What, Me Worry?

Today, a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Forest Service is liable for toxic waste clean-up costs from mining on national forest land. The appeals court remanded the case back to the district court to determine how much the Forest Service would have to pay of the $1 billion in clean-up costs associated with a single molybdenum mine in New Mexico. The case is the first to conclude that the 1872 Mining Act, which gives mineral claimants the right to mine federal land, does not relieve the Forest Service from its CERCLA (“Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act”) responsibility as landowner for the cost of cleaning up toxic wastes.

The unanimous opinion by Reagan, G.W. Bush and Clinton appointees, scolds the Forest Service for dereliction of its duty to regulate mining to avoid spendy clean-up costs:

There is no dispute that the United States held fee title to relevant portions of the Questa mining lands during the time of hazardous substance disposal, part of the area that today comprises the Questa Site. We do not doubt that it could have exercised greater powers, regulatory or otherwise, over the lands if it wanted to do so.

This decision could be a game changer. No longer can the Forest Service or BLM hide behind the 1872 Mining Act and ignore the environmental costs of the mining operations they approve on public lands. Just the existing liability for past mining waste could put a big dent in the Forest Service’s budget, which has a sum total of $0 appropriated for CERCLA clean-up costs.

From here on out, when the Forest Service approves surface occupancy plans for 1872 mining act claims, it had better look carefully at its clean-up liability. Under some scenarios, the Forest Service, as landowner, could be stuck with 100% of the clean-up costs.

Why We Disagree About Fuels Treatment II. Prescribed Burning and Fine Fuels

A prescribed fire in the central Sierra Nevada is set to reduce fuel that could otherwise feed a catastrophic wildfire. (Jason Moghaddas photo) from Berkeley News here

Some of the fuels folks I’ve spoken with think you shouldn’t bother doing mechanical fuels treatment (in forests) unless you also do prescribed burning. The question to me is whether prescribed burning is 1) the only way or 2) the best possible, sort of the gold standard, but in some cases, fuel treatments can work without prescribed burning.

When you think about the world of fine fuels, it is easy to think about subdivisions and how we don’t run fires through them. So I looked at Firewise. In Firewise Zone 3, 100-200 feet from the house, it tells you here

“Zone 3 (High Hazard Areas) Thin this area, although less space is required than in Zone 2. Remove smaller conifers that are growing between taller trees. Remove heavy accumulation of woody debris. Reduce the density of tall trees so canopies are not touching*.”

Which sounds like getting rid of “heavy accumulations”, not exactly the same as burning, or mowing, or raking finer fuels.
(*Question that relates back to the “crown thinning” discussion: is this the same thing as “crown thinning”.. so is Firewise advice “wrong” to people who don’t think crown thinning is helpful for fuels treatments? Am I missing something here?)

Here’s an example of another paper about mastication in the Southwest. It talks about examples in which mastication without burning was successful in changing fire behavior, but it had to do with making sure the fuels were distributed across the site to avoid soil burning. You certainly get a feel for local differences in reading this paper.

I was hoping that there would be one paper that describes the situations where and why people do or don’t do burning and why, and how it works, but it seems that most of this work is thought and written about by fuels practitioners and at the local level based on their own experiences.

Potential Points of Agreement

1. Prescribed burning is generally best for fuels reduction in terms of fine fuels.
2. Due to long- term fire suppression, there are heavy accumulations of biomass in some areas. In these cases, you may need to do some kind of mechanical treatments in advance of prescribed burning, so you can run fire through and not kill them all.
3. There are situations (here, some mastication, and in wildland-urban interface, others?), in which you can’t do prescribed burning and mechanical treatments alone can be still helpful.
4. (I think the mastication paper is very helpful with this) It is hard to generalize because fuels and fire behavior tend to vary locally. Local fuels specialists may know the most about what works and what doesn’t.

Does everyone agree? Do you want to restate/clarify any of these?

(Note: this is not about the cultural, economic and environmental issues related to prescribed fire- that will follow later as we see where everyone is on the utility of prescribed burning for fuel treatments).

Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatment: I. Fuel Treatment Basics and Nomenclature

Fig. 1. Typical increase in surface fuels, ladder fuels, and canopy bulk density in a ponderosa pine forest, 1908–1948, in western Montana. Most
of the historical trees are ponderosa pine, and most of the trees in the more recent photo are Douglas-fir. Photos from Gruell et al., 1982 (figure 19
p. 32). Copied from Agee and Skinner p. 3

One of my favorite climate change books is called “Why We Disagree About Climate Change” by Michael Hulme (here’s a micro-version of the book). In honor of that book, I’m going to call this series “Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatment”. This should be an opportunity to slowly work through observations and conclusions from various practitioner and scientific communities, and see why people disagree.. what they are disagreeing about, specifically, and what evidence can be brought to bear for each point of view.

