America’s national forests are not unhealthy, don’t need logging to be “restored”

The following guest column was written by Brett Haverstick, the education and outreach director of Friends of the Clearwater, a public lands advocacy group in north-central Idaho. – mk

National forests across the West are facing dire threats from politicians, the timber industry and the U.S. Forest Service. The public is being misled into thinking that our forests are “unhealthy” and that they need to be “restored” due to “beetle infestations” and “insect and disease.” All of this is euphemism to drastically ramp up logging.

America’s national forests are not unhealthy. Some people may want forests to look a certain way, but that desire or perception ignores scientific research, which suggests that fungi, bacteria, insects, disease and wildfire are key components of forest function and resiliency. If you want a healthy forest, these natural processes must be allowed to play out.

Efforts to “thin the threat” and use thinning for “fire hazard reduction” across Western landscapes is largely unsubstantiated in scientific literature. Recent studies suggest forests with stands of “dead trees” are at no more risk of burning — and possibly less — than thinned forests. Dead trees generally burn more slowly because they do not have oil-rich needles or resins. To the contrary, thinning “live trees” places fine fuels like needles and cones on the ground, and opens the forest canopy to greater solar penetration and wind, resulting in overall drier forest conditions and flammability.

The Forest Service is currently identifying “priority areas” on the national forests that need to be treated (read: logged). A provision of the 2014 farm bill gives the agency the ability to expedite logging projects, including in roadless areas, designed to reduce fuels and prevent the chance of “uncontrollable wildfires.” Public involvement is simultaneously being minimized, and robust environmental analysis is being short-changed.

Fire frequency and intensity in the West are predominantly climate- and weather-driven. An overwhelming amount of scientific evidence shows that drought, warm temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions drive wildfire intensity. Tree density and beetle infestation do not drive fire intensity and behavior.

The predominantly mixed-conifer forests of the West have evolved with fire. Wildfires are not “catastrophic,” but rather necessary for nutrient cycling, soil productivity and providing habitat for insects, birds and mammals. Wildfire is a natural disturbance that is critical to forest function and resiliency. A more accurate term for Western landscapes is “fire-scapes.”

Building roads and logging in postfire landscapes is also unnecessary and harmful. “Salvage logging” impedes forest succession, can increase soil erosion, and impairs streams, fish habitat and water quality. Scientists are discovering that “snag forests” are one of the most biologically rich and diverse habitat types, rivaled only by old growth.

Politicians and the timber industry are assaulting America’s national forests. Managed forests are neither healthier nor more resilient to wildfire. The real catastrophe is that the forest service continues to lead its century-old war on wildfire by supporting commercial logging and fire suppression to the detriment of American taxpayers and forest ecosystems.

FS Litigation Weekly March 17, 2017

The Forest Service used to send these out with a word and a pdf version. Currently they only send a pdf version. So apologies for bad things that happen as a result of conversion to word so I can post them. I am trying different free conversion programs and am sure this will settle out. Thank you for your patience!

I am a little curious about the FACA case at the end..why would the FS not follow the rules about the FACA committe re:meetings and documents? Is there more to the story?

1. Wildlife | Region 6
The Forest Service received a favorable ruling in the District of Oregon concerning livestock grazing in the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Oregon Wi/d et a/. v. Cummins et a/. The plaintiffs alleged the Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Forest Management Act, (NFMA), and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by issuing grazing permits authorizing livestock use on federal lands. Plaintiffs believed the grazing activities threatened the Lost River sucker and the shortnose sucker.

In their first claim, Plaintiff’ s challenged the 2014 re-consultation’ s conclusion that grazing is not likely to adversely affect suckers’ critical habitat in violation of the ESA. The court found plaintiff’ s ESA claim moot since the Forest Service has to complete a new ESA consultation prior to any livestock grazing in 2017.

Plaintiff’ s NFMA claim centered on the contention that the Forest Service “ignored widespread evidence of riparian problems.” The court disregarded this claim because the court found that the Forest Service reasonably gathered and evaluated data and issued the challenged permits on that basis.

Regarding Plaintiff’ s first NEPA claim that the Forest Service violated NEPA in issuing its 2009 EA, the court found that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies and thus could not bring this claim in the first place.

Lastly, Plaintiffs alleged that the Forest Service had a duty under NEPA to supplement their analysis due to newly designated habitat and changing conditions. The court found nothing in the analysis attached to the newly designated habitat or the changing conditions identified grazing as a significant threat to suckers. Thus, the court concluded, the Forest Service did not need to supplement its NEPA analysis.

2. Wiidiife & Recreation | Region 3
The District Court for the District of Arizona ruled in favor of the Forest Service in a case on the Kaibab National Forest in Centerfor Biolgical Diversity et a/. v. United States Forest Service. Plaintiffs had filed a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act claim against the Forest Service seeking “judicial review, as well as declaratory and/or injunctive relief” to stop the disposal of lead ammunition on public lands and “to protect wildlife species threatened by exposure to spent lead ammunitions in the foraging range within [Forest Service} land in Arizona.”

The Forest Service, along with several intervenors, filed a motion to dismiss this claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The court ended up dismissing this case, however, on justiciability grounds.

