Ruffed Grouse Trends on the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest: Guest Post by Mac McConnell

Some comments on my charts showing the results of national forest non-management have contended that I’ve placed too much emphasis on reduced tangible and material outputs (renewable energy, wood and paper products) and on adverse economic and social impacts (jobs lost, stressed families,
communities and local governments) . Critics claimed that the non-material results of “hands off” management were being ignored.

In an attempt to remedy this imbalance I offer the following .The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is widely used by wildlife biologists, both in the eastern and western U.S., as an indicator species for assessing the status of wildlife habitat and the ecological diversity of upland forests. The chart demonstrates the effect of virtual non-management of the timber resource on this key species in the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest,(N-P), the mountain national forest in North Carolina. According to the N.C.Wildlife Resources Commission 2015 annual report, “By all measures, grouse hunting during the 2014-15 season was the poorest on record”.

The U.S. Forest Service is currently creating about 500 acres per year of early successional habitat through regeneration cuts (clearcut, shelterwood, and group selection). This comprises about .06% of the 908,700 acres of unreserved timberland found on the forest. An additional + 100 acres is thinned annually with varying beneficial impacts on ground cover. The acreage of prescribed burn has increased steadily since 1995 and now averages about 10,000 acres annually. While this treatment promotes the development of early successional habitat, its aggregate impact is difficult to assess as effects vary widely with fire intensity, ambient temperature, stand density, season of year, timber type, and ground cover.

nantahala pisgah

Good quality early successional habitat can best be produced by well-designed regeneration harvests. Current management of the N-P produces about 500 acres annually of this habitat. Maintenance of suitable grouse habitat and the age class diversity essential to forest health requires, at a minimum, treatment of ~.5 % (about 4500 acres for the N-P) of the forested area annually. While the report focuses on grouse, be aware that  the decline of early succession habitat is adversely affecting not only grouse, but of other game and non-game species such as woodcock, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, golden-winged, prairie, and cerulean warblers, Bewick’s wren, yellow-breasted chat and a host of others (See Hunter et al, Wildlife Society Bulletin 29(2) 440-445)

The summer 2001 edition of the Wildlife Society Bulletin, a peer-reviewed journal of the professional organization of American wildlife biologists, contained a series of 8 articles. These examined in depth the changes in habitat and wildlife populations that are resulting from current non-management of wildlands in the eastern United States. The authors reached the unanimous conclusion that, considering both game and non-game species, more intensive management is urgently needed and that the continuation of the current “hands-off” policies would result in “the loss of some of the most interesting and diverse natural communities in eastern North America”. The habitat-population chart suggests that this prognosis is becoming a reality.

pisgah

 

It should be noted that the Nantahala-Pisgah N.F. has 105,000 acres of Wilderness and Wilderness Study areas and the neighboring Great Smoky Mountain National Park has 522,000 acres of forest land on which timber harvesting is prohibited.  

Mac McConnell

May, 2016

Report: Flathead National Forest Shirks Its Road Reclamation Duties

A new report from the Swan View Coalition in Montana gives a thorough rundown on how the Flathead National Forest in particular – and the Forest Service and Congress in general – are using the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) and other collaboration and “restoration” initiatives to keep its bloated road system and fool the public into thinking the problem in America’s forests is too many trees and not too many roads.

For those involved in bull trout and water quality issues, the report also documents ongoing road-related travesties in Bunker, Sullivan, Coal, and other key watersheds on the Flathead National Forest. The report also describes how the Flathead National Forest is trying to cheat its way out of road decommissioning and begin to instead rebuild roads decommissioned previously.

Read the full report here.

Executive Summary

In order to protect water quality and fish, the Flathead National Forest is required to either remove or monitor annually all culverts and bridges in roads closed in threatened bull trout habitat. Similarly, the Flathead is required to develop a monitoring plan for each road it chooses to simply close in providing Security Core habitat for threatened grizzly bear, rather than conducting the preferred reclamation by removing all stream-crossing structures.

