Forest Service tried to quash paper debunking Montana wildlife authority

This is a must read! Public lands, wildlife management and Forest Service censorship, oh my!

Dr. Martin Nie is not only the director of the distinguished Bolle Center for People and Forests at the University of Montana…but Dr. Nie was one of the founders of this blog. The Missoulian article also includes quotes from current blog contributor Jon Haber. – mk

Forest Service tried to quash paper debunking Montana wildlife authority
By Rob Chaney, Missoulian | Full article here

The U.S. Forest Service has disavowed a legal analysis it commissioned that showed federal land managers have given state wildlife departments more authority than they really possess.

In June, the agency asked the University of Montana to remove the draft report five days after “Fish and Wildlife Management on Federal Lands: Debunking State Supremacy” appeared on the Bolle Center for People and Forest’s website.

Three weeks later, it terminated a two-year contract with the center and its director, Martin Nie, citing the “provocative title” as a reason.

“This is some of the most tedious, boring work I’ve ever done,” Nie told a group of UM students Wednesday. “That’s what’s amazing — how much controversy this has generated.”

The beehive Nie and his colleagues whacked concerns who owns and controls wildlife in the nation: state fish and game departments or federal land managers.

In 126 pages of Supreme Court citings, legislative history and case studies, the Bolle team argued that “the U.S. Constitution grants the federal government vast authority to manage its lands and wildlife resources … even when states object.”

“The myth that ‘the states manage wildlife and federal land agencies only manage wildlife habitat’ is not only wrong from a legal standpoint but it leads to fragmented approaches to wildlife conservation, unproductive battles over agency turf, and an abdication of federal responsibility over wildlife,” the report stated. It found that claim “especially dubious when states assert ownership as a basis to challenge federal authority over wildlife on federal lands.”

One case study Nie looked at took place just over the Montana border last winter. An Idaho Department of Fish and Game helicopter team trapped and radio-collared two wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness while ostensibly conducting an elk study. The action violated several requirements of the federal Wilderness Act as well as a federal court warning against such activities. In June, a federal judge ordered Idaho to destroy all the elk and wolf data gathered from the study and chastised the Forest Service for allowing the project to go forward.

“Congress has no interest in usurping the role of states in managing hunting and fishing,” Nie said. “But the federal government can’t say it doesn’t manage public land just because they don’t want to manage the take of big-game animals. What’s baffling to us was we reminded them they have the power, and they don’t seem to want to hear it.”

Forest Service officials at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colorado, and in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for comment on this story Friday. A spokesperson said they may be able to discuss the issues next week.

Nie stressed the report didn’t call for a federal claw-back of authority over wildlife. Rather, it suggested a more constructive “co-trusteeship” that balances state management goals with federal obligations to conserve all kinds of fish and wildlife in the public trust.

Take it down

Nie’s team posted a draft version of the study on June 2 on the Bolle Center’s website for feedback and criticism before sending it for publication in Environmental Law, a law review at Lewis & Clark Law School dedicated to environmental issues.

Five days later, Rocky Mountain Research Station Director John Phipps contacted Franke College of Forestry and Conservation Dean Tom DeLuca and asked him to take down the report. Nie said Phipps told him, “I hope that the consequences of this decision will not be as serious as I fear they will be.”

DeLuca declined to remove the report.

“To be told you have to take that down or face consequences — that sure seems like censorship to me,” DeLuca said. “No other Forest Service research project we have has encountered something like this, and we have a very close relationship with the Forest Service. I don’t know Phipps personally, but we’ve always had a very positive relationship. When he says ‘consequences,’ I don’t know how to interpret that. Does he mean for the college or for Martin?”

Lucy France at UM’s Office of Legal Counsel said the university has and intends to continue its positive working relationship with the Forest Service. But it also considers Nie a well-respected faculty member and scholar, and supports the academic freedom of all its faculty.

“The university supports, and to the extent it can be helpful, will continue to help facilitate continuing dialogue between Dr. Nie and the U.S. Forest Service,” France said. “The university position is that neither it nor Dr. Nie did anything to violate the terms of the joint venture agreement.”

DeLuca said UM and the Forest Service have deeply interwoven research ties, with more than $2 million a year in joint venture agreements and related funding supporting student and faculty activity.

On June 26, Phipps sent a letter to UM stating that the Forest Service was terminating Nie’s contract. Phipps stated the contract required all work to be produced in collaboration with the agency, and “to date, the Forest Service has not collaborated on the content of any final or draft reports or other publications produced(.)”

