What 2020 taught me about ecological and emotional resilience

What 2020 taught me about ecological and emotional resilience

Conservation Northwest / Jan 04, 2021 / Columbia Highlands, Colville Wild, Forest Field Program, Our Staff

Just as an old-growth tree serves as the ecological backbone of a resilient forest, a strong emotional foundation can help people get through hard times.

By Tiana Luke, Colville Forest Lead

Much of my work as part of the Forest Field Team centers on ecological resilience. Whether that is increasing ecological resilience—so wildfires burn within the historical range of variability, so watersheds recover from anthropogenic influence, so wildlife populations can rebound or relocate after disturbances—or improving resilience to climate change, it is at the forefront of my work.

It is as if most of my advocacy work can be summed up like this:

A big ponderosa pine in northeast Washington. Large, old trees are the indicators of resilient dry and mesic forests. Photo: Tiana Luke.

What do we want? Ecological resilience!

When do we want it? Now!

Why do we want it? So that wildlife and habitats persist through the threats of anthropogenic climate change, habitat loss and irresponsible land management! So that we can mitigate the effects of the sixth mass extinction! So we can prevent irreversible feedback loops from sending the world into treacherous and fatal territory!

Or something like that.

Resilience indicates that the system is not static. Environmental writer Edward Abbey once said if you find a piece of wilderness you particularly like, never return to that place because it will never be the same (for a critique of Edward Abbey, check out Desert Cabal by Amy Irving). He was only half right. It’s slightly cliché to say, but change is the only constant. We need to embrace change. Embrace transformation in the forest, in the sagelands, in your heart, and in your mind.

Our forests in Washington were built on change. In northeast Washington, disturbances such as wildland fire and insect and diseases have shaped these forests for thousands of years. And for thousands of years, the Indigenous people of the area, who are still here today, practice traditional ecological knowledge like prescribed burning to shape the landscape. In turn, the forest mosaic influences how these disturbances move through the forest.

Fire moves differently through the forest depending on past actions. Suppose a ponderosa pine forest is full of big, old-growth trees in natural, clumped patterns, with ample space between those clumps. In that case, fire will likely move through it at a low intensity, ideally every 15-20 years or so without fire suppression. When this low-intensity and high-frequency fire moves through the forest, it will kill some younger trees, maybe even a big tree or two, but most will remain. And importantly, the forest’s structure and function will remain despite the apparent changes. I would call that forest resilient.

Colville Forest Lead Tiana Luke hikes along Colt Killed Creek in Idaho.

Let’s visit another ponderosa pine forest, but this one has very few or no large, old trees, with many evenly-spaced, medium-sized trees instead. A wildfire in the area likely won’t occur as low-intensity. This forest most likely hasn’t had a fire in more than 15-20 years; maybe it’s been closer to 70 years. In this forest, a fire will burn at a high-intensity, which is uncharacteristic, resulting in more killed trees.

This type of forest is often a result of undesirable past management like old-growth logging, clear-cutting and fire suppression. These types of actions resulted in non-resilient forests. When disturbances move through these types of forests, they are often damaged severely, and recovery takes a lot longer. Additionally, the climate crisis makes uncharacteristic fire more probable and can increase recovery time.

Fortunately, we can improve resilience in the forest. We can mimic the natural disturbances using ecological forest restoration. We can support the growth of younger trees into large, old trees. Natural disturbances act at and respond at the landscape-level, and this is the scale at which we must plan ecological forest restoration. This way, we can return the natural processes, structure and function at all scales.

Of utmost importance to ecological forest restoration is restoring and promoting large, old trees. Old-growth forests provide disproportionately high ecological value as wildlife habitat, carbon storage and resilience to natural disturbance. Scientists have described large, old trees as the ecological backbone of dry and mesic forests. Old-growth trees are the foundation that aids resilience, just like a strong emotional foundation, which can help people get through hard times.

Bald Snow on the Kettle Crest in northeast Washington’s Colville National Forest. Photo: Tiana Luke

Through my work with the Forest Field Team, I advocate for projects to incorporate landscape-scale planning. For example, when we objected to the Sanpoil project as part of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, we were concerned about whether the project adequately trended towards landscape resiliency. And on upcoming projects, such as Dollar and Tonata/Trout, we’re asking that spatially explicit landscape evaluations are used as a diagnostic tool to determine restoration efforts.

Earlier this year, I returned to a camping spot at the edge of a roadless area in Idaho that damn well should be wilderness already, kind of like the Kettle Crest. I was looking forward to this spot, having camped there two years prior, caught large cutthroat on the fly, and hiked miles of beautiful trail along a stream.

A cutthroat trout. Photo: Tiana Luke

But there was a sign saying the area was closed. The access to the roadless area was actually private industrial timberland, and it had been logged. The timber harvest wasn’t ecological forest restoration, it was industrial logging for economic gain, and it pissed me off. My pristine, almost-wilderness was gone. I still grieve for the beauty of that place. Change isn’t always right, and change doesn’t always result in better outcomes; sometimes, it just sucks. Change doesn’t equate to resilience. Not all management actions in the forest are ecological restoration.

Mid-summer, as my brain slightly lifted from the fog and exhaustion of chronic stress, overwhelm, and the grief of 2020, the similarities and comparisons between ecological resilience and emotional resilience were elucidated. I noted that as these disturbances toppled, burned and flooded my life, I was bent for a while—maybe even a little cracked.

But I was never afraid that I wasn’t going to be okay. I knew I would rebound. Sure, life would continue to be challenging, grief-riddled and heartbreaking, but it would also be beautiful, heart fulfilling and joyful. And I knew I would never be the same. The ongoing challenges of 2020 have changed me, increased my emotional resilience, built new scars and prompted new growth.

Eventually, the forest will recover from past actions that have led to decreased resilience, but the forest will never be as it was before, and that’s okay. And eventually, I too will recover will from the ongoing trials and tribulations 2020 has brought forth, and I’ll be more resilient because of it all.

Learn more about our FOREST FIELD PROGRAM, or efforts to secure permanent protections for wilderness in northeast Washington through our COLVILLE WILD CAMPAIGN.
Copper Butte, along the Kettle Crest on the Colville National Forest. One of several wildlands in northeast Washington that should have permanent protections. Photo: Tiana Luke