The question most asked of Yellowstone's chief plant biologist since last summer's devastating fires is: "What will the park look like in 20 to 30 years?"
While it will take that long to tell for sure, biologist Donald Despain said his short-term projections for the rebirth of plant life inside the nation's oldest and best-known national park are turning out the way he expected."I'm quite pleased that it's working out the way I thought it would," said Despain. "By August I'll know if there are any areas that behaved differently than I expected."
Snow still covers the ground along the Continental Divide and at other high elevations, but tender, new grass shoots are creeping up through the ash and rubble in lower meadows and some forested areas that were burned black last year.
"The grasses have really come back on the non-forested areas," Despain said. "It's still a little early in the spring yet, but some areas are nice and green."
Last September, when the fires were all but out, Despain predicted the meadows would be the first to show green this spring. Even though many of the park's meadows were black at the time, an interwoven network of grass and wildflower roots just below the surface remained alive and well.
Officials will continue to watch the rebirth closely this summer - and the controversial federal policy that otherwise lets naturally-caused fires run their course has been stayed for the summer.
Even the surface erosion has been more slight than was expected, Despain said. Experts were counting on the fallen trees to slow erosion and block the migration toward springs and rivers of silt and ash during the seasonal runoff and after rainstorms. Surprisingly to the experts, the erosion and stream turbidity are well within the limits of pre-fire data, Despain said.
"When you get out there on the places where the snow has already gone, there hasn't been any soil movement," he said. "The ashes, as light as they are, are still there on the soil."
Areas of the park that one year ago were densely covered with aging lodgepole pine trees - which the fires reduced to a collection of black, bristly sticks - will be left just as they are, with the exception of burned trees that could fall on campgrounds or highways. But dead or damaged trees were removed from these areas before the fire, so the removal this summer isn't new, just more extensive.
There will be no supplemental seeding. "Planting seeds would be a departure from natural conditions," he said. So it will be 30 years before the approximately 500,000 acres of forest that was burned black will again be covered with a thriving, new forest.
Even then, signs of the fires will still be visible. "We've got some trees that are still standing from fires 30 years ago."