How Much Is Enough?

Snowing on the Soup Complex Sept 22, 2016

On September 17, an arsonist is suspected of setting six fires along a remote one-mile stretch of gravel road near the Soup Springs campground on the edge of the Modoc’s South Warner Wilderness. Four of the fires were contained promptly at less than a half-acre each and a fifth was held to less than 300 acres after a couple of days. The sixth, called “Soup 2,” escaped initial attack. Blown by westerly prevailing winds, it moved uphill to the sparsely-vegetated wilderness where, over the course of a week, it burned about 2,200 acres.

From their outset, these ignitions threatened one “uninhabited structure.” Details regarding the structure are unknown. But, of one thing I’m confident, it’s not worth the $5.4 million spent fighting this fire.

On day 2, for example, over 900 firefighters were assigned to the fire as it burned largely, and appropriately, unchecked into the wilderness. On day 3 alone, the Forest Service spent $909,655!

Why spend so much money watching a fire burn into the wilderness, with nothing of consequence threatened and season-ending rain in the forecast? One explanation might be the $2.3 million in “indirect” costs the Modoc national forest is allowed to charge to the fire. With the fiscal year about to expire at the end of September, every national forest has an incentive to spend as much as possible against the agency’s $1.6 billion wildfire suppression account. Which may help explain how the Forest Service managed to spend its largest fire appropriation in history during a decidedly uneventful national forest fire season.

Study: Protected Forests on Public Land Burn Less Than Severely Logged Areas

This article, “Study Finds Protected Forests on Public Land Burn Less Than Severely Logged Areas,” discusses a study on Ecosphere (full text – open access).

Note that the study was performed by three activists who are strongly opposed to logging: Curtis M. Bradley (Center for Biological Diversity), Chad T. Hanson (John Muir Project), Dominick A. DellaSala (Geos Institute).

From their paper’s conclusion: “In general, our findings—that forests with the highest levels of protection from logging tend to burn least severely—suggest a need for managers and policymakers to rethink current forest and fire management direction, particularly proposals that seek to weaken forest protections or suspend environmental laws ostensibly to facilitate a more extensive and industrial forest–fire management regime.”

Study: Managing fire, rather than suppressing it, makes wilderness areas more resilient to fire

The following is a press release from the University of California-Berkeley. mk

A severe fire cleared an area of forest in the Illilouette Creek Basin in Yosemite National Park, allowing it to become a wetland. Wetlands and meadows provide natural firebreaks that make the area less prone to catastrophic fires. Scott Stephens photo

A severe fire cleared an area of forest in the Illilouette Creek Basin in Yosemite National Park, allowing it to become a wetland. Wetlands and meadows provide natural firebreaks that make the area less prone to catastrophic fires. Scott Stephens photo

 — An unprecedented 40-year experiment in a 40,000-acre valley of Yosemite National Park strongly supports the idea that managing fire, rather than suppressing it, makes wilderness areas more resilient to fire, with the added benefit of increased water availability and resistance to drought.

After a three-year, on-the-ground assessment of the park’s Illilouette Creek basin, University of California, Berkeley researchers concluded that a strategy dating to 1973 of managing wildfires with minimal suppression and almost no preemptive, so-called prescribed burns has created a landscape more resistant to catastrophic fire, with more diverse vegetation and forest structure and increased water storage, mostly in the form of meadows in areas cleared by fires.

“When fire is not suppressed, you get all these benefits: increased stream flow, increased downstream water availability, increased soil moisture, which improves habitat for the plants within the watershed. And it increases the drought resistance of the remaining trees and also increases the fire resilience because you have created these natural firebreaks,” said Gabrielle Boisramé, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and first author of the study.

Boisramé and co-author Sally Thompson, a UC Berkeley ecohydrologist and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, found that even in the drought years covered by the study, the basin retained more water than similar areas outside the park. That translated into more runoff into the Upper Merced River, which flows through Yosemite Valley, at a time when other rivers in the surrounding areas without a restored fire regime showed the same or decreased flow.

