SAWTOOTH HUCKLEBERRY FIELDS — On a blue-sky late September afternoon high in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, firefighters from the Forest Service and the Yakama Tribe waited, drip torches in hand, for the state to give the go-ahead so they could set the woods on fire.
When the green light came, they marched into a thinned mixed-conifer stand bordering the road, spaced themselves along the boundaries of a 20-acre plot, and began igniting huckleberry bushes and low-lying shrubs and grasses. Flames skipped across the forest floor and laddered into the crown of a tall subalpine fir. Smoke billowed into the clear sky. The hiss and pop of burning needles filled the air.
The burn was over in a few minutes, the shrubs and bushes charred, the smoke quickly dispersing.
The next day crews burned another 70 acres. As they finished up, the fall rains arrived, dampening chances they’ll complete the project this year.
For the staff of the forest’s Mount Adams Ranger District, the prescribed burn on September 23 and 24 was a first, and the culmination of four years of planning.
For fire crews from the Yakama Tribe, it was a familiar practice. For many generations, the tribe has burned these forests regularly to open the canopy and assure a bountiful huckleberry harvest.
Retired Forest Service archeologist Cheryl Mack consulted with Yakama tribal elders in the early stages of designing the project. On Sept. 23, she came to watch the burn.
“The entire Sawtooth is a traditional cultural property,” she said. “What we want to do with huckleberry restoration is what the Native Americans did. When they were the sole residents of the area, they used fire to maintain these fields. Huckleberries are considered a sacred food to the Yakama.”
“I think the tribes were very opportunistic,” said fire crew leader Gail Bouchard. “When there were dry conditions, they would set fires and just let them burn.”
The Yakama still burn their land — typically 5,000 to 6,000 acres annually near Mt. Adams in spring and fall, said Jack Hagerty, fuels management leader for the tribe. The late September burn was a promising start for the Forest Service, he said.
“I think I’d like to see a little more of it,” he said. “It would help out not only with the berries but with forest health.”
The Yakama have a stake in the productivity of the huckleberry fields located on national forest land. Under a 1932 handshake agreement between a Yakama chief and a Forest Service supervisor, tribal members have exclusive use of part of the high-elevation Sawtooth fields.
The Forest Service hopes to burn another 65 acres in October to complete the project.
“If we have a sustained dry period of 10 days, we may attempt to go in there this year,” Bouchard said. “If not, where the remaining burn is to occur, there is sufficient slash that we would be able to burn it next year.”
Though the stand was pre-thinned and slash was piled up around the trees to provide more fuel, it was still a low-intensity burn. For the most part, “we only burned needles and twigs,” Bouchard said. “Where there were sufficient red needles, the berries burned.”
The Yakama use such “jackpot burns,” Hagerty said, but they also burn slash and ignite complete underburns, which result in a higher rate of combustion.
Preserving a culturally important wild food is one of the project’s goals. But wild huckleberries are a cash crop for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest as well. Sale of commercial permits for the juicy, sweet-tart berries brought in $41,000 in 2010. People are allowed to harvest up to three gallons annually for personal use at no charge.
The exclusion of fire from national forests over the past century has allowed the forests to encroach on the popular huckleberry fields.
“We think the last time the Native Americans built a fire in this area was in 1905,” Mack said. “Since 1910, fire has been kept out of this area purposely by the Forest Service. Since that time, the forests have grown up. Trees have shaded out the huckleberries. “
“Huckleberries like light,” said Forest Service silviculturist Jon Nakae. “Competition from trees over time reduces the plants’ ability to fruit.”
Deliberately setting fires on public land requires balancing many values.
Huckleberry bushes sprout from underground rhizomes, so it’s important to protect the soil from intense heat. Air quality is a major concern because the Sawtooth fields lie about 12 miles from Mt. Adams and an equal distance from Mount St. Helens. Both are Class 1 airsheds and are protected under the federal Clean Air Act.
The state is in charge of smoke management and sets rules about when prescribed burns can occur. Project leaders found out shortly before the Sept. 23 burn start time that the state strictly limits prescribed burns from Friday through Sunday between June 15 and Oct. 1, to avoid conflicts with hikers and campers. The burn would be limited to 20 acres.
The frustration was obvious. “It’s really difficult for us to find the right conditions to burn,” Nakae said. “This makes it even more difficult.”
In the project’s early planning stages, the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, a Portland-based environmental group, worried that the Forest Service would cut too many large old trees in its pre-thinning operations and asked that one old-growth unit be deleted from the project.
Several large trees were retained in the thinning, Bouchard said. But she pointed out that the goal is to open the berry fields to more light.
“The bigger ones were not cut,” she said. “Some will burn. We were trying to retain a 15 percent canopy cover. We would have liked to have taken more of the canopy out.”
Though the Forest Service might not burn the approximately 160 acres this year, “I think we’ll learn a lot from what we did achieve,” Bouchard said. “If we had not burned that lighter area, we would not be able to get to it next year. There would not be enough fine fuel left” after a wet winter, she said.
How soon will the Forest Service be able to gauge the success of the project? Predictions vary.
“We’ll know next year,” Bouchard said. “We should see evidence of new sprouting next year on every plant affected. As for berry production, no one really knows. “
Just across the road, the Forest Service did a trial burn in 2009. “We’ve seen no new berries yet,” she said.
“Usually, you’ll start seeing some (increased huckleberry productivity) in the second year,” Hagerty said. “The biggest majority is in three to four years.”
Because huckleberries regenerate from underground, “when the tops burn off, the plants will respond,” Nakae said. “It will take at least five years before the bush starts producing huckleberries again. The hope is that the plants will be more vigorous.”
Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523; Twitter: col_politics; email@example.com.