Nie found this confusing. He had been invited to formally brief Forest Service leadership in Washington, D.C., twice in 2015 and 2016 while the research was in progress (for the first time in his career).

He added that the contract laid out what the Forest Service was supposed to do on its end: “I fail to understand the rationale of terminating an agreement based on a perceived failure of the USFS, not by me and my research team,” he wrote to Phipps.

Phipps followed up on July 27 with a clarification letter. He wrote the agency wasn’t accusing Nie of failing to carry out the obligations of the contract: “Rather at the time the decision was made to terminate the agreement, the Forest Service simply had not seen the results of any research or content of any draft or final work product.” Phipps added the agency “looks forward to working with Dr. Nie” and UM on future projects.

That further confounded matters. “On what basis would you ask that the article be taken offline if the agency had not yet seen it?” Nie asked.

On August 30, Forest Service Deputy Chief for Research and Development Carlos Rodriguez-Franco wrote Nie another response.

“The concerns which led to the termination … arose when a draft article, with a provocative title challenging state legal authorities, was placed on a public website without prior substantive comment from the Forest Service,” Rodriguez-Franco wrote.

“(I)t became apparent that the work being conducted by the University was entering the realm of legal services — including interpreting the Constitution, laws and court cases as they pertain to the administration of Forest Service programs — rather than scientific research.”

The Forest Service, he explained, was required by law to get its legal advice from the federal Office of General Counsel.

But the contract itself never asked for scientific research. It requested “an authoritative review of the policy-legal issues related to wildlife management on federal lands … to explain the more relevant public land laws, regulations, case law, agreements and plans relevant to fish and wildlife management on federal lands and wilderness(.)”

The contract came from the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, a Forest Service-funded center that Nie can see from his office on the fourth floor of UM’s Clapp Science Center. Center Director Susan Fox wrote Phipps a letter supporting Nie and protesting the contract termination.

“Blue-ribbon panels are used when it is important that they are independent from political influence or agency authority,” Nie quoted from Fox’s letter to Phipps. “Blue-ribbon panels are often appointed by government to report on a matter of controversy.”

What’s the controversy?

Nie described the final version of the report as “four parts Nyquil and one part Red Bull.” It charts the legal reasoning from dozens of federal court cases confirming that federal law trumps state law where wildlife is concerned. It also chronicles the history of states carving out exceptions to that federal authority, or challenging federal oversight when it conflicts with state plans.

For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 attempted to protect grizzly bears and wolves on national wildlife refuges from hunting practices promoted by Alaska’s state predator control policy to boost elk, moose and caribou populations. Congress this year used the Congressional Review Act to nullify the FWS regulations, although it didn’t take away the agency’s obligation to protect predators on its lands.

The underpinning for public land management is something called the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Nie’s work poked that historic philosophy of big-game hunting.

The North American Model dates back to the 1860s, when habitat loss to settlement and commercial hunting of wildlife for sale drove much of the continent’s deer and elk off the landscape. Hunting advocates, including Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, helped lead a movement to professionalize wildlife management and preserve habitat.

As noted in the Missoula-headquartered Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s website, the model has two core principles. “That our fish and wildlife belong to all Americans, and that they need to be managed in a way that their populations will be sustained forever.”

Montana’s five-week, general big-game hunting season stands testament to the success of the idea. The state enjoys one of the longest and most liberal opportunities to kill deer, elk, black bears, fish and antelope anywhere in the continental U.S. Its Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks gets almost all its funding directly from hunters and anglers through the sale of licenses and permits to hunt and fish.

The problem, according to the study, is that approach assumes the point of public wildlife is to serve the needs of the community that hunts it. That perspective excludes or demotes the needs of non-game animals, people who watch but don’t hunt, ecosystems that depend on a balance of predators and prey, and places that don’t support popular game animals.

“When we got into all those cases, we were surprised to see the states constantly citing this (North American) model,” Nie said. “They’ve been making these arguments for a century. But the constitutional issues have been resolved for a long time.”

Nevertheless, the presumption got woven into federal policy without proper support. For example, federal Bureau of Land Management policy 43 CFR Part 24 states in part: “BLM lands … explicitly recognized and reaffirmed the primary authority and responsibility of the States for management of fish and resident wildlife on such lands.” In fact, Nie argued, underlying federal law does not grant such state primacy.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams said that tension is a constant factor in land management.