“We know that forests are deep-rooted and that they have a large leaf area, which means they are both thirsty and able to get to water resources,” Thompson said. “So if fire removes 20 percent of that demand from the landscape, that frees up some of the water to do different things, from recharging groundwater resources to supporting different kinds of vegetation, and it could start to move into the surface water supplies as stream flow.”

The study was published in this month’s issue of the journal Ecosystems.

If the results are confirmed from other studies, including the UC Berkeley team’s new project analyzing the Sugarloaf Creek Basin in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, they could alter the way the federal government as well as water districts deal with fire, benefiting not only the forest environment but potentially also agriculture and cities because of more runoff into streams and reservoirs.

“I think it has the potential to change the conversation about wildfire management,” said co-author Scott Stephens, a fire expert and UC Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy and management who has studied the Illilouette basin since 2002.

This “wildfire management” strategy is counter to the federal government ‘s 110-year-old Smokey Bear policy, which is followed throughout the West and emphasizes suppressing fires wherever they occur for fear they will get out of control. With persistent drought and a warming climate, the U.S. Forest Service budget is increasingly going to firefighting. On most federal land, only forest thinning and human-initiated prescribed burns are allowed as a way to manage the trees and underbrush.

Stephens noted, however, that these agencies have recognized the folly of total suppression – thanks in part to his own studies throughout the Sierra Nevada over several decades – and current draft wildland management policies for three of the state’s national forests allow active wildfire management in up to 60 percent of the forests.

The value of forest clearings

Wildfire management, as opposed to suppression, comes with major changes in the way the forest looks, Stephens and Thompson said. Unlike the dense stands of pine and fir most people associate with Yosemite and similar mid-elevation Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain forests, the Illilouette Creek basin has thinner forests and more clearings with dead trees.

“There is much more dramatic structural change in this forest than most people would probably feel comfortable with,” he said. “You are talking about low-density forests and gaps of 4 or 5 acres, up to maybe 100 acres. These are the result of major fires about every decade or so, large enough to cause tree scarring and affecting as much as one-quarter of the basin.”

These fire-caused clearings, however, act as natural fire breaks and make the area resistant to catastrophic fires such as the 2013 Rim Fire in the western part of the park, which burned 250,000 acres and left patches up to 20,000 acres in extent in which not a single conifer tree survived. These areas could take a century to recover, Stephens said.

“In the Illilouette basin we lost about 20 percent of the forest cover, but there was a 200 percent increase in wetland vegetation: meadows starting to reemerge from forests that have probably encroached on historical locations,” Thompson said. “That sets us up to think that this new regime should be leakier as far as water goes — leaky in the way that suits us as a society.”

Even if these wildfire management techniques don’t produce more runoff, Thompson added, “I think it is a fabulous result in terms of forest management if you end up with a healthier forest with some better intact aquatic habitat, even if you don’t see a drop of water further downstream. It is still the right thing to do from an ecological point of view.

“Bottom line, this strategy might be a triple win-win-win for water, forest structure and fire risk,” she said.

The ‘jewel’ of Yosemite National Park

The findings are the culmination of a 14-year study led by Stephens and his UC Berkeley colleagues to learn how monitoring natural, lightning-caused fires with a bias toward letting them burn affects the landscape, the vegetation and the groundwater. Only four areas in the western U.S., including two in California – the Illilouette Creek basin and the Sugarloaf Creek basin – have allowed lightning fires to burn in large areas for decades.

Most studies of different ways to manage wildland fires have been limited to a few hundred acres, and it’s hard to extrapolate from such limited experiments to an entire forest. Luckily, Yosemite National Park started its experiment in 1973 – spurred by a 1963 report authored by the late UC Berkeley forester Starker Leopold – to let nature take its course in the Illilouete Creek watershed, stepping in only when fires in the basin threatened to get out of control or sent too much smoke into Yosemite Valley two miles to the northwest.

“This is the first study that looks at fire regime restoration on a watershed scale with empirical data,” he said. “Others do smaller areas or modeling, but this is 40,000 acres – a big place – over many years.”

