Logging in potential wilderness could foreclose forest plan options

Taking this story about the Pisgah National Forest at face value, it raises the question of what kind of management is appropriate while a national forest is revising its forest plan.  We just looked at another example of how the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest appeared to be anticipating changes that would result from its revised plan, possibly requiring a plan amendment to do so if the proposed project is not consistent with the current plan.

Here, let’s assume that the project to log an area that the locals want to be wilderness is consistent with the current plan, but it would be inconsistent with alternatives being considered for plan revision (normally there would be a forest plan alternative with all potential wilderness areas recommended for wilderness).  NEPA addresses this situation:  “Agencies shall not commit resources prejudicing selection of alternatives before making a final decision” (40 §CFR 1502.2(f)).  However, for a “program environmental impact statement” that is in progress, it implies an exception for where activities are “covered by an existing program statement” (40 CFR §1506.1(c)); it actually restricts actions where they are NOT covered by a plan EIS and is silent on where they are.

I have sometimes wondered if the project planning teams and the forest planning team are talking to each other.  It certainly doesn’t look good when they seem to be working at cross-purposes, and it could be illegal.

Court buys FS interpretation of viability for bighorn sheep

On July 31, the federal district court for Wyoming found that the revised Medicine Bow National Forest Plan met the requirement of the 1982 planning regulations to manage habitat “to maintain viable populations of existing native and desired non-native vertebrate species in the planning area.”  At issue was the meaning of additional language in the regulation that “habitat must be well distributed so that those individuals can interact with others in the planning area.”  The court determined that, “there is no requirement that the Forest Service manage habitat so as to maintain bighorn herds, at maximum potential, across the entire Forest, at all potential habitat locations…”

There are three reintroduced herds of bighorn sheep on the national forest.  The plan would only protect two of those from exposure to disease risks from domestic sheep, which is the major risk factor for bighorns, by eliminating domestic sheep grazing.  The small unprotected herd was stable but had never thrived, and was considered a low priority by the state of Wyoming.  The court found that the viability regulation was ambiguous and the agency’s interpretation in this case had changed during the administrative review.  Nevertheless it held that the record adequately explained the agency’s interpretation that protecting the two herds from domestic sheep and providing other plan direction that would benefit all three herds would meet the viability requirement:

“The Regional Forester made the determination, given all information available to him, that emphasizing domestic sheep grazing over the Encampment River herd in the Sierra Madre range, the Medicine Bow National Forest would still be able to manage the habitat of the Laramie Peak and Douglas Creek herds in order to achieve viability of bighorn sheep.”

The court found that this was determination was not arbitrary or capricious.  (Biodiversity Conservation Alliance v. Jiron)

Study: Colorado’s 14ers more popular than initially estimated

The trail to Handies Peak (my photo)

And now, for something completely different. From the Colorado Springs Gazette here..

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative on Friday released a follow-up to a first-of-its kind study from 2016, which estimated the state’s 54 tallest mountains experienced 260,000 hiker days a year. Now, the nonprofit stewarding the mountain trails says that figure is closer to 311,000. That kind of activity contributes $84 million to the state’s economy, the new study found.

And

Along with the counters, the study derives user estimates from posts on 14ers.com. The economic impact estimate is based on a 2009 Colorado State University report that found Quandary Peak climbers spent an average of $271 on various expenses including gas, food and equipment.

Without charging fees and getting into that can of worms, would it be possible to give climbers an opportunity to give something toward supporting and maintaining those areas. Certainly the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative does a terrific job, but if half the people donated the equivalent of 5% of their total expenses say, “$14 for 14ers” to the Forest Service, times half the estimated people climbing would be $2.177 mill. Unfortunately the trailheads probably don’t all have cell signal, otherwise it could just be a donation swipe and seemingly fairly easy to do. Personally, I’d like to have this available every time I hit a National Forest trail. Does anyone know of a place where collecting donations using any method is successful?

New Chief: Tony Tooke

Secretary Perdue Announces Tony Tooke as New Forest Service Chief

(Washington, D.C., August 21, 2017) – U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue today announced Tony Tooke will serve as the new Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Tooke has worked for the Forest Service since age 18 and currently is the Regional Forester for the Southern Region. Following the announcement, Secretary Perdue issued this statement:

“The Forest Service will be in good hands with the U.S. Forest Service’s own Tony Tooke whose knowledge of forestry is unmatched. Tony has been preparing for this role for his whole professional life, and at a time when we face active and growing fires, his transition into leadership will be seamless.  He will oversee efforts to get our forests working again, to make them more productive, and to create more jobs. His focus will be on ensuring we are good neighbors and are managing our forests effectively, efficiently, and responsibly, as well as working with states and local governments to ensure the utmost collaboration. No doubt, the stewardship of our forests is an awesome and sacred responsibility, and no one knows that better than Tony who has dedicated his career to this noble cause,” said Secretary Perdue.

