By Ann McCreary
After the Rising Eagle Road Fire raged across his property last August, leaving the house intact but surrounded by stands of charred pine trees, Ken Bevis decided to make lemonade out of lemons — or wildlife habitat out of burned trees, to be more exact.
On Monday (Nov. 24), local tree cutter Owen Almquist was at work with his chain saw, topping dead trees on Bevis’s property on Rising Eagle Road to create homes for cavity-dwelling critters.
The burned trees in the area scorched by the Rising Eagle Road Fire already show signs that fire-adapted species have made themselves at home. Blackened tree trunks are missing chunks of bark where beetles have bored in, followed by woodpeckers that peck the bark away to get at the bugs.
Bevis is a stewardship wildlife biologist, and his work includes educating people about the important role that dead trees play in the ecosystem. For instance, snags and down logs are critical habitat for about 40 percent of forest-dwelling wildlife species, Bevis said.
So after the green forest around him was burnt to a crisp in a matter of hours last August, Bevis decided to walk the walk.
“The real irony of this is that as a forest wildlife biologist I’ve spent 20 years going around talking about the value of snags as wildlife habitat — and now I’m the owner of a snag patch,” Bevis said with a laugh.
Bevis hired Almquist to take the tops off about eight trees. Almquist used his chain saw to create a jagged top, so that the trees look as if they have cracked and broken naturally, and to expose more inner surface for fungus to enter and begin the process of decaying.
At Bevis’s suggestion, Almquist also made deep cuts down into the centers of some tree trunks to create cavities where bats can roost.
After fungus has helped the tree trunk rot and soften, woodpeckers will build nesting cavities in the trunks. Other animals — including bluebirds, small owls, kestrels, tree swallows, squirrels, chipmunks and raccoons — will use the cavities left behind by the woodpeckers.
Taking the top off reduces the weight in the upper part of the tree and makes it less likely that the tree will fall over, Bevis said.
Burned trees that present a hazard of falling on property, roads or people should be removed, Bevis advises. But he encourages landowners with dead trees that aren’t hazards to consider topping them and leaving them for habitat trees.
When the trees eventually fall, they help hold soil in place and as they decay they put organic matter into the soil, while also providing habitat for forest animals.
“We have this collective perception of dead trees being waste, or bad. In a forest ecology standpoint … black trees are an element of recovery,” he said.
Almquist said people interested in topping trees should consider doing so by next summer, because burned trees will probably become too brittle within a year or so for tree cutters to safely climb. At that point the work could also be done using a truck with a cherry picker, he said.