Article III, Section 2 of the United States Constitution limits the federal judicial power to questions capable of resolution through the judicial process and that do not intrude into areas committed to other branches of government. The court here believed that the “prohibition of lead ammunition in national forests is a matter over which the USFS has control” and “is a matter on which the USFS has knowledge and expertise. The court, therefore, concluded that it was not in in any position “to supplant the USFS’s authority, knowledge, and expertise
on this matter” and dismissed the case.

1. Wildlife | Region 5
The District Court for the District of Columbia granted in part and denied in part the Forest Service’s motion to dismiss Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and Administrative Procedures Act (APA) claims brought by the Center for Biological Diversity challenging an advisory committee established to create a conservation strategy for the California spotted owl for the Sierra Nevada Region in Center for Bio/ogica/ Diversity v. Tldwe// et a/.

The plaintiff stated two claims for relief under FACA:

1. The Forest Service violated FACA by failing to have a committee that was fairly balanced in terms of points of view, failing to open the committee’ s meetings to the public, and not making the committee’ s documents available to the public; and

2. The Forest Service has engaged “in a pattern and practice of violating FACA.” Due to the court finding that the committee no longer existed and that there was no evidence that wrongful conduct was likely to reoccur, however, the court dismissed the plaintiff s FACA claims as moot.

Although the court dismissed the FACA claims, the plaintiff’ s APA claims survived to the extent they seek relief for the Forest Service’ s failure to comply with FACA’s document disclosure provision. Under FACA, the government is required to make certain materials available to the public as a matter of course, unless certain exceptions apply. Documents that were made available to or prepared for or by each advisory committee are required to be disclosed. The plaintiff, the court concluded, made a viable claim under the APA that the committee was regulated by FACA before it ceased to exist and that the Forest Service failed to disclose materials prepared for and by the committee.

CBDvFSDistrictCourtDismissalCBD v TidwellOregon Wild v CumminsLitigation Weekly 03172017

Center for American Progress: “America’s Forgotten Forests”

New report from the Center for American Progress (CAP): “America’s Forgotten Forests: A Vision for Revitalizing Rural Economies Through Restoration”

Greenwire used this headline: “Think tank urges Trump to transfer agency to Interior” but the policy paper is much more comprehensive. Greenwire says the report lays out policy recommendations that “include responsible timber harvest but also put the focus on forest restoration as a pathway to all kinds of additional positive outcomes, many of which would create American jobs.”

Some folks will find much in the paper to disagree with, as I do. For example, the authors have far too much faith in recreation as a forest resource/value that can adequately sustain rural communities. However, they do highlight the potential of cross-laminated timbers: “Fostering growth in this new market would put more people to work in the timber industry and return forests to health.”

Some folks will discount the paper because of its source — the CAP is widely seen as progressive/liberal. IMHO, the paper is well worth thought and discussion.

Forests on the March- Away?

This is a news article about a PLOS study. It was originally published in the Washington Post here.

Below are some excerpts:

A new study of satellite images taken over 10 years starting in 1990 shows the rural forest canopy disappearing. Forest space disappeared from the United States in such big chunks that the average distance from any point in the nation to a forest increased by 14 percent, about a third of a mile.

While that’s no big deal to a human driving a car with a pine-scented tree dangling from the rearview mirror, it is to a bird hoping to rest or find food on epic seasonal flights across the globe, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

But forests aren’t just for the birds. They improve the quality of life for fauna and flora, from bears to flowers. Altering forests can change the dynamics of ecosystems and can potentially “affect water chemistry, soil erosion, carbon sequestration patterns, local climate, biodiversity distribution and human quality of life,” a statement announcing the report said.

Using forest maps over the continental United States, researchers Sheng Yang and Giorgos Mountrakis of the State University of New York at Syracuse marked tree canopy that disappeared over a decade in red to highlight the change. In one illustration included in the study, the page appeared to bleed.

“So if you are in the western U.S. or you are in a rural area or you are in land owned by a public entity, it could be federal, state or local, your distance to the forest is increasing much faster than the other areas,” Mountrakis said. “The forests are getting further away from you.”

In California and Colorado, trees stressed by drought are being eaten to death by beetles, standing dead on mountainsides by the hundreds of millions, virtual ghost forests. Ecologists argue whether fires that might consume them are a good or bad thing, in that it would kill the beetles yet threaten homes too close to the forest edge. Human development is another grim agent of tree canopy loss.

The researchers said they hope public land managers, such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, along with officials at the state level, will pay attention to their research. They hope to follow up the study with research into the drivers behind the loss of forests.

But the pictures don’t lie, he said. There’s no doubt that huge clumps of trees are disappearing.

As a long term resident of the western US, I know exactly where the local trees are and have been and they haven’t disappeared- some have been killed and/or burned down.  I guess you could lose canopy due to fuel breaks around your houses and new houses if you live in a forested area. But in the article urban areas are doing fine. Maybe I just don’t get it, or maybe the person who wrote the story wasn’t clear, or maybe looking at something through a satellite doesn’t really add much to what people on the ground are observing?

