When forest planning is a matter of life and death

In July, Glenn Martin was tragically killed by a stray bullet while camping at Rainbow Falls in the Pike National Forest. Martin was roasting marshmallows with his grandkids when a bullet hit him.”  The Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest has responded to increasing conflicts caused by urban sprawl and more shooters by proposing a forest plan amendment.

From the Arapaho-Roosevelt NF website:

Currently, the 1997 Forest Plan does not provide direction on how rec. sport shooting (RSS) should be managed. Due to increasing residential development, increased public participation in RSS and associated health and safety issues; the FS is considering amending the Forest Plan to include direction for managing RSS. This direction may include: (1)Developing Forest Plan goals, objectives, or desired conditions for RSS; (2) Identifying areas that are appropriate for dispersed recreational shooting; (3) Identifying areas suitable as designated shooting areas; and (4) Identifying areas where RSS would be prohibited for health and safety reasons. Lawful hunting activities would not be impacted.

I don’t remember this coming up in forest plans anywhere before, and the Forest should be commended for recognizing it as a land allocation issue.  Other national forests should take note when revising their plans.  (And/or is this yet another reason the Forest Service must “participate in planning efforts of … local governments” (36 CFR 219.4(a)(1)(iv) to discourage housing in inappropriate areas?)

 

Forest Service actions lead to delisting threatened species

The Daniel Boone National Forest is being credited with securing recovery of the white-haired goldenrod.  Here is what the forest plan says:

1.C-Goal 2. Bring about the delisting of white-haired goldenrod.
1.C-Objective 2.A. Complete recovery plan recommendations relating to white-haired
goldenrod sites.
1.C-Objective 2.B. Participate in the delisting procedure for white-haired goldenrod.

That’s pretty simple, but it does incorporate the requirements of the recovery plan as objectives (plan standards couldn’t have controlled recreational users causing the impacts).   This then led to projects to protect the species from the human activities that threatened it.  The results drew kudos from the Center for Biological Diversity, saying that the Endangered Species Act works (but failing to note that so does the National Forest Management Act).

This article also discusses the Kentucky arrow darter, a fish species that is part of the settlement agreement with CBD requiring a listing decision to be made.

The darter’s habitat has been “severely degraded” by pollution, siltation and loss of tree cover from surface mining, oil and gas exploration, logging, agricultural run-off and poor sewage disposal, according to the agency.  The conservation plan for the fish will include replacing some culverts on federal land that impede the movement of the fish and setting up a monitoring plan, officials said.

Delisting of the goldenrod is possible because results have been achieved on the ground.  That is usually not possible for pending listings because species are usually on a downward trend at that point.  A “conservation plan” incorporated into a forest plan by the Forest Service may contribute to avoiding listing as a regulatory mechanism if it protects the species against the threats identified in the listing process.

Official Year-to-Date Wildfire Stats: Beyond the Rhetoric & Hysteria

This year, 63% of ALL wildfire acres burned in the U.S. have burned in Alaska, much of it over remote tundra ecosystems.

This year, 63% of ALL wildfire acres burned in the U.S. have burned in Alaska, much of it over remote tundra ecosystems.

With so much media and political attention focused on wildfires – and in some cases public lands management and calls to greatly increase logging on national forests by reducing public input and environmental analysis – it may be helpful to take a look at this year’s wildfire stats to see what’s burned and where.

Here’s a copy of the National Interagency Coordinator Center’s ‘Incident Management Situation Report’ from Tuesday, September 1, 2015.

• As of today, a total of 8,202,557 acres have burned in U.S. wildfires. In 1930 and 1931, over 50 million acres burned each year and during the 10 year (hot and dry) period from the late 1920’s to the late 1930’s an AVERAGE of 30 million acres burned every year in the United States. Additionally, the 2001 National Fire Plan update indicates that an average of 145 million acres burned annually in the pre-industrial, conterminous United States.

[NOTE: Under the George W. Bush Administration, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal government agencies largely purged all records and information about wildfire acre burned stats from before the period of 1960].