“In these political times, looking at wildlife management and public lands is timely and, frankly, tricky,” Williams said. “I firmly believe in public trust wildlife. It’s a responsibility that states, especially Montana, need to take seriously. I think the authors are asking for more understanding of the need for collaboration between the states and federal government on wildlife.”

Giving states ownership of public wildlife also pushes the federal government out of the land-management arena. DeLuca said that may be a clue to why the report generated such a swift shut-down.

“It’s more than just the title,” DeLuca said. “It’s the content of the work and the definitive conclusion that there’s no primacy of states over wildlife. That pushes against the supposed agenda to shift responsibility for federal land management down to the states.”

The report documents efforts by organizations like the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to cement state primacy into federal law. It noted that AFWA has been attempting that “through legally questionable policy channels and nontransparent agreements between federal agencies and (AFWA).” Montana FWP is a member of AFWA.

The ideas also show up in bills like the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, which passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee on Sept. 13. The bill blocks federal restrictions on lead ammunition and fishing tackle and gives states expanded approval of federal fishing restrictions, among other things. Its final section, “Respect for State Wildlife Management Authority,” states: “Nothing in this act shall be construed as interfering with, diminishing, or conflicting with the authority, jurisdiction or responsibility of any State to exercise primary management, control or regulation of fish and wildlife under State law, on land or water within the State, including on Federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service.”

“Some of us were aware of the SHARE Act, but we chose not to include that in the scope of paper,” report co-author Jon Haber said. “It wasn’t targeted at the SHARE Act or other legislation. This is information that could be used anywhere. That’s all it was intended to be.”

Haber is a retired Forest Service planning specialist. He was joined in the project by Christopher Barnes, recently retired wilderness specialist from BLM’s Carhart Center, and Kenneth Pitt, a retired attorney from the USDA Office of General Counsel. On the academic side, Nie brought in law professor Sandra Zellmer and former University of Alaska associate professor Julie Joly.

Nie opted to keep the dispute quiet over the summer, hoping to get an explanation of the Forest Service’s reaction and perhaps an apology. At one point, it appeared the agency was going to provide a formal review through its Office of General Counsel. That fizzled after several weeks of anticipation. It wasn’t until students asked about the project at the start of the fall semester that he decided to air the dispute publicly.

At Wednesday’s gathering, UM environmental sociologist Jill Belsky played devil’s advocate and asked about the decision to keep the “debunking” title. If the goal was to promote better state and federal cooperation, getting silenced by a federal agency wasn’t the intended outcome.

Nie said the team considered changing the title. But once they got the order to take the paper offline, they dug in.

“This is what we do,” Nie said. “These are myths, and they need to be debunked. If they can’t get past a title, there’s no hope the agencies will ever change.”

Blog Volunteer Wanted!

Have you ever wanted to contribute to the maintenance of this blog? Well… I could really use some help.
I get behind in posting the Litigation Weekly, and I realized it is a task that would be easy for someone else to do. I will email it to you, you run it through an OCR reader of some kind, and then copy and paste it to be a blog post. You would also upload the legal files. It takes me about 15 minutes per week.

The reason I was told by the FS that they couldn’t send the files in an easier to copy format (as they did formerly) is that someone copied and posted it somewhere but changed it, and someone in the FS got into trouble. As a veteran of many sizes, shapes and forms of “getting into trouble,” I am absolutely against that happening to anyone else unnecessarily. So part of this task is that you would have to promise not to change anything while copying the text of the Weekly. You would be free to comment – but in the comment boxes.

Now you might think that if the FS would just post Weeklies to the public, the “changed wording” would cease to be problem- because anyone could see for themselves what the right wording is. You might also think that changed words would be more of a problem if people like us, with the best intentions, have to run them through an optical character reader. These can be inaccurate. Don’t go down that rabbit trail! It will only lead to frustration and low morale. I think the right attitude is “just another hill to climb to provide valuable information on the workings of government to the citizen.”

If you think this might be fun, a learning experience, or just want to contribute something meaningful and popular to this blog community, please email me at terraveritas at gmail. I will provide such training as needed, and lavish amounts of appreciation.

Good Neighbor Authority

This isn’t something that has been discussed here, but in the last couple of days I’ve seen two stories that make it sound like the greatest thing since tab tops.