Starting with the basic fuel treatment nomenclature.. what is a fuel treatment? If we go to the NWCG glossary here they have “Manipulation, including combustion, or removal of fuels to reduce the likelihood of ignition and/or to lessen potential damage and resistance to control.” There might be better definitions (suggestions welcome!) but those are the general ideas. In this comprehensive paper by Jain et al.(with terrific photos IMHO ) “Fuel treatments are designed to meet short-term and long-term fire management objectives. This may include altering fire behavior or influencing post-fire outcomes.”

I guess you can start anywhere, but let’s start with fuel treatment basics. Coneniently, there is a 2005 paper by Jim Agee and Karl Skinner called Basic Principles of Forest Fuel Reduction Treatments.

It has a handy descriptive table:

As Jain et al. say…

When the treatment objective is to change fire behavior and create protected space for active fire suppression, then biomass removal to aid fire suppression efforts tends to follow the suggestions of Agee and Skinner (2005): (1) reduce surface fuels, (2) increase height to live crown, (3) decrease crown density, and (4) keep large trees of fire resistant species. “

Prescribed fire is thought to be the best for reducing surface fuels (this seems to be so broadly believed and obvious that it doesn’t need a citation). But in many cases, you can’t do this without risking a crown fire, and/or burning up all the trees, without removing ladder fuels. Keeping big trees of a fire resistant species is good because you have trees with tree habitat for critters and other tree-lovers (plus I think trees store more carbon ?), plus if they are fire resistant species you can run prescribed fire through there again (or if there is a wildfire, these trees will be fine). Now, the Agee and Skinner table characterizes that as “historic structure” and I guess that’s also a good thing, but you don’t necessarily need to go there- you can choose to keep big trees for the pragmatic current and future purposes that I just described.

Based on all this… fuel treatments remove or rearrange fuels in order to change fire behavior. And where you have forests, you should ideally do 1-4 as in Agee and Skinner to do fuel treatments.

Is everyone in agreement so far? Any additions, clarifications, or ?

Giant Sequoia National Monument

With the general public becoming enraged about Giant Sequoia logging scenarios, here is a picture of some Bigtrees in what used to be the Sequoia National Forest. Chances are, the review will recommend keeping all groves within the Monument, adding some buffer zones and connectivity, then returning a large portion, including logging roads, skid trails, plantations and stumps, back to the National Forest.

The ‘Trumpspiracies’ abound on the Sierra Club’s Facebook fundraising content comments. They make up these elaborate and unlikely situations where the “logging companies” would come in and make wild profits off of cutting Giant Sequoias. Some think that they would be cut to burn for power. More were sure that oil wells and mining would happen once the trees were gone. One insisted that the wood could be exported, milled and made into tables, “destined for the Arabian Peninsula”. Many are comparing this National Monument review to the destruction of historical sites by radical Islam. If you’re going to oppose actual Trump era actions, maybe, just maybe, one should actually use facts?

With Sequoias being a rather sensitive issue, what shall we do, when very soon we will need to thin some of these Giant Sequoia plantations, scattered throughout the Sierra Nevada? Here’s a sample of one on the Eldorado.

Utah counties make plans for federal lands

Sagebrush Rebellion light?

The state required counties to make these plans, which by itself should be a good thing (especially where there has historically been anti-planning sentiment). “This helps us to work with our federal partners to ensure Summit County’s interests are part of the conversation on how federal lands are managed,” said Sean Lewis, a Summit County planner and project manager for the drafting of the plan.  “This provides a template for us to work together with our Forest Service managers,” (Summit County Council member) Carson said. “We want to be partners with them. We don’t want to take stuff over from them and I am confident we will have a lot in common.”  This makes sense.

However, Summit County is a recreational drive from Utah’s urban centers, and we should expect other more isolated counties, with encouragement from anti-federalists, to want to use these plans to impose local control when federal land planning occurs there.  The article refers to the BLM requirement for a “consistency review” of local plans, but the 10th Circuit (New Mexico ex rel. Richardson v. BLM) held that, “A meaningful opportunity to comment is all the regulation requires.”  Nevada was similarly unsuccessful in using this provision to challenge federal planning for sage grouse (Western Exploration v. USDI).

The Forest Service Planning Rule also has requirements to “coordinate” national forest planning with local planning, which some would like to view as a consistency requirement.  But the Planning Rule also says, “The Forest Service retains decisionmaking authority and responsibility for all decisions throughout the process.”  The bottom line is that states have no authority over federal land management.

Court Rules Firefighting Exempt from NEPA

In a case brought by FSEEE, a federal district court judge ruled that forest fires are emergencies; and, as such, firefighting actions are exempt from any form of NEPA documentation. FSEEE filed the case in response to concerns raised by Wenatchee national forest employees that a 30-mile long fuels break logged through spotted owl critical habitat and riparian corridors was unnecessary. The fire stopped six miles from the logged line when rain and snow put it out.

FSEEE will appeal.