• This year, 63% of ALL wildfire acres burned in the U.S. burned in Alaska, much of it over remote tundra ecosystems. According to federal records, since 1959 the average temperature in Alaska has jumped 3.3 degrees and the average winter temperature has spiked 5 degrees.

• Less than 8% of ALL wildfires that have burned this year in the U.S. have burned in the northern Rockies.

• National Forests account for ONLY 15% of all wildfire acres burned in U.S. this year.

• 88% of all BLM (Bureau of Land Management) acres burned in wildfires this year were in Alaska, again much of tundra, not forests.

This information is not meant to discount specific experiences communities, homeowners or citizens have had with wildfires this year, but just serves as a bit of important, fact-based information and context  regarding what land ownerships have burned and where they are located.

Again, this information is especially important in the context of recent statements (and pending federal legislation) from certain politicians blaming wildfires on a lack of national forest logging or a handful of timber sale lawsuits.

If politicians are going to predictably use another wildfire season to yet again weaken our nation’s key environmental or public lands laws by increasing logging (including calls by politicians like Montana’s Rep Ryan Zinke for logging within Wilderness Areas) then the public should at least have some facts and statistics available to help put the wildfires in context.

Finally, please keep in mind that right now the U.S. Forest Service has the ability to conduct an unlimited number of ‘fast-track’ logging projects on over 45 MILLION acres of National Forest nationally – and on 5 MILLION acres of National Forests in Montana. This public lands logging would all be ‘categorically excluded from the requirements of NEPA.’

UPDATE: Below is a chart showing annual hectares burned in 11 western states from 1916-2012 showing a very strong correlation between wildfire and Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which is a robust, recurring pattern of ocean-atmosphere climate variability centered over the mid-latitude Pacific basin.

photo

Settlements: Behind the Scenes I

settlement I’ve been remiss at keeping up with some things.. One is moving things from the “new topics” tab to this area, so that more people can see them and weigh in. So here’s this one:

Laura Jackson asked:

“I would just really like to know, if anyone capable can honestly say, why the USDA Forest Service settles in some natural resources-oriented litigation when they have a chance to really prevail. Perhaps it is to save taxpayer money, which is a good, sound reason. Or perhaps, plaintiff’s know that more losses will be damaging to their cause…so they try to settle, and generally succeed due to the USFS wanting to save time and costs. The savings to the Public is the only valid reason I can think of to settle. But perhaps those who participate more regularly in this blog- those with a smidge more legal expertise- can enlighten me and other readers. No case or cause in particular, just an observation of late. Thanks!”

Larry said:

I’m sure that one of our legal experts can verify this but, it seems like the Forest Service reaches a settlement only when they have already lost in court. I also think that a winning litigant could decide not to enter into settlement proceedings, preferring the court to decide what the Agency can, and cannot do, under the decision. I’ve seen the Forest Service have to pay undocumented legal fees for the Plaintiff, too, in those settlements. I’d like to see FULL transparency in such matters, myself.”

Jon Habersaid:

““They” is the Department of Justice. They settle when they become convinced they are likely to lose. That may be obvious at the outset from the complaint, and they tell the FS to withdraw the decision. It may happen after a preliminary injunction goes against them, which often tips a judge’s hand. Sometimes it is after a court decision to agree on the relief, rather than risk what a court would decide. Or anywhere in between. Cost (and resources) is a consideration in how much risk they are willing to take and how long they stay in the game. And you can’t rule out politics and changing administrations as being a factor in some cases.”