The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest may sell 123 million board feet of timber by the end of fiscal 2017, WJFW-TV reported. That would mark the fifth annual increase in a row for the forest, which is nearing its maximum yield.  Forest Supervisor Paul Strong said this year’s expected yield is “absolutely great news.” The forest’s management plan aims to sell 131 million board feet annually. Strong said the timber program has grown thanks to the National Forest Services’ increased authority under the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill and policies allowing organizations to remove small trees and keep the timber.  He also cited the federal Good Neighbor Authority policy, which has allowed the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to manage the sale of about 25 million board feet of timber in the national forest annually.

Idaho has been seeing success with using the “Good Neighbor Authority” it was granted under the 2014 federal Farm Bill to partner with the U.S. Forest Service and increase active management and timber harvests on national forests in the state – and it’s poised to ramp the program up.  Under GNA, the state Department of Lands can offer its expertise and help to the Forest Service where the service’s staffing is short, for everything from administering contracts for timber sales to jointly designing projects that are backed by local collaboratives.   Because Idaho had numerous forest collaboratives already in place – which bring together sportsmen, conservationists, industry, local government and more to help design projects to improve forests in their area – it was able to spring into action.  Schultz said the piece Idaho’s been able to include that earlier states didn’t is actual timber sales – which add the jobs and economic impact piece, along with fund the program itself.  Jonathan Oppenheimer, government relations director for the Idaho Conservation League, attended the Land Board meeting. “We’ve been involved in a lot of these collaboratives,” he said afterward. “We are cautiously supportive of the program. We see it as a good way to get work done.” He called GNA “a good tool, but one that we’re certainly watching closely.”

Here’s what the Forest Service says about it:

The Good Neighbor Authority allows the Forest Service to enter into cooperative agreements or contracts with States and Puerto Rico to allow the States to perform watershed restoration and forest management services on National Forest System (NFS) lands. Congress passed two laws expanding Good Neighbor Authority (GNA): the FY 2014 Appropriations Act and the 2014 Farm Bill. Each law contains slightly different versions.

  • The Farm Bill permanently authorizes the Good Neighbor Authority for both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) extending it to all 50 States and Puerto Rico. It excludes construction, reconstruction, repair, or restoration of paved or permanent roads or parking areas and construction, alteration, repair, or replacement of public buildings or works; as well as projects in wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, and lands where removal of vegetation is prohibited or restricted.

  • The Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 Appropriations Act included a five-year authorization for the use of GNA in all states with NFS lands to perform watershed restoration and protection services on NFS and BLM lands when similar and complementary services are performed by the state on adjacent state or private lands. Other than the adjacency requirement, there were no exclusions as to type or location of work.

Is there more here than meets the eye (good or bad)?  It does help with the financing.  Focusing on national forest lands that are “adjacent” to state or private lands seems like it would minimize controversy.  No mention of a collaboration requirement, but that seems to figure into it somehow.  If this is working so well, does the FS need more legislation?

We Got This!

New Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke announced today that the Forest Service is unrolling “bold moves we will make throughout the agency to help our employees improve our ability to do more work on the ground, deliver more results and live up to our responsibility for sound land stewardship.” The new planning and analysis tactics will be announced next week at a Phoenix workshop attended by over 200 Forest Service leaders. These “innovations [will] demonstrate ways to significantly reduce costs and the time it takes for us to do this work, while delivering safe, high quality outcomes—with meaningful results that honor our stewardship responsibilities.”

The Forest Service’s Phoenix workshop comes at a time when some members of Congress believe that changes in environmental laws are needed. It appears Chief Tooke and his leadership team believe that the Forest Service already has the tools needed to get the job done.

Here is the complete text of Chief Tooke’s all-employees email:’

From: FS-Office of the Chief
Sent: Thursday, September 21, 2017 5:03 AM
To: FS-All FS
Subject: ***MESSAGE FROM THE CHIEF***Employees Invited to Participate via Live Stream in National Workshop on Environmental Analysis and Decision-making

Next week more than 200 leaders from around the country will convene in Phoenix, AZ, for a national workshop aimed at initiating Forest Service-wide reform of our environmental analysis and decision-making processes.

We invite you to join us via live streaming for the opening and closing sessions of the Environmental Analysis and Decision Making workshop, which brings together professionals from every level of the organization. It will result in bold moves we will make throughout the agency to help our employees improve our ability to do more work on the ground, deliver more results and live up to our responsibility for sound land stewardship.