One reason the basin was chosen was that it was surrounded by granite walls, which naturally prevented fires from spreading outside the basin. It had not been burned by the indigenous tribes of the region, which often set fires to increase acorn production, and had no history of prescribed burns. In fact, it saw only natural, lightning-caused fires except for an interval of nearly a century – 1875 to 1972 – when the park suppressed all fires.

While Stephens and his many students documented the changes in fire over the past 400 years, Boisramé and Thompson analyzed aerial photos to document vegetation change. Then, with the help of installed sensors and more than 3,000 soil moisture measurements throughout the basin, the team was able to estimate the amount of water in the landscape today versus in the past. They found similar or marginally drier conditions where forests had been replaced with shrubs, but these were balanced by much wetter conditions in small areas where meadows expanded.

They observed more snow reaching the ground because of the clearings, and more snow remaining during the spring, delaying runoff. And in recent drought years, when surrounding basins saw more trees die, there was almost no tree mortality in the Illilouette basin.

“In order to really understand whether this approach should be part of our management toolkit, I would recommend that we give it a crack in a few other places,” Thompson said. “This appears to be a promising management strategy without significant harm and with several very strongly quantifiable benefits and several very suggestive outcomes.”

Boisramé, who spent the past four summers sampling and camping in the Illilouette Creek basin, emphasized that this is not a strategy that would work everywhere. But in wildernesss areas where wildfire management is being considered because of its safety benefits – to reduce underbrush and eliminate fuel for out-of-control and catastrophic fires that risk lives and property – the ecological and hydrological benefits are a big bonus. Areas with similar elevation and climatic conditions to the Illilouette basin, and thus perhaps suitable for managed wildfire, comprise about 18 percent of the Sierra Nevada, though the strategy may work at lower elevations as well.

“The whole ecosystem will be better off if we let the natural fire process back in,” she said.

The research was supported by a grant from the federal Joint Fire Science Program.

NW Forest Plan Poll

“Clean water tops wish list in Northwest as feds revise plan,” according to an article on Greenwire about a poll of 600 registered voters in counties in Washington, Oregon and California, commissioned by the Wilderness Society.

The results of the poll are here. As with most polls, the wording of the questions can have a strong influence on the responses. In this case, the questions seem framed to mirror the activities and outcomes desired by the Wilderness Society. For example, to this question:

“Let me read you some specific components of ways that have been suggested to revise the Northwest Forest Plan and get your reaction. For each, please tell me if you would favor or oppose that component.”

These are the components given to respondents:

Improve trails and campgrounds to enhance recreation opportunities.

Prioritize restoring forests to their natural conditions.

Limit logging and road building within 300 feet of rivers, lakes, and streams.

Limit logging and road building in old-growth forests.

Limit the use of clear cut logging operations.

Designate certain areas to be managed primarily for carbon storage, which will minimize impacts of climate change.

Restrict road building in areas where roads can interfere with the movement of wildlife.

What do you think? Is is a fair and balanced poll?

Hunting Season

This curious deer climbed to the top of the cliffs I was on, just to find out what was making the noise. As he came into view, I turned to see him scampering away, into the morning sun. Somehow, I got him to stop and pose for me, by making a little squeaky noise. I couldn’t see a thing but, I took the picture, anyway. Good luck, hunters!

I do have a new Instagram account at Enjoy!


Supreme Court on ESA Consultations

Excerpt from this article:

The Supreme Court let stand a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that allowed anyone to sue the Forest Service for Endangered Species Act consultations not just over specific actions such as timber harvests but over programmatic decisions, including decisions that already have been the focus of species consultations (U.S. Forest Serv. v. Cottonwood Envtl. Law Ct., U.S., No. 15-1387, 10/11/16).

The Forest Service argued the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, concerned about the threatened Canada lynx, lacked standing to sue over programmatic policies rather than specific actions. The service also argued against being forced to reinitiate consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over completed forest plans — a precedent that could impose significant burdens on the agency in terms of multiple rounds of program consultations.