Tony Tooke Biography:

Tony Tooke is the Regional Forester for the Southern Region of the USDA Forest Service. Tooke has worked for the Forest Service since age 18, including many assignments in Region 8 and the Washington Office (WO).

He is responsible for 3,100 employees, an annual budget exceeding $400 million, 14 national forests, and two managed areas, which encompass more than 13.3 million acres in 13 states and Puerto Rico.

His previous position in Washington, DC was Associate Deputy Chief for the National Forest System; with oversight of Lands and Realty, Minerals and Geology, Ecosystem Management Coordination, Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers, the National Partnership Office, and Business Administration and Support Services.

As Associate Deputy Chief, Tooke was the Forest Service Executive Lead for Environmental Justice; Farm Bill implementation; and implementation of the Inventory, Monitoring, and Assessment Improvement Strategy. Another priority included implementation of a new planning rule for the National Forest System.

Also in the WO, Tooke served as Director for Ecosystem Management Coordination, Deputy Director for Economic Recovery, and Assistant Director for Forest Management.

Prior to 2006, Tooke served as Deputy Forest Supervisor for the National Forests in Florida as well as District Ranger assignments at the Talladega NF in Alabama, the Oconee NF in Georgia, and the DeSoto NF in Mississippi. His other field assignments were Timber Management Assistant, Other Resource Assistant, Silviculturist, and Forester on six Ranger Districts in Mississippi and Kentucky.

Tooke grew up on a small 200-acre farm in Detroit, AL. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Forestry from Mississippi State University. He was in the Forest Service’s inaugural class of the Senior Leadership Program, and he has completed the Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program.

###

Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatments: VII. Framing Again: the Watershed Projects

We have already talked about the Forests to Faucets partnership effort in Colorado here and here. I raised the question at the time (2012) and I think it’s still relevant.. why do watershed projects seem to have fewer critics? As I said then:

I wonder why this water partnerships like this are a New Mexico/Colorado phenomenon and not a California/Montana phenomenon? Maybe I just don’t know about them elsewhere? Maybe the lack of a forest industry means that these things can happen without the timber wars ghosts? Ideas?

So we have the Flagstaff project (thanks, Jon!), the Santa Fe Fireshed, the Rio Grande effort (thanks Bryan!). Here’s a page from the Santa Fe:

The Santa Fe Fireshed is so big, what can be done?
Protect communities by mitigation activities in the wildland-urban interface.
Promote fire adapted communities. Learn more at www.fireadaptednm.org. This includes mitigating fuels, assessing wildfire risk to structures, evacuation planning and drills, awareness, and education.
Develop a landscape strategy that uses a collaborative process to identify landscape priorities and values at-risk.
Conduct project planning at the landscape scale in high priority areas. On federal managed lands, this includes National Environmental Policy Act planning.
Make use of the suite of land management tools that fit the landscape. This can include strategic thinning, fuels modification through chipping and mastication, wood utilization where appropriate, and the use of fire to reduce fuels. The use of fire may include burning piles, broadcast burning of the forest understory to mimic natural fire regimes, or using wildfire for resource benefit when firefighter and public safety allow.

This seems like a comprehensive both/and approach.

Here’s the latest on Forests to Faucets from February:

DENVER — Over the next five years, Denver Water, the U.S. Forest Service – Rocky Mountain Region, Colorado State Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service will invest $33 million in forest restoration projects to treat more than 40,000 acres within Denver Water’s critical watersheds.

Under the From Forests to Faucets partnership, the U.S. Forest Service – Rocky Mountain Region has been working with Denver Water since 2010 to implement forest and watershed health projects.

The goal is to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and restore forests impacted by wildfires surrounding reservoirs, as well as minimize erosion and sedimentation in reservoirs. More than 48,000 acres of National Forest System lands have been treated so far with fuels reduction, restoration and prevention activities.

Here are some hypotheses for why the “thinning doesn’t work” seems to be more popular in the Northwest and California.
1. They don’t have direct experience with bad fire/ water provider events (reservoirs filled with silt).
2. Water is not as important to them as they are wetter climates (although California gets water from Colorado..).
3. Different environmental groups in those areas are successful at framing the issue as being about “houses” or “logging the backcountry.”
4. A leftover of the timber wars.. so many people and organizations were developed to fight the wars, cooperation toward shared goals does not resonate the same way. People developed a lack of trust in the Forest Service, so that any utilization of wood resonates as a bad thing.
5. Related to #4, big universities full of scientists tend to be on the wet west side of Washington, Oregon and California, producing ideas and observations that might not fit the Interior West. Somehow they tend to take over the framing as being about returning to HRV, not about protecting values at risk.

Feel free to add your own hypotheses and thoughts..also feel free to give comments and additions/deletions to the table.

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?)