everglades will respond positively. Since water is also needed by urban areas and agriculture, a key aspect of restoration progress will be to ensure that the natural system receives its allocated share of this precious and limited resource.

The review that Huber will lead will assess progress in restoring all the land and water managed by the state and federal government within the South Florida Ecosystem, as well as scientific and engineering issues that might affect progress in achieving the natural system restoration goals.

Huber is an expert in urban hydrology and stormwater management, nonpoint source pollution, and transport processes related to water quality. Prior to joining the OSU faculty in 1991, Huber served as a professor of environmental engineering sciences at the University of Florida.


Wayne Huber, 541-737-6150


CORVALLIS - Oregon State University researchers working with the People's Republic of China have developed a web-based Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping tool they hope will help solve the massive loss of topsoil on high elevation plateaus in western and northern China.

The online mapping system, part of OSU's Spatial Climate Analysis Service, (http://www.ocs.orst.edu/prism/) and linked to the OSU Forage Information System, (http://forages.oregonstate.edu/), is designed to let users quickly identify grasses and legumes that are best adapted to the climate and soils of a particular geographic location.

The project's sponsors include the Oregon Seed Council and the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Market Access Program and Emerging Markets Program.

China is keenly interested in the project because they need grasses that are well-suited to slow the soil erosion that is gradually turning large areas of the country into desert, the researchers say. Enormous dust storms in northern China have blown as far east as the west coast of the United States.

"The Chinese have recognized the degraded condition of many of their semi-arid rangelands since the 1970s," said David Hannaway, OSU Extension forage specialist. "Some of these areas are high plateaus that receive little rain or snowfall and are very cold in the winter. There are too many people and too many animals on these grasslands due to dramatic population growth in China and subsequent demand for increased food production.

"The result has been severe overgrazing that has almost exhausted forage grass resources and led to desertification in marginal areas," Hannaway added.

The challenge for China's land managers is to find forage grass species and varieties that are well-adapted to the extreme climates of these areas and get them established and growing in the shortest possible time, Hannaway explained.

Hannaway and Chris Daly, an OSU climatologist with experience in developing climate maps, began work on creating a 'forage crop selection tool' in the late 1990s with the goal of building an online information system capable of matching forage species growth requirements with the soils and climate characteristics of particular areas. That project has now evolved into the Species Suitability modeling system available online at http://mistral.coas.oregonstate.edu/forages/.

"China's interest in this project was a tremendous opportunity for us because of all the resources they are investing in the agricultural development of these lands," said Daly. "They saw our project as an important step forward in getting erosion problems under control."

A wealth of information on climate, soils and plant species is available from many sources, but it is not always easily accessible, Daly said. The goal of the project has been to put all that information together in one tool that users can easily access via the Internet, he added.

"The dynamic feature of this tool is that it can create new forage species suitability maps when quantitative tolerances for that species are entered," said Daly. "The user designates the area of interest and the tool uses climate and soil maps of the area to show where the forage crop species selected would be most likely to grow successfully."

According to Hannaway, the Chinese want to establish forage grasses over huge areas with a broad range of climate characteristics.

"Because these high plateau areas cover thousands of square miles, it just isn't practical there to conduct on-the-ground planting trials to find out what species of forage grasses are best adapted to the different regions with their varying climates," Hannaway said. "The species suitability mapping tool allows us to take a bit of a short cut in this process.

"It's still necessary to do some planting trials to validate our maps, but we can jump a few steps ahead by letting the mapping tool identify the forage crop species most likely to succeed," he added.

Daly and Hannaway believe the web-based mapping tool may have far-reaching impact.

"Although our project focuses on China, the technology we're using can be configured to work anywhere in the world," said Daly. "This tool has tremendous potential for agricultural and environmental uses in any country where growers or land managers need to find desirable plant species quickly that are well-adapted to local growing conditions."


David Hannaway, 541-737-5863

Programs airing on OPAN to examine salmon issues

CORVALLIS - The Oregon Sea Grant program at Oregon State University will explore biological, economic, and social issues concerning salmon in the Pacific Northwest on the new Oregon Public Affairs Network (OPAN). Some of Sea Grant's award-winning educational videos will air on OPAN the next three Thursday evenings at 7 p.m.

Thursday, Feb. 17, features "Return of the Salmon," a half-hour documentary premiered on Oregon Public Broadcasting and the winner of two national awards. The program offers an overview of causes of the historic decline of salmon populations, importance of watersheds in restoration, and the actions of watershed groups.

The second Thursday, Feb. 24, offers three short videos by Sea Grant. "Life Cycle of the Salmon" captures the story of the salmon's life with images that reveal its world, often from an underwater point of view. In an interview, former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber reflects on the biological and cultural importance of salmon, his approach to environmental policy, and his belief that individual Oregonians will make the difference in restoration. In "Salmon: Why Bother?" six concerned Oregonians with varying perspectives answer the title question candidly and personally.