The Cottonwood Environmental Law Center sued for additional consultations after critical habitat was designated for the Canada lynx.


ICYMI – Federal court blocks logging in Wild and Scenic Selway canyon

In case you missed it, below is a joint press release from Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater and Advocates for the West. Interested readers can also find a handy link toU.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale’s ruling to see what the clearcuts and roads planned by the U.S. Forest Service in the Selway and Middle Fork Clearwater Wild and Scenic Rivers didn’t hold up in a court of law. -mk

MAY 13, 2016 – A federal court order issued late yesterday protects the Selway and Middle Fork Clearwater Wild and Scenic rivers from clear cuts and roads planned by the U.S. Forest Service following the 2014 Johnson Bar Fire.

Two Idaho conservation groups – Idaho Rivers United and Friends of the Clearwater – argued that the Forest Service violated its duties to protect the Selway and Middle Fork Clearwater rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and also failed to fully evaluate cumulative environmental impacts along with other private and state land logging and 2015 fires in the same area.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale agreed. She faulted the agency for failing to adopt a comprehensive river management plan as required by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act more than 20 years ago.

“Without objective, predetermined criteria, the public is left to trust the Forest Service’s ‘word’ that it considered all relevant factors necessary to protecting the Middle Fork Clearwater and Selway Rivers’ Wild and Scenic values and that the Project will not affect or have minimal impact upon the Wild and Scenic values,” she wrote.

The Court also agreed the Forest Service failed to fully assess how the Johnson Bar project may cause mass erosion and sedimentation into area streams, which are habitat for imperiled salmon, steelhead and bull trout. She found the agency’s sediment delivery estimates “do not appear to accurately represent the Project’s overall sedimentation delivery to the river system.”

IRU Conservation Director Kevin Lewis said the Selway, one of America’s eight original Wild and Scenic Rivers, is too precious a resource for such haphazard work.

“The Selway and Middle Fork Clearwater Rivers are among the crown jewels of our nation’s river systems, as Congress recognized back in 1968 when it protected them as the first rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,” Lewis said.  “This is an important court ruling enforcing Congressional direction that these are to be protected for present and future generations.”

Laird Lucas, executive director of Advocates for the West, was lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

“The Forest Service has not been candid with the public about this massive logging project that threatens harm to the Wild and Scenic rivers and their important fish populations,” Lucas said. “Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a federal court order to enforce the law and tell the Forest Service to do its job as Congress has directed.”

Friends of the Clearwater Ecosystem Defense Director Gary Macfarlane said the Forest Service has already damaged Wild and Scenic values along the Selway via state and private timber sales.

“We are pleased the federal court is willing to stand up and insist that the Wild and Scenic be protected,” he said.

Citing irreparable harm, the judge’s order blocks logging until the case is fully resolved.

Since May of 2015, IRU and allies have vigorously opposed two separate logging operations that would seriously degrade the Wild and Scenic values of the Selway River. To date, we’ve successfully blocked and won the first case and have won an emergency injunction on the second. Below is a chronology of the two cases.

Illegal Use Of Road In Wild And Scenic Corridor

  • May 19, 2015: IRU and local property owners file a suit seeking to protect the Wild and Scenic values of the Selway River by focusing on federal road access to state land.
  • July 10, 2015: Citing irreparable harm, Federal District Judge B. Lynn Winmill sides with IRU and our allies and grants a preliminary injunction to block vehicle access across Forest Service land.
  • March 30, 2016: Winmill rules on behalf of IRU and local property owners.

Johnson Bar Lawsuit

  • March 11, 2016: IRU and Friends of the Clearwater file in federal district court in Boise to block clear-cut logging on federal land above Johnson Bar in the Wild and Scenic Selway canyon.
  • April 7, 2016: IRU and our allies file for a preliminary injunction to block the clear cut before its projected start date in mid-May.
  • May 13, 2016: Citing an inadequate Wild and Scenic management plan, among other reasons, Federal Judge Candy Dale grants a preliminary injunction blocking the Johnson Bar timber sale until the case is fully resolve.