Laura said:

Thanks Larry and John – I should have been clearer. I was mostly referring to instances where the Forest Service (or other Government agency) had already prevailed in a lower District court (e.g., not had any injunctions issued/already been granted summary judgment) but was still waiting for an appellate court to hear Plaintiff’s appeal of the lower Court’s ruling and issue an opinion. I’m guessing that Plaintiff and the Government choose/chose to settle in those instances to save time/taxpayer funds…or perhaps the issues the Government is being ‘sued’ over are no longer viewed as worthwhile arguments by the Plaintiff(s), and they don’t want to waste their own time or contributor funds. Or perhaps they don’t want the potential case law that could result. Regardless, it seems like the agency(ies)/DOJ would be better served to not settle and to allow the follow-through to occur at the appellate court level. Again, thank you for the feedback…”

Sharon says: I think there must be an incentive for settling (closing a case) other than simply crossing it off the list, but since everyone is busy, maybe that is enough incentive. Because lawyers like to settle, and the idea of settling seems to have its own momentum. Going court takes a lot of time and effort. This is a very rational approach from the bureaucratic perspective

I have seen very silly settlements (IMHO) e.g., “we’ll do more NEPA next time.” My opinion is that lawyers and a couple of others on a conference call is not a good way to make public policy. It seems pretty ironic when a small group decides something when the law is all about the public being involved in decisions.

Sometimes DOJ works with the forest to settle a case, but the route they take makes bad case law for everyone else. This sometimes happen because folks from the Regional Office or the Washington Office who are in that program (say recreation or timber) are not invited to the calls that help decide what happens. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t listening to those voices. Sometimes it’s because of differing views of risk among DOJ, OGC, the forest, and everyone else who has the same program. For example, forest “A” does a mildly questionable job of doing “x”, say 30 pages of analysis. Plaintiff will settle if forest “A” does 100 pages. However, they can settle for doing more work than everyone else does, But since no one in the room (or on the conference call) knows what everyone else does, it is apparently easy to ignore in the rush to settlement. In this example, prior to this case, everyone else was doing 50 and it was fine. So effectively the policy is changed (everyone must now do 100 because of this settlement) without analysis of the impacts (ironically?).

Anyway, that’s just one experience. You might also look at this post on what Chief Jack Ward Thomas said about settlements. I think things probably work the same way now.

Dixie National Forest, Southwest Utah

Several years ago, I rolled into Cedar City after a long drive from California. Apparently, there were no rooms available, due to a Shakespeare Festival. So, I decided to drive up towards Cedar Breaks National Monument and Dixie National Forest, in the dark. I took a well-used gravel road and found some open space, under a bright moon. I didn’t sleep very well but, I woke up to these many hundreds of acres of golden and orangish aspen stands. The morning light’s “Golden Hour” was fully in force. Now, don’t think that the Dixie is uniform or monoculture. The diversity here is tremendous, often with rainshadows and geologic differences happening within only miles of each other.

P9066575_tonemapped-web

I wandered around a bit, greedily snagging all the colorful views, until I saw other campers starting to rise. I almost forgot that it was hunting season! Be careful, out there in the woods.

P9066557_tonemapped-web

OP-ed by David Allen, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

OP-ed by David Allen, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Allow the Forest Service to do its job without frivilous lawsuits

The focus is on Michael Garrity and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

“We must do something right now to allow the Forest Service and other federal land management agencies to do their jobs. If Mr. Garrity wants to do something to “secure the ecological integrity of the Wild Rockies Bioregion” as his website states—instead of filing lawsuits, he should think about mobilizing his members to get their hands dirty working on habitat enhancement projects like thousands of RMEF volunteers do every year. We have not filed a single lawsuit to get this done.”

Which again brings up the question I’d ask Garrity: If not these plans, then what? Do nothing? If not, then how would you manage the lands involved in the lawsuits you’ve lodged? “Do nothing” isn’t much of answer when so many in a collaborative have agreed on some form of active management.

The Forest Service and A Box of Frogs: Seven Years Later

A burned truck and smoldering ruins is all that is left of a garage near a house that burned on Cedar Drive in Oakhurst,  Calif., Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, as two raging wildfires in the state forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said flames damaged or destroyed at least 21 structures. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, Mark Crosse)

A burned truck and smoldering ruins is all that is left of a garage near a house that burned on Cedar Drive in Oakhurst, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, as two raging wildfires in the state forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said flames damaged or destroyed at least 21 structures. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, Mark Crosse)

Thanks to the reader who found this and thanks to Ron Roizen for posting on his blog! I think it’s great fodder for discussion on a sleepy late August day. Interesting that it was originally posted in 2008.. so a question might be “do you think some of these things were true or are true?” “how much have things changed since 2008?”.