Our investigation finds the Flathead has developed none of the required stream-crossing monitoring plans for roads closed to provide Security Core. Nor has it annually monitored stream-crossing structures on closed roads in bull trout habitat. Though the Forest Service set forth these requirements and the need for them, the Flathead has failed to implement them. Rather than correct the problem, it has instead set upon a course to do away with such requirements – as culverts and bridges continue to fail on roads both open and closed to motor vehicles.

This report will discuss how the Flathead tracks its roads and stream-crossing structures, discuss how it does and does not monitor them, and provide examples of the consequences when it fails to adequately manage them. It will conclude with recommendations on how to get the effort back on track rather than abandon it to the detriment of fish, wildlife and taxpayers.

Fracking on the Wayne National Forest – no significant impact

This story got me to look closer at planning for fracking on national forests.  The reason the BLM can say this in their EA is arguably because a lease does not “authorize surface disturbing activities.”  Here’s the way it works.

“The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposes to lease up to approximately 40,000 federally-owned minerals located in the Wayne National Forest, Athens Ranger District, Marietta Unit in Monroe, Noble, and Washington Counties in Ohio. This approximate acreage figure represents the total amount of federally-owned minerals that could be nominated and potentially be made available for leasing on the Marietta Unit. Industry uses the BLM Expression of Interest (EOI) process to nominate federal minerals for leasing. To date, industry has submitted over fifty EOIs for parcels located on the Marietta Unit totaling approximately 18,000 acres.”

“The proposed leases would provide the lessee(s) exclusive rights to explore and develop oil and gas reserves on the leases but do not authorize surface disturbing activities. Although there would be no surface disturbance from the action of leasing, the Environmental Assessment (EA) analyzes a reasonably foreseeable development scenario (RFDS) to address the anticipated environmental effects from potential future oil and gas development. Before a lessee or operator conducts any surface disturbing activities related to the development of these leases, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) must first approve an application for permit to drill (APD) as specified in 43 CFR 3162. In an APD, an applicant proposes to drill the well subject to the terms and conditions of the lease. Upon receipt of an APD, the BLM conducts an onsite inspection with the applicant and the landowner. The Forest Service and BLM would also conduct additional site-specific analysis in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the appropriate consultations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) prior to approving the APD.”

So for example, here are the effects of the proposal on “Recreation, Land Use and Noise:”  “No direct impacts from leasing. Minor, short- and longterm changes to land use from reasonably foreseeable development activities due to conversion of undeveloped areas to areas that support oil and gas development. Future reasonably foreseeable effects minimized by stipulations and other Forest Service measures for protecting recreation resources. Noise levels would lessen during the production phase.” Another example – effects on air resources would be mitigated by “Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), best management practices (BMPs) and conditions of approval (COAs) at time of drilling.”

Where I come from, NEPA requires accounting for “reasonably foreseeable effects,” and I think that is what is being described here.  And I think they meet the significance criteria in NEPA to require an EIS.  I don’t see how BLM can rely on mitigating effects through “stipulations and other Forest Service measures” – unless they are known, in-place mandatory forest plan standards, or if they have been incorporated into the terms of the lease. The EA cites these requirements:  “The following notifications and stipulations implement the standards and guidelines of the Wayne National Forest’s 2006 Land and Resource Management Plan (Forest Plan). These are in addition to the standard lease terms for oil and gas leases (BLM Form 3100-11).”  All other sources of potential mitigation would have to be considered speculative.

There is another NEPA process at the permitting stage where these effects may be addressed.  The EA states, “The lessee is hereby made aware that all post lease operations will be subject to appropriate environmental review and may be limited or denied by no surface occupancy stipulations.”   In reality, once a lease is signed, what discretion does the Forest Service have to deny or severely restrict a permit?  Maybe someone could refresh my memory on how this has all been sorted out in court.

VIDEO: Counties in Crisis – final cut

Subscribers here, I thought, might be interested to know that the documentary video titled, “Counties in Crisis – final cut,” is now available at YouTube, here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-7vAAUaPio.   Incidentally, the full text of the video’s script is also available at the Not Without a Fight! blog, here:  https://countieswithnationalforests.wordpress.com/2015/12/15/the-script-counties-in-crisis/.  Thanks!  Ron Roizen

Nez Perce Clearwater salvage project enjoined

The Idaho District Court enjoined the Johnson Bar Salvage Project on May 12, finding  violations of NEPA and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  During the time between the release of the DEIS in March of 2015, and the publication of the FEIS in October of 2015, timber harvesting activities on burned state and private lands had occurred or were underway, and additional wildfires had burned or continued to burn, near the project area.