The Workshop takes place Monday-Thursday, September 26-28. You can join 8 a.m.-noon Pacific Time Tuesday, September 26, for the opening session and 2:15-4:15 p.m. Pacific Time Thursday, September 28, for the closing session. (See instructions below)

The National Leadership Council and I will participate in portions of the session. Participants will draw on more than 30 years of experience of completing environmental analyses and making sound decisions. This includes learning from innovative efforts taking place in various units of these agency. These innovations demonstrate ways to significantly reduce costs and the time it takes for us to do this work, while delivering safe, high quality outcomes—with meaningful results that honor our stewardship responsibilities. Now is the time to apply these innovations nation-wide.

This gathering serves as a critical next step toward a collective shift for the Forest Service. The timing is right: A confluence of factors—including a back log of needed mission critical work, a need for increased employee capacity, land conditions calling for extensive forest restoration, and increased expectations for the agency to deliver services—have come together to create an urgency for change. To be successful, we will need support and commitment from all employees. I am asking you to participate in this change that will advance our commitment to citizens we serve and lands we steward.

I am personally committed to keeping this effort moving forward; I am working right alongside you to get it done. We look forward to your workshop participation—in person or live stream–and thank you for the commitment to our work ahead to improve results to sustain healthy, resilient and productive forests.

Live Steam Broadcasts:

Opening Session: 8 a.m-12 Noon, Pacific Time, Tuesday September 26
Closing Session: 2:15-4:15 pm. Pacific Thursday, September 28.

To connect to the live stream, please click on the link below:

Helpful advice:
· Because of bandwidth limitations, every unit should attend from a central location if at all possible.

· Confirm your system has the most recent version of Adobe Flash player appropriate for your computer.

Chief Tony Tooke

Rain’s Ecosystem Service Value

The Columbia River Gorge’s Eagle Creek Fire will be history as about 5 inches of rain are forecast to fall within the next several days. Tongue-in-cheek, we can calculate the ecosystem service value of rain by analyzing the avoided cost of an alternative delivery vehicle — the Global Supertanker.

Five inches of rain delivered across the Eagle Creek Fire’s 48,387 acres is 6.6 billion gallons. The Supertanker can dump about 20,000 gallons per sortie, and, if a sufficient airfield is nearby, can perform about seven sorties per day at a daily rate of $250,000 (note that these calculations are for dumping water, not retardant, which would add a couple of bucks per gallon to the cost). It would take the Supertanker about 47,000 days to dump the equivalent of 5 inches of rain at a cost of $10 billion and change.

Ahh, blissful, beautiful, cheap free rain!

Thinning for Water in California: Various Disciplines Weigh In

Sediment basin for KREW (KIng’s River Experimental Watershed) from SNAMP website.

M of T noted in a comment that a force against MT (mechanical treatments) which may be necessary before PB (prescribed burns) is the problem of dealing with non-commercial material that needs to be removed. Her comment reminded me of this article in The Economist.

Thinning efforts are off to a great start but must accelerate, says Timothy Quinn, head of the Association of California Water Agencies. Five times as much forest should be thinned every year, estimates Roger Bales, a hydrologist at the University of California, Merced. To find out how much extra water a thinned watershed produces, the university has placed sensors in thinned and control plots in the Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest north of Yosemite National Park. Depending on landscape and precipitation, thinned areas shed 10-40% more water into streams, Mr Bales estimates.

More accurate numbers will be available next year. The hope, says Eric Knapp, a Forest Service ecologist in Redding, is that a new thinning technique will prove to produce even more water when flow volumes from next spring’s snowmelt are known. Some plots are not thinned evenly, but rather by clear-cutting gaps with a diameter one or two times the height of surrounding trees. The idea is to clear an area big enough for a good snowpack to form, but small enough for shade to reduce evaporation and extend the melting season.

California’s governor recently signed a bill that facilitates thinning watersheds. But some environmentalists resist “cutting any tree for any reason”, as the Forest Service’s Mr Murphy puts it. And some think thinning doesn’t produce meaningfully more run-off. That’s the opinion of Chris Frissell of Frissell & Raven Hydrobiological and Landscape Sciences, a consultancy in Polson, Montana. Thinning has become popular in the state, but, he says, it disturbs soil, generating silt that harms aquatic life.

Clearing trees with fire is cheap if all goes to plan but only makes sense in certain areas. Thinning with big chainsaws on wheels can cost up to $650,000 per square mile. This could be recouped with timber revenue if big trees are felled. But the chainsaws are usually only let loose on smaller trees, so taxpayers must cough up.

