“The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix”

I just received a press release about a new book, The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, by Dominick DellaSala and Chad Hanson.

“For the first time extensive documentation from around the world reveals that
forests and other plant communities need a variety of different types of fires,
including severe ones, to rejuvenate over the long-term. These findings are timely as
Members of Congress propose to weaken environmental laws based on the
assumption that fires are damaging to forests, and logging is needed to reduce fire

“For the first time”? Ask Steve Pyne about that.

The release goes on to say that one of the conclusions the authors draw is that “Forest thinning in the backcountry does not improve homeowner safety, and does not meaningfully influence large, weather-driven fires.”

My response: Thinning and fuels reduction CAN meaningfully influence large, weather-driven fires, as I saw for myself most recently on the 2014 36 Pit Fire in Oregon, where thinned areas had the effect we’d expect — the crown fire slowed, dropped to the ground, and gave firefighters a change to be successful with suppression.  Thinning and fuels reduction DOES reduce the likelihood of large, weather-driven fires and can help limit their spread an intensity.

I predict that numerous news outlets will cover this book.

Inyo Volcanic Hazard Zone

My last adventure to the east side of the Sierra Nevada included a visit to Mammoth Lakes. There is a cluster of lakes above town, and at the end of the road is this “dead zone”. Due to a shift underground, carbon dioxide has saturated the soils here, killing off all plant life, since 1989. It’s kind of amazing that these snags have stood for so long. Maybe the rotting agents have also died off? This area also gets deep snow and has high winds during the winter, way up there at 9000 feet.


There is this big sign along the road.


Here is the interpretive sign at the parking lot, which is directly adjacent to this dead area. I do know that Mammoth Mountain had a very tragic accident with a volcanic vent on their ski mountain. The Mammoth area is still quite hot, with a resurgent dome forming in the old caldera.


Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest Plan NEPA not site-specific enough

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge (B-D) National Forest’s revised forest plan to designate areas for use by winter motorized vehicles. It found that the forest plan EIS failed to provide analysis that was site-specific enough to make an informed decision, as required by NEPA, and that the planning process did not comply with the “minimization” requirements of Executive Order 11644 for off-road vehicles, including evaluation of specific areas open to motorized vehicles.

This was a rare loss at the forest plan level on a NEPA issue.  While courts often accept more general NEPA analysis for programmatic decisions, this court recognized that the essence of forest plans is land allocation decisions.  Here it was important to know where winter range was in order to consider how the plan affected it or to propose alternatives for it.  The court stated that, “Without data on the location of the big game winter range, the public was severely limited in its ability to participate in the decision-making process.”  This principle should be applicable to other wildlife issues in plan revisions.

The holding on motorized use may also be precedent-setting.  It found that the plan ‘designated’ ‘areas open to snowmobile use.’  That made it subject to the executive order and to the Travel Management Rule (TMR) the FS adopted to implement the executive order.  The court stated, “What is required is that the Forest Service document how it evaluated and applied the data on an area by-area basis with the objective of minimizing impacts as specified in the TMR.”  It held that the Forest Service had instead deferred that level of analysis to subsequent travel planning.  The B-D plan had more site-specific direction for motorized use than many plans would have, but this holding could arguably apply to any forest plan components that identify areas in which motorized use would be allowed (especially where it is already occurring without prior compliance with the TMR).  This opinion blurs the distinction between forest planning and travel planning that the Forest Service has tried to maintain.

Montana’s Recommended Forest Priorities Stand

Sent to me from a reader, this decision allows the Montana Governor’s recommendations for forest work to be legal. That doesn’t mean too much, as Federal projects still have to be crafted to survive the gauntlet of legal challenges ahead.


This does not settle the conflict over whether there is actually a forest health problem, or not. Many eco-groups don’t buy into any kind of a forest health “emergency” situation, in favor of more snag recruitment and diversity.

Taking sides on restoration on the Mark Twain

Here we have a timber sale controversy without either the timber industry or the ‘radical environmentalists.’  It just struck me as a good example of how the Forest Service can keep its eyes on the prize more easily, and fend off local public criticism, by having a relatively objective and measurable benchmark of ecological integrity to meet for a national forest (as established by the 2012 Planning Rule).

Late last year, the couple learned that the Forest Service has proposed returning 18,000 acres in the forest’s Cassville unit to pre-settlement conditions, a time when the forest was much more open and trees were spaced much farther apart, thinned by occasional fires, compared with the denser stands of timber in the area today.

To that end, the federal agency responsible for the 1.5 million-acre Mark Twain National Forest is proposing thinning the number of trees in an area known as Butler Hollow, removing invasive cedars and restoring glades and savannahs. The plan includes riparian plantings, prescribed burns, some for-profit timber sales as well as a technique called cut and leave.

But this is not a controversy that pits conservationists and environmentalists against public land managers. In fact, the project has the backing of several national groups including the Nature Conservancy, the American Bird Conservancy and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Those three groups issued a joint position statement endorsing the project, which said the plan “employs science and sound conservation practices to provide direct benefits to people and nature.” Benefits, according to the advocates, would be a healthier forest ecosystem as well as timber to help support the local economy, and improved recreational opportunities.

“We are concerned that some recent criticism of the project is based on an assumption that the area was dense forest. Data show that the area was originally a far more diverse complex of woodlands and glades,” the statement reads.

But JoNell Corn says to return the forest to pre-settlement conditions is “not a proven science.” Corn has lived in Butler Hollow for 38 years, following in the footsteps of her ancestors, who put down roots here in the 1850s.