Here’s an excerpt:

More realistically though, it has become nearly impossible to dismiss from service the incompetent, the lazy, the inordinately prejudiced, the foolish, the deranged… Unless they commit the most vile of bureaucratic sins: insubordination. To disagree or question any directive – no matter how senseless it may seem – is a cardinal violation of internal politics and will get you canned (or more likely re-assigned) in a week.

Their method tends to reward those who are lazy but compliant, to promote people who are incompetent but who object the least to performing nebulous tasks. Those who remain become entrenched Lemmings. When they retire or leave the FS (for any reason), they seldom find work in the private sector – unless the employer desperately needs a FS interpreter to fix government contracts – because they have no viable skill in the actual economy.

REASON 4: JOB SECURITY MOTIVATION

Forest Service employees do not spend sleepless nights worrying about the condition of the National Forests or the welfare of American citizens. They do not drive to work dreaming of ways to improve land management or cut costs.

What Sharon experienced: Yes, it can be difficult or impossible to remove those people. But people have stood up for their other employees and actually done it, at some risk to their own well-being and reputation, which can be pretty much a thankless job. I can’t argue with those who weigh the costs and benefits and give up.

And I would like to give a great big shout out to the Forest Service employee relations folks.. when I have had employees who needed a push, or more (!), and when people were trying to remove me, and did things that were not according to law and regulations, those folks had my back. Just sayin’, they are pretty much the backbone of the Forest Service, in my opinion.

I do think that sometimes employees who didn’t make waves were promoted, and then accused of “not having a vision” or the even more vague “not being leaders.” There were good ways of questioning and bad ways, and they were all in the eye of whichever beholder happens to be talking about you. It’s kind of like “Management by Innuendo” (I coined this term after one employee of mine who was great, had a bad rep in the Regional Office (because the regional guy had heard something bad once) so people listened to that and not to me, his supervisor and he couldn’t get promoted.

BUT Forest Service employees DO spend sleepless nights worrying about the condition of the National Forests or the welfare of American citizens. They DO drive to work dreaming of ways to improve land management or cut costs.” I’d say most of the employees I worked with did.

Forest plans may prevent listings under ESA

Succinctly put by WildEarth Guardians:  “If the plans fall short of halting population declines and habitat destruction, then clearly the Endangered Species Act will be needed.”

This story is about sage grouse, but the principle applies whenever public land management is an important contributor to an at risk species’ habitat.  That’s because one of the five factors that must be considered in listing a species is “the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.”  Thus far courts have recognized only mandatory forest plan standards as being sufficiently regulatory in nature to address this ESA factor for federal lands.

The absence of such regulatory mechanisms in forest plans was a key factor in listing the Canada lynx, for example.   The addition of regulatory standards to forest plans is viewed as being necessary to de-list grizzly bears.  So what to make of the idea of reducing regulatory mechanisms in the Northwest Forest Plan?

Also what to make of state objections to plan amendments for sage grouse?  It’s politically more difficult to get adequate regulatory mechanisms in place for private land, so I would think the states would be asking the feds to do whatever it takes to avoid listing.  Here’s another concise summary from a more objective source:  “A “not warranted” decision by the Service is possible — but they have made clear that it will only be possible if states, federal agencies, and private landowners put strong conservation measures in place.  (Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management.)

Forest Service’s Fire Budget is 10 X’s larger per acre than National Park Service’s Fire Budget

According to this information complied by Michael Kellett of RESTORE: The North Woods, the U.S. Forest Service’s wildland fire budget is about 10 times larger per acre than the National Park Service fire budget.

Kellett writes: “There are some differences in the details of each agency’s budget. But the big-ticket items appear to correlate to each other. Regardless, it is clear that the Forest Service fire budget is magnitudes larger than the NPS fire budget. (And this does not include ‘restoration,’ much of which is supposedly for ‘fuel reduction,’ or post-fire ‘salvage’ logging, which together total more than $800 million of the USFS budget.)”