One solution would be to get water utilities or hydropower producers to fund the thinning. AMP Insights, a consultancy which has estimated the value of water flowing out of the Sierra Nevada, reckons the extra flow would defray the cost of removing trees by 20% and, in wet years, by 60% or more.

Here we have one scientist (Bales) with monitors in plots saying that thinned areas get more water into streams, but (Frissell) possibly at the expense of aquatic life. We’ll explore that in greater depth in the future.

As Brian Hawthorne said earlier, thinning for fuel treatment is not the only reason to thin. Brian also mentioned restoration. Bales and others are thinking about dealing with climate change and water resources, another purpose, involving more disciplines. The scientists in the article come from a variety of disciplines.
Here’s Eric Knapp, forest ecologist.
Tim Murphy is a hydrologist/soil scientist (according to LinkedIn)
Chris Frissell seems to also be a scientist at U of Montana in addition to the consultancy the article mentions. Here’s his information. He is an aquatic ecologist.
Roger Bales works on water and climate engineering and is a professor at U of Calif Merced. Here’s his info.

Wildfire and Fuel Treatment Minus the “Blame Game”

It seems like one person’s “accountability” is another person’s “blame.” So let’s not use any inflammatory or pejorative words, and talk here civilly (no politicians in this room :)).

We in the interior west must live with fire. To do so we need an “All of the Above” strategy or a “Three Legged Stool”, 1. (community and personal actions) 2.(prescribed burning, mechanical treatments and WFU) and 3.(suppression). It seems to be PB, MT and WFU in which most of the disagreement lies. For a variety of reasons, once a wildfire is ignited, it’s easier to burn areas than if a project to burn them is planned ($ are there, not so much analysis and no litigation (yet)). And since planned fires can avoid environmentally sensitive area, be placed in areas that will help suppression, and put smoke in the air outside of “smoke season,” it seems logical to try to increase these. So what forces work against that?

In terms of forces that work against PB, MT and (to a lesser extent) WFU:

– Funding
– Air quality concerns and regulatory framework (does not reflect that PB will make for less fire season smoke)
– Fear of prescribed fires getting out of control/safety (e.g. state of Colorado stopped PB for a couple of
– Litigation, “bulletproofing” documents and associated related work

It seems to me that litigation is not “the problem,” but it certainly contributes to slowing down and stopping projects that lead to fuel treatment, and is one of many contributing factors. Litigation is particularly interesting because, in contrast to public meetings and comments, and appeals or objections, there is no timeframe. So we can imagine some tweaks that would speed up the ultimate resolution without messing with the legal fundamentals.

If we are to move to an “all of the above” strategy, we need to be able to openly talk about what factors would need to change to “get more fire on the landscape,” as so many have said is a desirable goal. Environmental protection, avoiding prescribed burns that turn into wildfires, and so on, all these are good things with good people representing those interests.

In your opinion:
What other forces are out there working against “more fire on the landscape?”

How can we all work together better to get more fire on the landscape?

University of Montana Forest Ecologist Takes Senator Daines to the Woodshed for Wildlife Blame-Game

Dr. Andrew Larson (center, seated) is an Associate Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of Montana.

Last night Montana Senator Steve Daines, who hasn’t hosted an in-person town hall meeting in over 1,000 days hosted a ‘teletownhall’ to blame ‘radical environmentalists’ for wildfires.

Montana Public Radio News Director Eric Whitney sat in the studio and listened to Senator Daines’ phone call with University of Montana Forest Ecologist Dr. Andrew Larson.

You can listen to the interview here, and the transcript is below. Suffice to say, Dr. Larson took Senator Steve Daines to the woodshed and dumped cold water on his incendiary and childish “radical environmentalist” rhetoric.

P.S. For at least the past twenty years us ‘radical’ ‘fringe’ and ‘extremist’ environmentalists have been basically delivering the same message and points that Dr. Larson does in this excellent, in-depth Montana Public Radio interview. – mk

Last night Senator Steve Daines held what he calls a “tele-townhall,” one of the periodic conference calls he invites Montanans to join, in which he takes a few questions from callers. This one was also live streamed on his Facebook page. The topic was forest management and wildfires.

Senator Daines said Montanans are angry about the fires and smoke they’ve been enduring this summer, and placed the blame for the fires on, “Radical environmentalists, who are blocking projects to remove dead trees, even in some cases, trees, lodgepoles, that died from insect infestation,” Daines said. “We have radical environmental groups that do not represent the vast majority of Montanans, who believe in a balanced, common sense approach. They stop these projects.”