On Thursday, March 3, "Coming Home Was Easy" explores the history and culture of salmon trolling through the recollections of 15 fishermen and women. Their honest, funny, and thoughtful stories put a personal face on the business of fishing. So does historic footage and photographs taken by the trollers themselves, which mixes with contemporary footage in this award-winning documentary.

OPAN is a nonprofit network bringing public issues and government to the living rooms and computer terminals of Oregonians. Modeled after the national C-SPAN network, OPAN is a partnership among OSU, the State Legislative Media Service, Oregon Wireless Instructional Network (WIN) and local cable access centers in Multnomah, Lane, Polk, Linn, Benton and Deschutes counties.

Local cable networks that will broadcast the Sea Grant series include: the Eugene area, Channel 21; Corvallis Channel 27; the Portland area, Channel 29; Monmouth/Independence, Channel 17; Lane and Douglas County areas, Channel 9.

For more information about OPAN programming and for a channel locator with other local times for these salmon programs, see: http://www.opan.org. For more information about Oregon Sea Grant's educational videos and publications, see: http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/sgpubs/.


John Greydanus, 541-737-9099

Good news in the forecast? Oregon could face wet spring

CORVALLIS - Oregon's dry winter is bad news for rain lovers, but if history holds true, Pacific Northwest residents may be in for a wet spring.

"Historically, dry winters preceded by a wet fall are very likely to be followed by a wet spring," said George Taylor, an atmospheric scientist at Oregon State University who serves as the state climatologist.

And late last summer, through early fall, it was wet.

Portland was 1.75 inches above normal for August precipitation, hitting 2.68 inches for the month. September actually dipped below normal by 0.62 for the Portland area, but the rain was back in October, hitting 0.48 inches above normal.

"There are always a lot of variables in rainfall for specific spots throughout the region," Taylor said, "but in general, August, September and October were wetter than average throughout Oregon."

Then came November and wet and wild turned into dry and mild, said Taylor, a faculty member in OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

Precipitation totals at Taylor's home base in Corvallis show 12.08 inches of precipitation from October 2004 through January 2005. That's the seventh driest such period on record for the Corvallis area since records started being kept in 1889, he said. In a normal year, precipitation would total 23.85 inches during the four-month span.

Statewide, it was the same story, except in southeastern Oregon, which actually has done better than the rest of the state this winter, Taylor said.

"Ironically, southeast Oregon has been the driest part of the state for the last several years," he pointed out. And while the dry weather has made everyone from farmers to municipal water managers nervous, if history repeats itself, the state may escape water woes this summer.

"We don't even need a particularly wet spring," Taylor said. "For example, 15.58 inches is the normal rainfall for February through May in Corvallis. If we got 10 to 12 inches of rain or more for that period, it would probably be OK - it would help a great deal."

Even Oregon's dismal snowpack, which is at 32 percent of normal in early February, while disheartening, isn't necessarily ruinous.

"We still have time for it to build," Taylor said, explaining that snow typically accumulates in Oregon's mountains until April 1.

"We certainly are not going to make up our current deficit. But a wet spring accomplishes much the same thing because it's coming closer to demand."

Timing is the key for this season, Taylor said. Oregon needs to receive the water just prior to demand. And demand creeps up as late spring blossoms and municipal and agricultural water use leaps.

The Oregon Drought Council meets Feb. 22 to discuss water supplies. Comprised of state and federal representatives, the council will assess the issues and then advise Gov. Ted Kulongoski. It appears several counties are already preparing to ask the governor to declare drought emergencies in their regions, Taylor said.

While the winter of 2004-05 has been dry, it's far from lows recorded in 1976-77, the worst since records have been kept. From October 1976 through January 1977, 5.1 inches of precipitation were recorded in Corvallis - 18.75 inches below average, Taylor said.

The second worst year was 1891 when 9.42 inches of winter precipitation was recorded in Corvallis.

In 2001, the fourth driest year on record and the most recent dry year, 10.92 inches of winter precipitation fell in Corvallis. The winter was followed by a very dry spring with only 7.49 inches recorded.

"That was the year that Detroit Reservoir was virtually empty," Taylor said.


George Taylor, 541-737-5694

Horning lecture focuses on history of computer climate models

CORVALLIS - A scientist and author from Tacoma, Wash., will explore the ambitious and mysterious world of computer climate modeling in a lecture on Thursday, Feb. 10, at Oregon State University.

Mott T. Greene, a professor at the University of Puget Sound, will give a talk called "Doing Science When the Noise Is the Signal: The Strange Case of Computer Climate Modeling." The free public lecture begins at 4 p.m. in OSU's Memorial Union Room 206.

It is part of the 2004-05 Horning Lecture Series at OSU, "Scientific Revolutions Old and New."

Greene says computer climate modeling is one of the most ambitious - and unusual - undertakings in modern science. These computer models are virtual objects in a virtual world, yet scientists conduct "experiments" and make "discoveries" through their models.

Most models, he adds, are so large and complex that no single individual can understand how they work, succeed, or fail.