Idaho Mill Closes – Lack of Logs

An Idaho Stateman/AP article, “Northern Idaho lumber mill closes, laying off 40“:

A lumber mill in northern Idaho has closed down, leaving about 40 people without work.

The Lewiston Tribune reports ( ) that Tri-Pro Forest Products closed its Orofino mill on Tuesday. Resource Manager Mike Boeck says a lack of cedar logs forced the company to curtail operations at the Clearwater County mill over the past few weeks.

Tri-Pro had purchased 3 million to 4 million board feet of cedar in 2014 after the Johnson Bar Fire along the lower Selway River, but litigation by Friends of the Clearwater and Idaho Rivers United against the U.S. Forest Service stopped the transaction.

Boeck says that purchase could have kept the Orofino mill running for another six months.

Friends of the Clearwater and Idaho Rivers United officials say the sale was illegal.

To the pleasure of Colorado’s outdoor industry, Forest Service promises simpler public lands access

Poplar Gulch Trail,  Salida RD PSICC NF Colorado

Poplar Gulch Trail, Salida RD PSICC NF Colorado

From the Colorado Springs Gazette here:

“We’re moving away from the approach of regulating, and toward an approach of enabling,” said Meryl Harrell, senior adviser to the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, echoing a June letter of intent from the agriculture secretary and Forest Service chief.

Leading the meeting alongside Forest Service personnel were members of the Outdoor Access Working Group, formed in 2014 for the very purpose of pushing discussions like Wednesday’s – long overdue, outfitters and guides feel as they’ve grappled with a permit application process that they describe as paperwork-heavy, cumbersome and archaic. Last year, in his first months as the first governor-appointed head of Colorado’s Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, Luis Benitez flew to D.C. four times to sit at a table with the Forest Service and the working group.

He considered Wednesday a day of victory.

“This is a big, big deal for Colorado,” he said. “Actually, it’s a big, big deal for the country.”

Benitez is especially giddy about the prospect for rural communities. He brought up the example of an entrepreneurial mountain biker in Kremmling wanting to use the surrounding forest for a guiding service.

“So you write a business plan,” Benitez said, “and you go to the Forest Service to apply for permits and user days, and that requires a NEPA study . and you wait and wait and wait to put your plan to action, and it could take anywhere from 12 months to five years to forever, and the plan never happens.

Ultimately what you’re talking about is limiting economic development.

(Sharon’s boldface 😉 ).

A test of the 2014 insect and disease categorical exclusion

The Center for Biological diversity is suing the Tahoe National Forest for its decision on the Sunny South timber sale. The sale is designed to “reduce the extent and risk of insect infestations, as well as to reduce the negative effects of those infestations on forest health and resilience.” Plaintiffs allege, “Six (California spotted) owl territories are slated to be logged …, all of which are important contributors to the overall owl population given the high degree of successful owl reproduction in these old forested areas.”

Section 603 of the amended Healthy Forests Restoration Act establishes a categorical exclusion for qualifying insect and disease projects in designated areas on National Forest System lands. An insect and disease project that may be categorically excluded under this authority is a project that is designed to reduce the risk or extent of, or increase the resilience to, insect or disease infestation in the areas.  The project must be located in an area designated pursuant to a Governor’s request for areas in their State that are experiencing, or at risk of, an insect or disease epidemic. The project must also meet other criteria, including these rather subjective ones:

  • The project was developed through a collaborative process that includes multiple interested persons representing diverse interests and is transparent and non-exclusive.
  • The best available scientific information must be considered to maintain or restore ecological integrity, including maintaining or restoring the structure, function, composition and connectivity.

We might find out a little more about what these things mean from this court.

There used to be a sort of rule of thumb that if a project looked controversial, the Forest Service wouldn’t pursue a categorical exclusion (in part because they may be difficult to defend in court). The new agency policy appears to be to thumb its nose.