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Snags have value as essential homes for wildlife

The Almeda fire was a tragedy, with thousands of people and families displaced and homes damaged and destroyed in Talent, Phoenix and nearby areas.

The fire was also catastrophic for the Bear Creek Greenway, where many more homes were lost — the homes of bobcats and gray foxes, of acorn woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees, of alligator lizards and little brown bats. While our valley’s response to the human tragedy has been energetic and inspiring, our post-fire actions along the Greenway threaten to make the wildlife tragedy far worse.

It’s easy to look at the blackened shrubs and scorched trees of the burned sections of the Greenway as a wasteland, but many different kinds of wildlife look at those dead trees and see home. Standing dead trees — snags — are a bonanza for the organisms that specialize in converting wood into nutrients: insects and fungi. The insects provide a feast for woodpeckers, whose nesting and roosting holes become essential homes for the wide variety of animals that live in cavities but cannot excavate them. These include everything from wood ducks to flying squirrels to raccoons to tree swallows. And if snags are large and hollow enough, they can house colonies of Vaux’s swifts, a declining species now dependent on chimneys for most of their nesting and roosting needs. Swifts, swallows and bats are voracious hunters of mosquitoes — reason enough to encourage them every way we can.

Private landowners, as well as our city and county governments, currently have a golden opportunity to preserve this important snag resource in areas burned by the Almeda fire. Of course, dead trees that are overhanging buildings, roads, trails, or that pose a credible threat to life and limb must be cut down, but those that are farther from heavily-used travel routes, trails and structures can safely be left to provide critical habitat for the thousands of animals displaced by the fire.

Contrary to popular belief, snags and large downed wood do not pose a high fire hazard. Research into fire behavior and fuel modeling has shown that large, downed wood and snags are not “flashy” fuels that carry fire. They are slow burning, producing slow-moving fire with short flame lengths. It’s true that any tree, living or dead, can torch and emit sparks under the right fire weather conditions, but it was the non-native Himalayan blackberry and English ivy, along with annual grasses and small conifers, that primarily fueled the spread of the extreme wind-driven Almeda fire along the Greenway. Restoration efforts should focus on eliminating those highly flammable fuels, not large snags.

Protecting snags isn’t important only in post-fire areas. Private forestland owners and managers can help wildlife by retaining snags and large downed wood for wildlife habitat anywhere they don’t pose a hazard. Snags and downed wood provide another benefit — their slow decay adds valuable nutrients to the soil. Those nutrients are lost to the forest forever if snags are cut down and hauled away.

Snags are often removed simply because we don’t like the way they look. But if we looked closely, we would see that snags contain even more life than live trees. Hundreds of species of fungi and insects, specialized only to feed on dead wood, inhabit these trees. These organisms in turn feed dozens of other animals who co-evolved with this dead wood resource that used to be abundant in our forests.

Unless we speak up, municipalities and local leaders will bow to pressure and traditional misinformed beliefs that dead trees pose a fire hazard that must be mitigated. We have an opportunity here with the Bear Creek Greenway in the aftermath of the Almeda fire to change our perspective on dead trees and leave a large number of snags for the betterment of our wildlife community. We can challenge ourselves to see the dead trees as sources of future life rather than as reminders of loss. That big scorched cottonwood could someday house a bustling colony of Vaux’s swifts that set out every morning to vacuum up mosquitoes. That small dead alder could soon be an apartment building for bluebirds, swallows, chickadees and woodpeckers. The hollow at the base of that pine snag could be the snug nursery for a family of fox kits.

We have shown great strength and compassion as a community, rising to the challenge of helping our many neighbors displaced by the fire. Now we must do the same for our non-human neighbors. Protection of wildlife habitat is up to all of us.

Lyndia Hammer is a forest ecologist. Pepper Trail is conservation biologist. This opinion is supported by The Freshwater Trust, Rogue Valley Council of Governments, Rogue Valley Audubon Society, Rogue River Watershed Council, Southern Oregon Land Conservancy and the Native Plant Society of Oregon — Siskiyou Chapter.