Another kind of access challenge

Sometimes the threat to national forest access results from undeveloped private land adjacent to a national forest becoming a subdivision, and here’s an example of that.

In a recent development (described on a subscription-only site) an Aug. 28 hearing has been set in a lawsuit filed by developer Easter Mountain Ranch LLC (EMR) against Cochise County, Arizona.  The county board had denied approval of a tentative subdivision plat for J6 Ranch, a 278-home gated community planned for the northern foothills of the Whetstone Mountains.  The land to be subdivided abuts the Coronado National Forest.  The issue in the case boils down to a requirement by the county for the developer to “provide multi-purpose (vehicle, pedestrian, equestrian, etc.) legal access to federal lands.”  The proposed subdivision would provide a road that dead-ends at the boundary of the national forest where roads are not allowed.

While the lawsuit about whether the developer met this requirement may hinge on the meaning of “access to,” the question I have is what is the Forest Service position and what has their involvement been.  They are not mentioned here.  It seems likely that the county position was an effort to coordinate with the Forest Service, and what exactly that meant should have been on the table for all parties to understand.  But where was the Forest Service?  (There’s nothing on the EMR or J6 Ranch on the Coronado website.)

Then I wonder about what kind of public access will be allowed through a “gated community.”

Ideas And Suggestions Wanted! Forest Service Recreation

West Elk Wilderness, GMUG National Forest. Photo by Robert Tonsing.

As you all know, I’ve been interested in Forest Service recreation for some time. Recreation is the place where human lives are touched by the Forest Service, every day, all year, from the White Mountain to the Cleveland and from the El Yunque to the Chugach. Every age, ability, gender, race, nationality, are out there doing different things- mostly not in conflict with each other. And yet.. and yet Recreation does not seem to have the place of honor it deserves in the Forest Service program pantheon. One question is “what would it look like if it did?”

I volunteered to write an essay for Steve Wilent’s book .. the proposal was posted here.

The purpose of the book is not to criticize the agency, but to offer concrete proposals for how, ultimately, the agency’s operations might be made more efficient and effective and its land-management activities maintained, expanded, and improved. In short, the objective of the book is to examine paths toward a more healthy and resilient US Forest Service.

So I would like to hear from you, from your friends, from anyone. You (or anyone) can send me a post (with photo please) with your thoughts. If you don’t want to do a whole post, you can email me an idea or suggestion. Structure a post it how you want:- strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. Top 10 Tweaks for Forest Service Recreation. Top Five Technologies to Bring FS Recreation into the 21st Century, or ? (since I retired I don’t know the current management buzzwords for Improving Things..)

You can craft a vision or a mundane tiny improvement (one of my friends suggested using texting to pay for payments and donations), or a strategy or a draft piece of legislation, or just about anything. If you work (or have retired from) a unit that has a new innovative approach to something large or small, or has done an experiment that worked, send it in!

And as Steve asked: “Rec is crucial to the USFS’s future, but it sounds like it’s losing control of this service. Or ceding? Or is this concomitant with the budget decline/fire spending/brain drain? I’d like to see you suggest how the agency might get back on top of recreation. What’s needed? More $, sure, but people and policies?

I think that this is the FS’s latest effort, it’s called A Framework for Sustainable Recreation (2010), so I think that’s what they’re pursuing now. FS recreation folks at all levels, current and retired, I’d really appreciate your perspective! So please tell us what you think. If you are hesitant to share your identity, you can send under a pen name and email.

Please send me your posts- terraveritas at gmail.com. Also feel free to send links to other articles and posts preferably sharing why you agree or disagree, and to share with others. I’m looking for an idea tent as big as we can make it. I’ll be posting them as they come in over the summer. We’ll have a chance to bring the highly diverse views and experiences of the internal FS and external readers of this blog to bear on the ideas, which should add a great deal in terms of vetting. And at the end of the summer, beyond the essay itself, we should have a compendium of ideas and suggestions to give to the incoming powers that be, as well as for our own groups to think about.

Thank you!

Montana’s Public Lands/Water Access Association

Thanks to Andy Stahl posted something that I did not want to get overlooked because it was a comment in this previous post. It’s the existence of a not-for-profit in Montana, the Public Land Water Access Association with the mission:

“to maintain, restore, and perpetuate public access to the boundaries of all Montana public land and waters.” This presumably includes county, state and federal.

Check out the kind of work they’re doing.. it’s pretty impressive. Does anyone know of similar groups in other states? Seems like they have a good format and approach already figured out that could be copied.

Trump Reportedly Wants to Clearcut Giant Sequoias

As per the Sierra Club

“Logging companies are lying in wait, chainsaws ready, for Trump to chop the protections of Giant Sequoia National Monument.

Don’t let Trump give loggers free reign to fell majestic trees. Become a monthly donor to save this precious ecosystem: http://sc.org/2upyrE6 ”

Leave no funding opportunity left unexploited!