The court found that the Forest had failed to take a hard look at the effects of these events on sediment and visual quality, and should have prepared a supplemental EIS to address the new information.  The main flaw was failing to undertake a quantitative effects analysis of the new sediment sources comparable to what had been done for the original baseline.  There were also conflicting statements in the fisheries evaluation, and evidence that road decommissioning would not reduce sediment as claimed.  There was no support in the record for conclusory statements in the ROD about a lack of cumulative effects.  The urgency of the salvage harvest was not given great weight in the balancing of interests that supported the injunction because the project was scheduled over five years.

This sounds like a case where shortcuts were taken to try to complete a project that was overtaken by events.  Haste makes waste.

The Wild and Scenic River holding involved an out-of-date river plan, but may have some implications for vaguely written forest plans (in relation to rivers, diversity or other requirements):

The Forest Service cannot effectively analyze, nor can the public and Court crosscheck, the Forest Service’s analysis, without a River Plan that delineates objective standards, or predetermined criteria, for describing, assessing, and protecting the Wild and Scenic values of the Rivers. 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.”

Even the 9th Circuit piles onto plaintiffs

On May 6, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Montana district court’s opinion in Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. Weber.  The Flathead National Forest Precommercial Thinning Project would thin about 500 acres a year in bull trout grizzly bear and arguably lynx habitat, and the decision was based on a categorical exclusion.  This looks like one of those cases where the judges tried to make the law match what they saw as the facts – The Ninth Circuit took three days to decide and quoted the district judge: “[t]his Project is the most innocuous logging project to be challenged in this court to date.”  The district judge also said, “Plaintiffs’ complaints are solely based on relatively insignificant alleged procedural missteps by the Forest Service, and they point to no actual or even reasonably potential harm the Project will cause to any of the relevant species.”

I think the judge played a little loose with the law (NFMA and NEPA) failed to appreciate the importance of one “procedural misstep.”  Specific locations of the thinning activities were not identified.  With regard to treatments in riparian areas (and bull trout habitat), decisions are said to be left to the future judgment of a “fisheries biologist.” With regard to meeting a forest plan requirement for maximum distance to cover, the decision document is apparently silent, but the court accepts an ambiguous statement in the biological assessment as assuring compliance with the forest plan. Where environmental effects or compliance with plan direction may be different depending upon project layout, then that layout should be part of the decision reviewed by the public and signed by the decision maker.

The judge also incorrectly stated that the forest plan’s 300-foot riparian buffer standard did not apply.  He should have said that it did, but that the requirements applicable to it were met.

Project complies with spotted owl recovery plan requirement in Shasta-Trinity forest plan

The Eastern California district court upheld the Harris Project on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest on Feb. 26. The project would treat about 2800 acres in northern spotted owl habitat. The Forest Service determined that the project would be “not likely to adversely affect” spotted owls, and the Fish and Wildlife Service concurred. The court found that spotted owls would be able to continue to feed, shelter, or disperse within the 17 acres of treated area in foraging habitat, and therefore the determination and concurrence complied with ESA. It also found that incomplete surveys were the best available science for determining owl presence.

 

The court also found that the agencies followed the recommendations in the spotted owl recovery plan. The recovery plan encouraged long-term improvements in habitat even if there were some short-term adverse effects, and, “Defendants weighed the short-term impacts against the long-term benefits and concluded that the Harris Project would ultimately help protect and increase northern spotted owl habitat. The court deferred to the agencies’ judgments that this project complied with this strategy. (The highlighted terms suggest that there would in fact be adverse effects that should have required a finding of adverse effects and triggered formal consultation to comply with ESA. Offsetting beneficial effects do not negate this ESA consultation requirement.)

