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Chipmunks, Fire and Forests Spring to Life

April 2010, Nature of Place, NCW Greenways
by Nancy Warner

Look at the ancient, burned-out stump of a cedar and imagine what the land was like 100 years ago. Watch a chipmunk stuff its cheeks with things dug from under a log and picture how this small creature survives the deep snows of winter. Drink in the smell of the warming earth and imagine mushrooms — a taste of spring — sizzling in a pan on your stove.

It was musings such as these that led me to seek out those who could help me get a better sense of the Little Wenatchee and White River area that I fell in love with while camping last summer. I wanted to take what I could see and imagine about this diverse part of Chelan County and hold it up against the observations and knowledge of those with more background and experience in the place. Fortunately, longtime White River Valley resident Paul Gray and U.S. Forest Service research biologist John Lehmkuhl agreed to share their insights.

Born in 1941 and raised in the White River Valley, Paul Gray has learned about the land through direct observation and stories passed down through his family. He remembers quieter times when the grass grew between two wheel tracks in front of his family’s house on White River Road.

Settlement patterns and logging have affected the landscape we see in the Little Wenatchee and White River valleys today. In the White River, Paul says, “there were a lot of people who lived up there between 1900 and 1915 — probably 15 to 20 families.” These early homesteaders cleared and sold the cedar trees for lumber. “After that,” he adds, “someone was a little careless with fire and that pretty much ended the logging by 1915.”

By the late 1930s to early 1940s, the war effort increased the market for lumber. The wetlands at the mouth of Nason Creek were filled and a road was built to support the logging business, Paul says. “That was in the Little Wenatchee because it had the best prime timber. They didn’t start again on the White River until the early ’50s.”

It was during this time that Paul became a “valley watcher” old enough to be aware of the cycle of change he was witnessing. “Fire is an integral part of the whole thing,” he says. “You’ve got willow brush in the bottom and a certain amount of vine maple which resprouts after fires.” Cottonwood and quaking aspen come along later, he notes, followed by white fir, Douglas fir and cedars.

John Lehmkuhl looks at the cycles of change that characterize our forests from another angle — that of a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest research station in Wenatchee. He studies the role that small mammals, including chipmunks, play in the forest ecosystem. “They are a pretty important little animal in the forests around here,” he says. They time their emergence from burrows each spring to coincide with that of the mushrooms and truffles they feed upon. The chipmunks eat the truffles, underground fruits of fungus that are beneficial to trees, but they don’t digest the spores. The spores are disseminated throughout the forest in the chipmunks’ feces, explains John.

John describes how chipmunks and their ability to spread fungal spores contributes to the restoration of the forest. “Mycologists (mushroom specialists), have found that trees that have these fungi are much more productive and grow faster and survive drought conditions better. So if you think about climate change and drier conditions of the summer time you can see how these guys contribute to forest productivity,” he says.

“There are two kinds of chipmunks living in the forests around here,” John explains, “depending upon the density of the forest canopy. There’s the yellow pine chipmunk that lives in the more open forests with ponderosa pine and the slightly larger Townsend’s chipmunk that’s found in the denser forests more like those on the west side of the Cascades.”

Years of fire prevention have increased the proportion of closed-canopy forests in North Central Washington, creating more habitat for Townsend’s chipmunks than probably existed in the past, says John.

“And when we go in there with forest restoration projects where we’re thinning and burning and basically opening up the canopy, we’re reducing the habitat for the Townsend’s chipmunk and increasing it for yellow pine chipmunk,” he says. “I think as we do these treatments, we’re seeing the Townsend’s chipmunk being pushed back toward the crest to where they originally were 100 years ago or more in the closed-canopy forest.”

Connecting With Nature is a program of the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS) that engages the community in telling the story of the diversity of life that makes our region unique. Nancy Warner is the IRIS coordinator.

A Little of the Upper Wenatchee – Chipmunks

John Lehmkuhl talks about chipmunks and red squirrels.

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Chipmunks and Red Squirrels (MP3)

John Lehmkuhl talks about chipmunks and mushrooms.

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Chipmunks and Mushrooms (MP3)

John Lehmkuhl talks about trap happy chipmunks.

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Trap Happy Chipmunks (MP3)

John Lehmkuhl talks about thinking like a chipmunk.

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Thinking Like a Chipmunk (MP3)

A Little of the Upper Wenatchee – Forest and Fire

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Paul Gray talks about fire, sheep and meadows.

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Fire-Sheep-Meadows (MP3)

Paul Gray talks about early settlers in the White River area.

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White River Early Settlers (MP3)

IRIS