In his talk, Greene will explore the scientific and social forces that have influenced the evolution of computer climate models during the last 50 years - and look at possible future developments.

Greene, who is the John B. Magee Professor of Science and Values at the University of Puget Sound, was recognized in 1996 as the Carnegie Foundation College Professor of the Year in the state of Washington. He is the author of three books, including a forthcoming biography of Alfred Wegener that will be published this fall by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Story By: 

History Department, 541-737-3421

Symposium to discuss Measure 37

CORVALLIS - The Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University will host a roundtable symposium this Thursday to discuss the consequences of Measure 37, the initiative passed last year to compensate landowners when certain land use restrictions reduce their property value, or waive enforcement of current zoning laws.

The symposium will be Feb. 3, from 4-5:30 p.m. in Withycombe Hall Room 109 on the OSU campus. It is free and open to the public.

Measure 37 is the greatest departure from land use practices since Oregon's land use planning policies were adopted more than 30 years ago, many analysts say. The OSU symposium will address new challenges Oregon will face in the aftermath of passage of this measure.

Four panelists will participate, including former state Sen. Hector Macpherson, who authored the law that eventually governed Oregon's land use practices; former Sen. Cliff Trow, who witnessed challenges to this law through the 1980s and 1990s; Dick Benner, former head of Oregon's Department of Land Conservation and Development; and Ron Eber, an expert on agricultural land protection and exclusive farm use zoning.

Bill Lunch, a professor of political science at OSU, will moderate the discussions.

The symposium is part of the winter term 2005 lecture series in the Department of Geosciences, titled "Land as Society's Mirror: Human Dimensions of Landscape Change." More information on the lecture series can be found on the Web at http://www.geo.oregonstate.edu/events/seminar_series.htm.

Story By: 

Ron Doel, 541-737-1243

Severe Fire Season Predicted for Western U.S.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The newest forecasts of summer drought and fire by researchers at Oregon State University and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service suggest the West is in for a fairly severe fire season, brought on by widespread drought conditions and huge fuel buildups in western forests and rangelands.

By contrast, most of the nation east of the Rocky Mountains should have few or no fire concerns in coming months, the study indicates, even though there may be some continued drought in various places and some fires are already under way in Florida and Georgia.

“Fire is a combination not just of immediate drought stress but also of recent weather years and fuel loads,” said Ronald Neilson, a professor of botany at OSU, ecologist with the Forest Service and one of the nation’s leading experts on the interaction between climate and vegetation.

“There are pockets of drought all over the country, but the coming fire season looks like it could be focused in the West and a very nasty one, worse than normal,” Neilson said. “There could be some fairly large fires.”

Among the areas of greatest fire risk, the latest analysis shows, are much of northern California; southern Arizona and New Mexico; and the Great Basin, especially some hot spots in eastern Idaho and southwestern Wyoming. In the Pacific Northwest, portions of southern Oregon, northeastern Oregon and eastern Washington are projected to have some significant fires. Most of the Cascade Range and Coast Range face lesser risk this year.

Drought predictions are more diverse, showing drought of varying severity in western Oregon and Washington, most of California and the Southwest, Florida, Wyoming, the Northern Plains, and northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Wetter than normal conditions are expected in the Ohio Valley, Maine, western New York and one area that’s traditionally very dry – the Llano Estacado of West Texas and New Mexico.

Various computer models and programs were used to produce these projections, and there was a pretty strong agreement among different models, the scientists said. This suggests that the level of confidence in the predictions should be reasonably high.

According to Neilson, a moderate El Nino condition – referring to circulation patterns in the tropical Pacific Ocean that affect weather all over the world – seems to be shifting towards a weak La Nina event. Ordinarily, that would produce conditions a little dryer in the Southwest and wetter in the Northwest – but so far, Neilson said, some of the drought conditions in parts of Oregon, Washington and Northern California appear to be very persistent.

Beyond current weather, fire concerns in the West are largely a reflection of recent history, Neilson said.

“We’ve heard a lot of discussion and talk about thinning of western forests to reduce drought stress and improve forest health, but in actual practice that hasn’t occurred on a broad scale,” he said. “Combined with fire suppression or exclusion and a fairly moderate climate in the past 50 years, that has led to extreme fuel buildups and excess biomass in many western forests. There’s a lot of material out there ready to burn.”

The Great Basin also faces concerns, researchers say, based on an invasive species – cheatgrass. This type of grass has often displaced native bunchgrass that tends to stay alive and green longer during the summer, lessening fire risk. Cheatgrass is an annual that dies off during the summer, leading to bigger rangeland fires that also tend to take out sagebrush and the ecosystem associated with it.

Story By: 

Ron Neilson,

Multimedia Downloads

Fire Risk Map Drought Severity Map
Researchers from Oregon State University and the USDA Forest Service have developed fire predictions (Fig. 1) for the coming summer fire season, based on drought conditions (Fig. 2) and other data. They suggest the West will face a fairly severe forest and rangeland fire season in 2007, while the East will have pockets of drought but almost no major fires.