Anthony C. Caprio (ed.), Science and Natural Resources Division
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California
The Mineral King Risk Reduction Project (MKRRP) was initiated out of a need to assess the operational requirements and cost effectiveness of large scale prescribed burning for wildland management in a setting altered by a century of fire suppression. The local objectives of the project are to initiate the reduction of unnatural fuel accumulations (these accumulations can create hazardous conditions for visitors, developments, and natural resources) and begin restoration of ecosystem structure and function within the East Fork drainage of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. However, because the scale of the project is unprecedented, a number of integrated monitoring and research projects were also initiated to assess the impacts and responses of key components of the watershed to prescribed fire. Additional projects have also been initiated to utilize this opportunity to gain additional insights into fire's role in Sierran ecosystems. These projects and their results are important in providing information about short- or long-term resource responses and impacts when burning at this scale, a relatively new management strategy, and whether the planned objectives for the MKRRP are being met. This information will feed back into management planning and permit modification and fine tuning of the burn program in addition to providing information to the public and policy makers.
Support for the monitoring and research projects is coming from a variety of sources. Projects funded directly out of the Mineral King Risk Reduction Project include fire effects monitoring, fuel and wildlife inventories, and a study on the relationship between fuel loads and fire impacts on giant sequoia fire scars. Other projects are using resources from within and the Sequoia and Kings Canyon Field Station (Biological Resources Division of the USGS). These include natural resource inventory, watershed hydrology, stream chemistry, resampling old vegetation plots, and fire history. Cooperative research projects are also underway using the dedication, energy, and support of graduate students from several universities (University of California, Davis; University of California, Berkeley [partially funded by the MKRRP and the Biological Resources Division of the USGS]; and the University of Virginia). New research projects being initiated during 1997 include a fire effects/remote sensing study of red fir forest (UC Berkeley) and a watershed sediment transport study (USGS).
Several noteworthy observations or findings were made by the monitoring/research projects during 1995/1996. The small mammal trapping project found that small mammal populations roughly doubled in the burned sequoia plot compared to preburn population densities. Fire effects plots showed overstory tree mortality varied by vegetation type: 0% red fir forest, 35% sequoia forest (no mortality of overstory sequoias was noted), and 82% in ponderosa pine forest. These plots also showed total fuel reductions of 67% (ponderosa pine forest) to 94% (red fir forest). A significant increase in giant sequoia seedlings was noted in the burned Atwell sequoia plots. Watershed sampling completed its first full water year of sampling, providing preburn data on trends within the East Fork. Initial results suggest similar annual shifts in flow, pH, and ANC (acid neutralization capacity) when compared to other Sierran watersheds.
No burning was carried out in the watershed in 1996 (2,100 ac were burned during 1995) due to the severity of the fire season (over 11,000 ac were burned in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and six millions acres in the western United states during 1996) and the scarcity of resources for carrying out the burning at this scale. Burn plans for 1996 will carry over into 1997.
The MKRRP area encompasses 21,202 ha (52,369 ac) within the East Fork watershed with elevations ranging from 874 m (2,884 ft) to 3,767 m (12,432 ft). Vegetation of the area is diverse, varying from foothills chaparral and hardwood forests at lower elevations to alpine vegetation at elevations above about 3,100 m (10-11,000 ft). About 80% of the watershed is vegetated with most of the remainder being rock outcrops located on steep slopes and at high elevations.