Oak, weeds making a comeback after fires | PostIndependent.com

Oak, weeds making a comeback after fires

Fire-blackened hills are starting to show faint splatters of green, as native and non-native vegetation vies for new toeholds.

On Red Mountain in West Glenwood Springs, fresh shoots from charred Gambel oak are poking through dirt at the base of the trees and are leafing out with new growth.

As for non-native species in the White River National Forest, recent wildfires scorched out hundreds of acres for them to muscle their way in, but it won’t be known for three to five years whether they’ve spread beyond their pre-fire turfs.

“It depends on how well we tackle the problem,” said Wayne Nelson, a noxious-weed specialist with the White River National Forest.

Nelson said non-native species are an increasing problem on Forest Service lands, even without wildfires that can rid an area of natural vegetation and invite unwanted plant species. Nelson said the 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest has 88,000 acres of noxious weeds or non-native species.

“Throughout out the west, weeds are increasing (their territory) by 14 percent a year,” Nelson said from his office in Glenwood Springs.

When wildfires burn off native vegetation, it reduces the competition weeds face when they try to spread. “But there are a lot of aspects to it,” Nelson said.

For example, weed seeds may be present in an area that’s dominated by native vegetation. With the native vegetation in place, it might be difficult for the non-native seeds to sprout and spread. If the native vegetation is burned off, the native and non-native species start back from scratch.

A worst case scenario is spotted knapweed, which has tripled its coverage in Montana to 11 million acres since the late 1980s, Nelson said.

Spotted knapweed, which is present in Colorado, is at the top of the unwanted list. Nelson said there’s a chemical in the weed which prevents other nearby vegetation from germinating. As a result, spotted knapweed can completely crowd out native vegetation and take over hundreds of acres or more. This can eventually reduce elk habitat, and increase soil erosion, Nelson said.

Thistles, including musk, plumeless and Canadian thistles, are a concern in Colorado but are not considered as harmful because they usually don’t take over 100 percent of an area. “They are fewer and farther between,” Nelson said.

Yellow toadflax is also becoming a bigger problem in the White River National Forest. Nelson said the flax used to be called butter and eggs when people planted it or let it grow in their gardens. As yellow toadflax escaped from backyards and got into the wilds, it has completely taken over some places, like an area at Camp Hale near Leadville.

“It’s really gaining steam,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the White River National Forest has a budget to combat the spread of noxious weeds and non-native species, but the same personnel who fight weeds sometimes have to fight wildfires.

“If I have to pull them away from weed duties, it will have an impact on our accomplishments. That’s one of the tough parts. We only have so many bodies,” Nelson said.

While spotted knapweed and yellow toadflax are non-native species, Gambel oak is very much a native to Colorado and the Western Slope. The most visible stand of burned oak is on Red Mountain and the alluvial fan below it in West Glenwood Springs.

Vince Urbina, a Colorado state forester, said oak spreads through acorns. Burned trees can also regenerate through sprouts from their root crown.

“Aspen do that, and cottonwood. Conifer don’t. When they are burned, they are gone,” Urbina said.

Urbina said with the dry conditions, he’s a little surprised the Gambel oak is already coming back in West Glenwood Springs. Urbina said the new oak will grow back from the sprouts that are only a few inches tall right now, but the burned parts of the tree won’t leaf out again.

The Coal Seam Fire, which started June 8, was the second fire in eight years to claim hundreds of acres of Gambel oak. The Storm King fire in 1994 was fueled by Gambel oak. “It (Storm King) looked like a moonscape,” Urbina said.

Today, the Storm King oaks have come back strong. “It looks like it did before,” Urbina said.

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