As he’s done before, Daines offered the Stonewall project outside Lincoln as an example of a logging project proposed by the U.S. Forest Service that could have reduced fire danger, had it not been stopped by a lawsuit. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued to stop the Stonewall, which was proposed for an area now being partially consumed by the 18,000-acre Park Creek Fire.

“The environmentalists are not responsible for that fire burning, and had the Stonewall project advanced, it’s very likely that the site would be burning today,” says Andrew Larson. He’s not an environmental activist. He’s an associate professor of forest ecology in the forestry college at the University of Montana.

“As an ecologist, as someone — I’m trained as a forester — I would expect and hope that that forest, that hypothetical treated forest, would burn. Because that’s what it needs to function, to be a healthy forest ecosystem. Montana forests are only going to function when they have fire in them. That’s a healthy forest,” Larson said.

I listened to Senator Daines’ conference call with Larson, who said he detected a change in the senator’s comments about wildfires. Daines has been saying that more logging would prevent forest fires. Last night he said more logging and forest management won’t entirely eliminate fire from the landscape, but will reduce risks from and severity of wildfires.

“I really was pleased to hear him say that. That’s, I think, a really important incorporation of some forest ecology, fire ecology knowledge into the types of things he’s saying,” Larson said.

“However, the entire conversation tonight on the tele-townhall mingled them, sometimes explicitly. More often there was the implication that, if we do more logging, more vegetation management, more thinning, we won’t have as many acres burned, and we won’t be breathing as much smoke; and that’s just absolutely not true,” Larson said.

“What we might be able to achieve with a more active vegetation management program are areas that don’t burn with as high a severity, we also might have safer working environments for fire managers.”

Larson acknowledged that it may seem counterintuitive that not removing vegetation from forests will have no impact the number of acres that burn in a given year, or the amount of smoke, but, “The total biomass that’s consumed might be less, but the only time you do not have enough fuel to carry a fire is going to be in the first year or two after a fire has burned,” he said.

“Even after you go and thin a forest, when it’s dry like it is now, it’s still going to carry a fire, it’s still going to generate smoke. So, in terms of day to day life, the experience we have during the fire season, we need to not get our hopes up,” Larson says. “You can anticipate more smoke. Even if we were to double, triple, increase the amount of area logged or thinned by a factor of ten or 20, we’re still going have smoke, we’re not going to stop the fires. We may change how they burn, and that’s an important outcome, it’s something that a lot of my research is directed at. But we need to make sure people don’t get their hopes up and expect something that the forestry profession, that managers in the Forest Service, the Department of Interior, can’t deliver on.”

A woman identified as Patricia from Ft. Benton, was one of the eight callers who were able to speak to Senator Daines last night. She asked about trees killed by pine beetles.

“And I was troubled, because I couldn’t understand why those trees were remaining, because they are a fire hazard, they are dead trees, so there is no reason for them to remain.”

Daines agreed, and said only, “radical environmentalists” would try to stop efforts to remove dead trees from Montana forests.

“That’s an attitude that I’m always kind of disappointed to encounter,” Larson said, “because a healthy forest has dead trees and dead wood. The snags — standing dead trees — and dead logs are some of the most important habitat features for biodiversity. You can’t have an intact, healthy wildlife community without dead wood in your forest.”

One of the lines Senator Daines often uses when talking about public lands management is, “a managed forest is a healthy forest.”

“One of the problems is, ‘healthy’ doesn’t have a scientific definition,” Larson said, “so, when we come at it from a technical perspective, it can mean whatever we want it to mean. Some of the most intensively managed forests in the world are in Northern Europe, and they are in a biodiversity crisis, because they have mismanaged their dead wood. They never let their trees get old, they never let ’em die. They cut ’em down and take them to the mill, and there is a horrible deficit of dead wood in those forests. And as a consequence, they’re compromised, they’re not functioning, they’re not providing the habitat for all the native biodiversity, the native wildlife species.

I asked Professor Larson what he thinks is important for Montanans who listened to Senator Daines’ conference call to keep in mind.

“My main points are, climate and weather drive fire. Healthy forests have to have dead trees in them. That’s not saying that we can’t cut some of the dead trees down. But you can’t have a functional forest without dead trees, they’re incredibly important for habitat,” Larson said.