“I have spent hours visiting other project areas and have had people express to me that they are not concerned with what it looked like before settlers came, they just wish it would look like it did before the USFS started cutting and burning,” she said.

Missouri’s U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt is another skeptic. During an Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies hearing this spring, he questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell about plans for the Mark Twain National Forest.

“I don’t want to spend our time and effort here in doing things that won’t work,” said Blunt in the hearing, which was documented by video and can be seen online. “In theory with some of these burns, you’re trying to restore a landscape from a couple hundred years ago. Surely it’s worth a little time to see the science to whether that’s even possible or not and I’m just asking you to work harder with us.”

Forest Service Must Re-initiate Consultation With USFWS on Lynx

This looks to have far-reaching effects on those National Forests within the “core habitats”. This looks like a forced settlement situation, where the Forest Service will probably pay dearly for their loss in court.



Although the court granted summary judgment to Cottonwood and ordered reinitiation of consultation, it declined to enjoin any specific project.

Do we need national ‘forests?’

Things seem a little quiet out there, so here is my response to Sharon’s asking what I  think about “disappearing districts” on June 12.  The problem I see with the approach of consolidating districts (and national forests) is that is an ad hoc and opportunistic response, and I haven’t seen much of an effort at long-term strategic planning for what the current and future agency should look like.

I think there are some good arguments for maintaining a local ‘face’ of the Forest Service responsible for implementing policies and programs.  I think that could be done with many staff specialists located elsewhere and in different places.  Something close to a “one person ranger district” might make sense again.

On the other hand, what purpose do national forest administrative units serve?  There is a need for someone at a higher level and with a broader view to develop policies and programs.  But is there really a need for a hundred-and-how-many different sets of policies?  There is a historic and legislative basis for national forest boundaries, but I think that the decentralization of authority that has been tied to that works hard against the need to reduce government costs (as well as creating artificial cross-jurisdictional management problems).


I think that the Clinton Administration had the right idea that the Forest Service can’t afford four layers of bureaucracy.  What would happen if we eliminated national forest supervisor offices?  Or if that’s too many districts for a regional office to handle, a more reasonable alternative might be to reorganize based on states or multi-state units (like the BLM, which would make it easier to eventually merge with the BLM).  This might even improve working relationships with the states.



Sleeping With the Enemy?


Timber industry people who don’t trust forest collaboration believe that those of us who participate in collaboratives are sleeping with the enemy. Environmentalists who would rather sue than participate in collaboratives think that environmentalists who collaborate with us are sleeping with the enemy. So it’s unanimous. We’re sleeping with our enemies. I don’t care what our critics think. Collaborative groups, ours included, are solving political problems that should never have become political problems, and those problems are the reason why our forests are dying and burning before our very eyes. So if you really want to know what collaboration is all about, it’s about protecting forests from the ravages of nature, not just for our benefit, but also for the benefit of future generations.

Duane Vaagen, Chief Executive Officer
Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company, Colville, Washington


Larry’s note: Sent to me from a reader, this points out the, maybe, necessary mistrust at this part of the collaborative journey. We need all sides to embrace full transparency, so that the public at-large can more accurately form a better-educated opinion of the compromises that might work, for those site-specific conditions. I do think that the tables are turning, in favor of more active management and stewardship. I do think this summer’s fire season might convince a few more people, too.

FEMA provides federal funds to help fight the Sockeye Fire

Just came across this press release from FEMA. If I read this right, the FEMA funding can be used only for “expenses for field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; mobilization and demobilization activities; and tools, materials and supplies” — not for paying for crews, aircraft, etc.

Looks like this could be a bad fire. Inciweb (one day ago) reported 6,500 acres. A news article today says 7,800 acres. Another source says 8,500. No word on homes destroyed — may be a bunch.

FEMA provides federal funds to help fight the Sockeye Fire

Release date: JUNE 16, 2015
Release Number: 15-003
SEATTLE – The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has authorized the use of federal funds to help with firefighting costs for the Sockeye Fire, burning in Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Alaska.

FEMA Region X Regional Administrator, Kenneth D. Murphy determined that the Sockeye Fire threatened such destruction as would constitute a major disaster. Murphy approved the state’s request for federal Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG) on June 15, 2015 at 6:37 p.m. AKDT.

The fire started on June 14, 2015, and has burned approximately 6,500 acres of private and state land. At the time of the request, the fire had burned 25 homes and was threatening 893 primary homes in and around the town of Willow. Approximately 1700 people had evacuated the area. Sheltering operations have been ongoing and have had to relocate 3 times because of the dynamics of this fire. The Park Highway, local roads and bridges were closed and threatened.

Firefighting resources include a Type 1 Incident Management Team, 5 Hot Spot Crews, 10 Helicopters, 1 Air Tanker, 2 Engine Task Forces to support fire suppression activities. The Federal Principal Advisor confirmed the threat to homes. The fire is currently 0 percent contained. There are 24 other fires burning uncontrolled within the state.

The authorization makes FEMA funding available to pay 75 percent of the State of Alaska’s eligible firefighting costs under an approved grant for managing, mitigating and controlling designated fires. These grants provide reimbursement for firefighting and life-saving efforts. They do not provide assistance to individuals, homeowners or business owners and do not cover other infrastructure damage caused by the fire.

Fire Management Assistance Grants are provided through the President’s Disaster Relief Fund and made available by FEMA to assist in fighting fires that threaten to cause a major disaster. Eligible items can include expenses for field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; mobilization and demobilization activities; and tools, materials and supplies.