 

As result the court also held that the project complied with NFMA because it was consistent with the Shasta-Trinity forest plan that required the Forest to, “maintain and/or enhance habitat for” threatened, endangered, and sensitive “species consistent with individual species recovery plans.”

 

The court also upheld the Forest Service NEPA process. It adequately addressed the effects on spotted owls of promoting ponderosa pine, and properly concluded that other treatments would lead to overall effects that would be beneficial. The court also found that a new report on reducing fire risk (Lydersen) did not contradict information used by the Forest Service, and therefore an SEIS was not needed to address it.

Wish you were on the Dixie?

The Utah federal district court upheld the Dixie National Forest decision on the Iron Springs Project (argued at a hearing in July 2014) in Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. Bulletts. The Project involves a range of vegetation management activities including intermediate harvest treatments, salvage of timber killed by or dying as a result of beetle infestation, regeneration of aspen, and reforestation of previously harvested areas. Commercial logging would occur on 3,603 acres of spruce/fir.

 

Most of the plaintiff’s claims were based on NEPA. The court found that an EIS was not necessary, focusing on the fact that the project affected only 0.5% of the national forest. It found the analysis of effects on old growth species and other at-risk species (including threatened Utah prairie dogs) to be adequate. There were also no unique characteristics of the area, and no controversy about the effects of the project on several wildlife species.

 

The court was a little creative (or inexperienced) in brushing off potential controversy about using timber harvest to address beetle kill. It concluded that, “Even if the efficacy of timber harvest for the purpose of addressing beetle kill is highly controversial, addressing beetle kill is only one of six stated reasons for the Project.”   This suggests that adding non-controversial purposes to a project can somehow offset any other controversy that exists – a dubious NEPA proposition.

 

Plaintiffs also pointed out that a goshawk amendment to the forest plan had been in place for a decade longer than intended, based only on an EA. However, they did not challenge the forest plan, and the court found that the project was consistent with the forest plan, and that a 2012 scientific review of the amendment validated the best available science for goshawks. The court also upheld viability analysis of management indicator species, which showed that the project area would continue to support sufficient numbers of flickers and three-toed woodpeckers.

Washington Post: Federal Hiring System Broken

Here’s an interesting article on federal hiring processes. This sounds familiar:

“Federal government job seekers feel like their resumes go into a black hole. Hiring can take months. The most talented people don’t make the cut.”

Why is it so hard to get a federal job? Here’s one reason.

I applied for a federal job a few years ago, for which I think I was highly qualified, but I never got a call or any indication that I was being considered.

I’ve taught several “career skills” classes for forestry and wildlife-management students. One of the most important bits of advice is to seek out and speak with the people (at the USFS, BLM, or any other federal, state, or private employer) doing the hiring, which takes time and effort, but can help a great deal.

OSU study finds old-growth forests provide temperature refuges in face of climate change

BBush Old Growth
Wow! Imagine that. Oregon Public Broadcasting has the story.

Old-growth forests in the Northwest have the potential to make the extremes of climate change less damaging for wildlife. New research out of Oregon State University shows complex forests do a surprisingly good job of regulating temperature on the ground – even compared to fully mature tree plantations.

“On a sunny day, if you were sitting underneath them, you’d get a similar amount of shade,” says study co-author Matt Betts, an Ecologist at OSU.

But the kind of forest makes a big difference on temperature.

“The more structurally complex the forest, the more big trees, the more vertical layers – the cooler it was,” he says.

The research showed differences as much as 4.5 degrees on warm days. Old growth forests also held in heat during cold weather. Overall, these forests have a moderating effect on temperature extremes.

One reason, researchers suspect, is that tree plantations, even mature ones, don’t have nearly the understory material – small trees, shrubs, ground cover – as more complex stands. Nor do these single-age plantations have a lot of big trees – unlike old growth stands.

“We think one of the mechanisms causing this is thermal inertia,” Betts says. “That takes these trees longer to warm up and longer to cool down. And that could be providing some of the buffering capacity of these older forests.”

Betts says these stands of old growth could provide refuges for temperature-sensitive wildlife in the face of climate change.

“It gives us some hope that how we actually manage our forest, can influence positively those species that are declining,” he says.

The study was published Friday in Science Advances.