“And the forestry profession, we need to be careful to not promise things that we can’t deliver,” he said. “And we’re never going to stop fire. We can help society live with fire, but that’s going to be a big team effort. We have to change our expectations. We need to expect that fire to come at some point, and not be surprised. We need to be planning for it — individual land owners, home owners — because that’s the environment we live in.”

Forest planning for hunting

“A number of environmental groups, including the Endangered Species Coalition, want to keep hunters who use packs of dogs out of public lands in Wisconsin, including the state’s national forests.  The groups say the hunters and their dogs have made the public lands inhospitable, and they want the federal government to launch an investigation into the practice.  Robert Williams is a Madison resident who frequently camps on public lands in northern Wisconsin. He says the packs of hunting dogs wreak havoc on the native wildlife.”

This brings to mind a similar situation in Louisiana. In 2012 the Forest Service amended the Kisatchie National Forest plan to prohibit the “age-old tradition” in Louisiana of hunting deer with dogs because of user conflicts.  In Louisiana Sportsmen Alliance v. Vilsack, a federal district court upheld the forest plan amendment. It stated: “We are conscious of the fact that KNF is a National Forest, owned by the United States and to be utilized in the best interests of all. The law empowers the agency to make precisely the kinds of decisions made here.”  (The Fifth Circuit then held that plaintiffs had not established standing to sue and dismissed the case.)  If the agency has the authority to regulate recreation that impacts species listed under ESA, then its failure to do so in Wisconsin might violate the law.  (However, under the 2012 Planning Rule, forest plans do not directly regulate users by themselves, and a separate closure order would be required.)

The Science of Fighting Wildfires Gets a Satellite Boost

This piece, “The Science of Fighting Wildfires Gets a Satellite Boost” from Megan Molteni in Wired is certainly worth a read.

While the news media in Montana seems entirely intent on just letting Montana’s politicians – especially from the GOP – engaged in childish name calling like calling Montana citizens who are environmentalists ‘extremists’ ‘fringe’ or ‘radicals’ (thereby inciting hatred, and maybe even potential violence against environmentalists in Montana)….

Numerous national media outlets (here and here, for example) seem to have no problem picking up the phone and contacting actual, real-life Montana scientists and researchers who actually do things like study wildfires. Crazy, right?

This part of the Wired article caught my eye (emphasis added):

Here’s the straightforward logic of Zinke’s scapegoating: Environmentalists block the Forest Service from lowering the fuel load on the land, land catches on fire, and now it’s harder to put out. Thanks, tree-huggers.

But fire scientists say it’s more complicated than that. Many question the ecological (and economic) value of thinning forests out, for three big reasons. One, the evidence for its efficacy is both scant and at times contradictory. Two, probabilistic risk assessments show that the thinning doesn’t really help much because the likelihood of a fire starting close enough to interact with thinned areas is negligibly small. And three, in the worst weather conditions — dry, hot, and most importantly, windy — no amount of thinning or selective logging is going to make much difference.

[Geez, where have we heard these points before… – mk]

A case in point: that Park Creek fire burning outside of Lincoln. It started on a remote slope that wasn’t slated for any prescribed burns or dead tree removals. But such treatments wouldn’t have made much difference anyway, according to Carl Seielstad, a fire ecologist at the National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis at the University of Montana, because the closest road is more than mile away, at the bottom of a slope.

If you know anything about fire behavior, you know it moves much faster uphill. And in this case there wasn’t much in that direction, except more trees. “Without any roads in this area there was nothing for firefighters to anchor to,” says Seielstad, pointing at a 3D rendering of the fire’s path he’s pulled up on his computer. “It’s fair to say that regardless of treatment, this area would probably have been impossible to contain.”

Well, as careful readers of this blog will recall, Montana’s Republican politicians including Secretary Ryan Zinke, Senator Steve Daines, Rep Greg “Gonna Body Slam Ya” Gianforte and even Sec of Ag Sonny Perdue all pointed to the Park Creek Fire in an effort to blame ‘fringe’ ‘radical’ ‘extremists’ environmentalists for wildfires throughout Montana. And of course the Montana timber industry had to jump on that blame the environmentalists bandwagon too.

Over the past 22 years, as I went from a seasonal wildland firefighter to a year-round forest and public lands activist, I’ve come to realize that one of the first things torched during wildfire season is the truth.

Hopefully more national news outlets continue to reach out to actual scientists and researchers in Montana to get their side of the story. Maybe someday soon more media outlets in Montana will be able to locate the wildfire scientists, researchers and experts literally living right under their noses, or maybe even right next door.