The Afterlife of Trees

This fallen tree is already in an advanced state of decay. As it recycles back into the soil, it adds nitrogen and other nutrients and helps retain water.

The smoke choking our valleys reminds me that it has been 29 years since much of Yellowstone National Park burned in the fires of 1988. Since then, we have had major forest fires in every western state, leaving many thousands of blackened acres. Following a fire, woodcutters, loggers and concerned citizens all marvel at the “waste” and wonder what can be done to utilize the wood before it rots away.

A closer look at dead trees though, shows that their afterlife is as important as the services they provided while living. From an ecological standpoint, their usefulness is just beginning once they die. There really isn’t waste in nature—waste is a human concept.

It is no surprise that decaying matter is important for soil building. Gardeners have been using this very process for many years to build soils by composting organic matter. More recently, no-till farming has been using the same process by leaving crop waste (i.e., straw) on the field. As the organic material builds up and decays, it enriches the soil and better retains water.

Dead leaves, needles and dead trees themselves are the critical soil building engine in forests. Fires may remove much of the finer organic matter making the trees themselves all that much more important in restoring and maintaining soil. My daughter-in-law recently sent me a link ( to a fascinating article that highlighted the importance of organic matter to a forest. Researchers dumped 12,000 metric tons of orange juice waste (peels and pulp) on a relatively small plot of ground in Costa Rica and basically forgot about it for 16 years. When they finally went back to look at it, the result was astounding. The plot with the orange waste had a forest that far exceeded all the surrounding forest—the compost made the difference.

However, with trees, this recycling is a s-l-o-w process and a variable one too. One research model predicts that it takes from 57 to 124 years for a conifer species to decompose and fully add to the soil. But so much of that depends on the climate. Warm wet coastal areas have much higher rates of decomposition than cooler interior areas where the complete decomposition may take an estimated 200 years.

The rate of decomposition is also species specific. For instance, spruces have far less resin than pines and decompose up to three times faster than a similar-sized pine tree. That is because the insects that thrive on wood and help its decay—ants, termites, wood wasps, beetle and butterfly larvae and more—are all dissuaded by high resin content.

While these trees are slowly rotting away, they provide habitat for a number of wildlife species. Black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers, for instance, are actually attracted to large burned areas where they find a goldmine of foraging opportunity for up to five years. Other woodpecker species are attracted to the burned trees as well.

Several years ago, a research project in Island Park found that downed logs are the bread and butter for grizzly bears at certain times of year. It is not that the bears are eating the logs. These logs are full of little protein packets in the form of ants and ant larvae and are an important component of a grizzly’s diet in that area.  

If a forest fire happened today, our great-great-great-grandkids might stand upon the last crumbling remains of its logs. If we can have the courage and the discipline to let that happen, the forest canopy that will shade them will be healthy and vibrant, nourished by the very fire we saw as devastation. They will have proof that a burned forest is not a dead forest.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho