DellaSala et al: managing for pyro-diversity through mixed-severity fires

New paper from Dellasala, Ingalsbee, Hanson, et al: ACCOMMODATING MIXED-SEVERITY FIRE TO RESTORE AND MAINTAIN ECOSYSTEM INTEGRITY WITH A FOCUS ON THE SIERRA NEVADA OF CALIFORNIA, USA.

Have not read it all yet. A focus: “managing for pyro-diversity through mixed-severity fires can promote ecosystem integrity in Sierran mixed conifer and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Laws) forests.” Seems well researched and presented, but IMHO, the proposition can’t really work in the Sierras, where so much fuel is present. You’ve got to reduce fuels and restore resilience, first and foremost. Would Californians accept more fire in the Sierras? I don’t think so.

 

Tidwell retires

Just got this from E&E News….

 

Tidwell retires after ‘lifelong love’ of public lands

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced today he is retiring next month after more than four decades at the agency that oversees 193 million acres of forestland and more than 30,000 employees.

“On September 1, I will step down as your Chief and leave the Forest Service — carrying with me more than 40 years of cherished memories, lasting friendships and a lifelong love for public lands and service,” Tidwell wrote in a farewell email sent today to Forest Service staff. “It has been my greatest honor to serve, a privilege and most rewarding experience.”

Tidwell, 62, is credited during his eight years as agency chief with increasing the number of women and minorities in administrative positions, prioritizing wildland firefighter safety and improving the service’s law enforcement division after employees complained of a hostile work environment.

He’s also responsible for focusing attention on restoring the “ecological resilience” of national forest system lands, according to agency observers, and for sounding the alarm on the impacts of a warming climate and its potential to dry up critical watersheds originating in national forests.

But he never could convince Congress to authorize funding wildfires like natural disasters, instead forcing the Forest Service to pilfer other agency programs to pay for the growing costs of suppressing an increasing number of blazes that today eat up more than half the agency’s annual budget.

“I think he was an effective chief, and he left the agency better than he found it,” said Dale Bosworth, a Forest Service chief during the George W. Bush administration who retired from the agency in 2007. “In my view, he did a good job, especially considering all the challenges facing the Forest Service, particularly wildfires.”

Wildfire suppression funding remains an enormously challenging problem. More than 86 million acres of national forest lands are considered to be at high risk for wildfires as well as insect infestation.

But the Forest Service, in a statement announcing Tidwell’s retirement, noted that he “played an instrumental role early on in drawing attention and public support to confront the increasing severity and costs of wildfires” and their impacts on national forest lands.

“From the start, we have relied on Chief Tidwell’s experience and counsel, drawing on his years of experience both in the field and in Washington,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “The Forest Service will miss the benefit of his knowledge but we wish him well on his retirement after more than 40 years of service with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

During his four-decade career, Tidwell worked in eight national forests in a variety of positions at all levels of the agency. As a legislative affairs staffer for the agency, he worked on a number of controversial issues, including implementation of the roadless rule.

Tidwell began as a firefighter at the Boise National Forest, eventually serving 19 years as an agency administrator responsible for fire suppression decisions (E&E News PM, June 17, 2009).

That’s one reason Tidwell worked hard as Forest Service chief to change the firefighting culture to ensure safety as a top priority, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

Since his appointment in June 2009, firefighter deaths have dropped to an average of 15 per year, Stahl said. Between 2001 and 2008, firefighter deaths averaged 20 per year.

“He felt very strongly that we shouldn’t be killing firefighters,” Stahl said. “That was one of his priorities, ensuring that their workplace is safe.”

Tidwell served as deputy regional forester for the Pacific Southwest Region, forest supervisor at the Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Utah, district ranger for the Uinta National Forest, and acting forest supervisor at the Fishlake National Forest in Utah and the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho.

Tidwell, who suffered a heart attack on the job in 2011, acknowledged the challenging nature of the job in his farewell email to staff.

“We have lived through some tough days responding to natural disasters and dangers that come from keeping citizens safe. We have been called to respond in a way that only the Forest Service can,” he wrote.

“We have grieved together, far too many times, for those who have lost their lives in support of our mission. By far these have been the most trying times for me,” he added. “But I was always grateful for how you showed up to respect the sacrifices of others, to lend your support for grieving families, friends and co-workers, to help them begin healing from their loss. That, along with your commitment to our safety journey, to do what we can to ensure everyone returns home safely every day, is what carried me through those times. I know you will continue our progress on this never-ending Journey.”

Reporter Zack Colman contributed.

When the locals pay for national forest fuel reduction …

Everybody wins?

“So were Flagstaff officials prescient when they proposed what, at the time, was one of the first municipal partnerships with a national forest to have lands outside city boundaries thinned at city expense?”

“Hindsight is 20-20, but it sure looks that way to us. Armed with a $10 million budget, the Forest Service immediately went to work on an environmental study that mapped the most fireprone timber stands as well as nests of endangered Mexican spotted owls.  Steep slopes most prone to erosion were pegged for less-harmful cable logging, and some stands of old-growth ponderosas were declared off limits. Using collaborative tactics learned from 4FRI, the draft EIS containing a thinning plan was ready in near-record time and drew no lawsuits that would cause delay.”

Could that be because there’s no revenue or profit motive driving more destructive logging practices?

Forest plans and “valid existing rights”

This is about forest plan litigation – sort of.  The Michigan Wilderness Act included a provision protecting “valid existing rights.”  A series of forest plan amendments by the Ottawa National Forest imposed restrictions on motor boat use on a lake that was mostly within a wilderness area but partly touching private land.  A 2007 Forest Order, subjected violators of Amendment No. 5 to criminal liability.   An earlier case concluded that Michigan riparian water rights allowed for “reasonable use” of the lake’s surface water, and that, “the motorboat restrictions interfered with Thrall’s ‘valid existing right’ to use gas motor boats on Crooked Lake’ and thus fell outside the Forest Service’s regulatory authority.”

The question in the current case was whether purchasers of lakefront property in 2010 also had “valid existing rights” to unrestricted motorboat use.  After sorting out the timing questions in favor of the private owners in this case, the Sixth Circuit court revisited the nature of riparian rights, holding that the Forest Service could only prohibit unreasonable uses:

“But the Forest Service has not shown that it would be unreasonable under Michigan law to travel on 95% of the lake above a low-wake-zone speed. If you think otherwise, try being at one end of a three-mile lake with a five-mile-an-hour speed limit as an unexpected storm sets in.”

(Evidently what’s reasonable in Michigan is different from what’s reasonable in wilderness.)

 

Reflections on the Biomass Monitor Debate 8/16/17 on Fuel Treatments

I found this discussion to be very interesting, and I think the Biomass Monitor is going to post a recording on their website here. It seems like everyone agrees that “more fire is needed” in dry western landscapes, as we discussed before. It also seems like (some) fire ecologists think that it is important to recreate frequencies of different intensities of fire similar to the past. I was a little confused because every area’s fire history is different, and it seems like there was Native American burning, then not, then fire suppression, and what we see on the landscape today or in the past is a function of all these changes (so where is the point/ranges ecologists want are going back to?) How do we know that there are so many birds that like snags now, is because we have provided more snags in the lst 100 years due to fire suppression and more high intensity fires?

It doesn’t bother me that ecologists want to go back to some past that they identify, or want to protect species that are currently rare. But I’ve got to wonder if the folks who are worried about megafires (there would be no shortage of nags, conceivably) are on the same wavelength. Mostly I am concerned that we would spend mucho bucks to “restore” areas to certain things from the past, that can’t possibly be the same due to the presence of people and climate change. If climate change is going to cause all kinds of big shifts in plant and animal populations, shouldn’t we just accept the fire frequencies we can afford to manage?

It seems to me that there may be a tension between different scientific communities..

(1) Climate Change science- Megafires, be very afraid, vegetation will completely change.
(2) Fire ecologists- Let’s try to replicate previous conditions.
(3) Fire scientists- if we do prescribed burning, then we can reduce fuels at the landscape level, that will help suppression efforts for people and also manage fire toward desired ecological conditions.
(4) Fire ecologists- that wouldn’t make enough high-severity fire acreage as “we need.”

My question is that given how hard it is to do prescribed burns, EVEN IF FOLKS DID A LOT MORE, WFU will still be popular, so how can a person predict that the resultant mix would not be “enough” as identified by ecologists (although I don’t really agree with the idea of trying to replicate historical conditions, but given for now that that is a desirable goal)?

As this discussion was going on, I was thinking maybe there was ground for possible agreement:

(1) We do WFU only in roadless, wilderness and parks, and other areas under conditions without danger to populations as identified through public process in a fire plan, and
(2) in other areas, prescribed burning, based on fireshed assessments of where it might be needed for protection of watershed, people, and other reasons is done,
a. And in those places, if it were determined that tree removal would make for better fuel reduction, removing trees would be OK.

At that point, ecologists could analyze whether the amount of snags from (1) plus a range of scenarios of plain old wildfires would be “enough.”

As an aside, it sounded like one of the participants was really worried about the Westerman bill. I think that there are all kinds of reasons to think it isn’t a good bill, but very few reasons to worry about it being passed into law. Does anyone know why folks would think it is close to passage (as in passed by both houses and signed by the President?)

Wild bees thrive after severe forest fires


In case you haven’t heard, wild bees around the world aren’t doing that great. If you like to eat food, or enjoy having trees and other plants in your world, that’s a big cause for concern.

But, it turns out, according to this article from PHYS.org, that wild bees thrive after moderate and severe wildfires:

“Early results from a two-year study in southern Oregon suggest that moderate and severe forest fires create conditions that lead to greater abundance and diversity of wild bees. Because Oregon’s more than 500 species of native bees are important pollinators of wild plants and crops, the study suggests that fires may promote bee populations that in turn may influence agricultural productivity and overall floral diversity.”

In 2016, scientists began trapping bees at 43 sites in forests burned by the 2013 Douglas Complex fire north of Grants Pass. The sites ranged from places where fire severity was low—flames were confined to low-growing vegetation and failed to reach the canopy—to places where severity was moderate and high.

“In low severity spots, if you weren’t looking for the markers of fire, you wouldn’t know that it had burned,” said Sara M. Galbraith, a post-doctoral researcher in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. “The canopy is completely closed, and the trees are usually older. There isn’t a lot of evidence of fire except for some blackened areas on some of the tree trunks.

“And then, when you go to some of the high-severity fire sites, it’s a completely open canopy. There are a lot of flowering plants in the understory because the light limitation is gone. It just looks completely different,” she added.

In a study led by Jim Rivers, OSU forest wildlife ecologist, Galbraith and a team of field researchers collected bees with blue-vane traps, which attract the insects by reflecting ultra-violet light. “The bees basically think it’s a huge flower,” said Galbraith. “Once they get inside the trap, they are unable to fly out because of the shape of the entrance.”

In addition, researchers recorded the characteristics of each site, such as the types of plants, the degree of forest cover and whether or not logging had taken place after the fire.

Such studies are important, Galbraith said, because the early stages of forest development – what researchers call early seral forests—have become less common. “This research adds to the evidence that there is high biodiversity in early seral forests relative to older stands, and moving forward, this could have an impact on services like pollination in the landscape overall. Without this fundamental information, we can’t be sure of the best management actions to conserve pollinator populations within managed forests.”

Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatment: VI. Stewardship and Fireshed Assessments

From Reality Show: SPLATS Take a Trip from Theory to the Tahoe National Forest

Sometimes when I hear that “science says that fuel treatments don’t work” I wonder why the views of scientists who work on fuel treatments don’t seem to count as “science”. IMHO, there is altogether too much ready acceptance of (generally scientists) framing issues as “science” issues, and then claiming one discipline is key to the answers. But “how we should live on fire-prone landscapes” and “what should we do about the changing climate” are not science issues, although certainly the research conducted by a variety of scientific disciplines can shed light on different policy options open to public choice.

Thanks to Dr. Mark Finney for guiding me to this effort, and Bernie Bahro for his knowledge of the SFA process. We probably don’t need to go into the reasons it hasn’t been working, despite having both scientific research and local knowledge behind it. Once again, people will say “we need more fire on the landscape” or “we need to help suppression folks deal with problem fires”. So folks participate in planning exercises, and then the FS runs into the obstacles associated with implementation. The Forest Service is between a rock (we need more fire) and a hard place (doing actions like PB and WFU) (between a backfire and the main fire?). Interesting that GAO was tentatively pro-SFA…Here’s the link and below are excerpts.

However, a recent GAO report (GAO-04-705) noted: “One [approach] that appears promising for national implementation is the Fireshed Assessment process, an integrated interdisciplinary approach to evaluating fuel treatment effectiveness at reducing fire spread across landscapes.”

The Stewardship and Fireshed Assessment (SFA) process is a rapid assessment process that has been developed for the national forests in California. The SFA process frames and evaluates the performance of hazardous fuels treatments at a landscape-scale, where treatments are designed to change the outcome of a “problem” fire in a particular landscape. A “problem” fire is a hypothetical wildfire that could be expected to burn in an area that would have severe or uncharacteristic effects or result in unacceptable consequences. While the primary objective of strategic treatments is to reduce the wildfire risk to communities in the wildland urban interface, treatments must also be designed to integrate broader stewardship objectives, such as improving forest health, meeting habitat needs, and maintaining and improving watershed conditions. Given these multiple objectives, it is important that a landscape treatment strategy be reasonable and feasible and, critically, that it have public support. This is accomplished by evaluating treatment scenarios, which are combinations of treatment locations, treatment prescriptions, and implementation
timelines, in an open and transparent manner. Through repeatedly testing and improving assumptions, public understanding of ecological processes, the effects of management, and management constraints and opportunities can be enhanced.

I’ll just outline some of the obvious barriers: negotiating with interest groups to the point in which the project doesn’t actually work for fuels reduction, not having the $ to implement when the NEPA is finished and the ROD signed (or to have $ for some phases, but not for all), air quality restrictions for prescribed burning, and so on. The Stewardship and Fireshed Assessments may still be valuable for the opportunity for the public and specialists to discuss what happens and what has happened on a particular landscape or fireshed, and may also help to have information organized and synthesized for later WFU efforts. I’d be interested to hear from folks who have experience with the SFA process.

“I understand firefighter safety, but you have to put people on the fire.”

 

This from a resident near the Lolo Peak Fire – a fire that had recently killed one firefighter.  He added, “I’m tired of the smoke and I’m tired of the fire. I think there needs to be more accountability.”

I’m appalled by the sense of entitlement to protection of private property that this statement reveals, which I think helps illustrate the point I’ve been trying to make about who should pay to protect homes near national forests.  Sometimes that payment is measured in lives lost.

Forest Service wins A to Z

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court denial of a preliminary injunction for the North Fork Mill Creek A to Z Project on the Colville National Forest, which has been discussed here. Of note, the question of contractor-NEPA was not addressed, although the court said that the Forest Service “reviewed and approved” the EA, and “The Forest Service subsequently retracted and revised the EA to address concerns raised by the public.”

That’s right, an EA on a 13,000 acre logging project with some at-risk species. How could that be? The short answer is essentially full mitigation of effects. For pine marten and fisher, the plaintiffs agreed that goals in the forest plan would protect the habitat, and that the project was consistent with those goals by correctly identifying the habitat and leaving it alone. The legal arguments they made were more technical and weaker. So, while there are some differences here from the Colorado Tennessee project in lynx habitat, it appears that the Colville forest-wide conservation strategy for these species also simplified the project NEPA process. Full mitigation basically also occurred for sediment and open road density (It also probably didn’t hurt that, “The project was the result of a multi-year collaboration among elected officials, environmental organizations, Native American tribes, the timber industry, and community organizations.”  And maybe that had something to do with why the FS agreed to this degree of mitigation.)

The opinion includes an interpretation of the 2012 Planning Rule’s requirement for the use of the “best available scientific information in the forest planning process” (despite the fact that the new Planning Rule does not apply to either the existing plan or to any projects). Quoting a Ninth Circuit case: A party challenging the Forest Service’s scientific analysis cannot simply “cite studies that support a conclusion different from the one the Forest Service reached” and must instead provide “scientific studies that indicate the Forest Service’s analysis is outdated or flawed.”

Agreement Check-In: More Fire on the Landscape?

Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service
Pre-firing operations are starting Wednesday in the HD Mountains to expand the 842 Fire.
The fire was caused by lightning and has burned about 13 acres. Expanding the fire will provide beneficial aspects for the mountain forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Good explanation of a current WFU here in the Journal (Cortez, Dolores, Mancos, Colorado).

There was only one comment on yesterday’s post (thanks Forester 353!), so I want to run these questions again to see where people are.

There seems to be a broad agreement among different people that we “need to put fire back on the landscape” (where feasible). Some people look at it as “there are fire dependent ecosystems so they need it” and others may think “we’re going to get fires anyway, so we might as well make life easier for suppression folks and prescribed burning is great for fuel reduction”.. these differences may play out at designing treatments on a specific landscape, but I’m not sure the differences are that important at this level of discussion.

As folks have pointed out, there are many barriers to increasing the use of PBs and WFU and conceivably everyone who thinks that “we need more fire” could join hands and work on those together.. everyone from WEG to AFRC. Which may be the kind of work the Washington Prescribed Fire Council is doing- I have a request in for an interview.

If we agree (1) We need more fire on the landscape
(2) Choices for this are Prescribed Burns (PBs) and Wildfire Fire Use. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

I’d like to hear from folks on the blog. But since we don’t represent everyone associated with the land management community, including groups known for litigation, I would be really interested to know if there has been litigation on prescribed burning projects without mechanical fuels treatment (which might be the point of disagreement). I realize that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but I’m not even sure there is a public database that a person could query to find out.

Please chime in either way including with your caveats.