Here’s  the link to the PLOS article (which is free, hurray for them!) and an excerpt from the discussion:

“> Among the skewing factors are urbanization levels and land ownership. While urban areas have received most of the attention, our study shows that it is the rural areas that suffer higher attrition levels. Furthermore, it is the federal and state lands that exhibit higher attrition, necessitating improvements in public land management. A visual example showcasing the differences between eastern and western regions is depicted in Fig 6. Forest losses are dominant in Forest attrition spatial patterns in conterminous U.S. gap areas in western ecoregions leading to severe forest attritions, whereas in eastern regions forest losses appear in the interior or near the forest edge thus causing lower attrition. This difference may be attributed to many factors including lower tree density and higher terrain heterogeneity in western than eastern ecoregions. In addition, the predominant disturbance classes are fire and insect activities in the west compared to harvesting in managed forests in the east [81], possibly leading to different attrition patterns in these two strata. From the biodiversity conservation perspective changes in climatic conditions, such as temperature and precipitation, can be projected after forest attrition is estimated. Estimating these climatic changes can lead to better understanding of potential impacts on genetic diversity of various species [41]. In addition, in order to promote carbon sequestration in forests and in turn mitigate climate changes, biomass and carbon changes from forest attrition need to be carefully evaluated to determine most profitable mitigation measures, for example reforestation [46], because forest attrition often causes irreversible carbon losses compared to other geographic patterns of forest loss. Finally, the locations of primary forests in more pristine condition or scattered forest patches serving as keystone structures can be overlaid with the forest attrition maps for informing forest management planning. This is especially critical in conserving climate, biodiversity, soil nutrient, and microclimate [43,99].

Italics mine because of the mention of forest management planning. Finally, I thought it was interesting that in their abstract, the authors say

“Here, we study forest attrition, the complete removal of forest patches, that can result in complete habitat loss, severe decline of population sizes and species richness, and shifts of local and regional environmental conditions.” So they define fire and bug kill as problematic ecologically, whereas other ecological thinkers consider them a part of the dynamics.

It seems to me that  if you are arguing that a new tool is useful because you can see something others can’t, then you should be able to articulate that based on describing what people already know and what your tool has to contribute. If you give advice to others such as federal and state land managers, you should have some idea of whether they are already considering things like this.  Oh, reviewers, where are thou?

Fremont-Winema wins sucker lawsuit

In Oregon Wild v. Cummins, the Oregon district court upheld the Fremont-Winema National Forest’s compliance with the requirement of INFISH to “modify grazing practices … that retard or prevent the attainment of [Riparian Management Objectives (“RMOs”)] or are likely to adversely affect inland fish.”   The court quoted a prior case for INFISH requirements: “INFISH contemplates that its objectives are `targets’ that will not be met instantaneously” and “[t]he attainment of RMOs is to be assessed on a watershed level.”  While plaintiffs identified streams that did not meet RMOs, the Forest had monitoring data that showed overall improvement in stream conditions. While past grazing practices had contributed to degraded conditions, the court held that now, “there is nothing to indicate that grazing is contributing to any failure to attain INFISH RMOs at a watershed level.”

The court dismissed Endangered Species Act claims regarding the impacts of grazing on two listed sucker species because the Forest was obligated to reinitiate consultation on its grazing permits on a 10-year schedule, which was now ongoing and must be completed prior to further grazing. It also dismissed a challenge to an EA used to approve livestock grazing because plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies by appealing the decision (which would have stayed any further grazing until the appeal was resolved).   Finally, there was no significant new information that would require supplementing the EA for grazing allotments.

Still Reading Those Tea Leaves

Senator Leahy (I-VT) released yesterday a sky-is-falling analysis of what would happen to federal agencies and programs if Congress adheres to Trump’s budget outline, which calls for cutting non-defense discretionary spending by $54 billion below sequestration levels. Here’s Leahy’s analysis of what the budget cuts could mean to the Forest Service:

Forest Service Firefighting: If the Forest Service is cut by 13 percent it would mean a cut of $417 million from the FY 2016 enacted level for wildland fire management. This would directly impact preparedness and suppression of forest fires. A 13 percent cut to fire preparedness programs would translate to a loss of 1,300 firefighters, 117 fire engines, 15 helicopters, and 3 aircraft. These reductions could have the unintended consequence of actually increasing firefighting costs. Due to the current level of assets, the Forest Service has a 98 percent success rate on initial attack against fires. With fewer assets the potential for more escaped fires increases, which means increased suppression costs. If the Forest Service wildland fire management account were to be held harmless to the 13 percent cut, it would mean large cuts to the rest of the agency. Holding firefighting harmless would result in a 30 percent cut to the Forest Service’s non-fire accounts, or $736 million from FY 2016 enacted. Due to the Forest Service’s primary responsibility. to manage the health of the national forests, at that level of spending, Research, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Forest Legacy, and grants to states could be abandoned. The Forest Service would likely prioritize restoration work to mitigate the risk of catastrophic fire – which is increasing due to climate change – and close campgrounds, shut down road access, stop maintaining trails, and reduce visitor services that are essential to hunting, fishing, hiking, off road vehicles, and other recreation activities.

Leahy thinks spending money on firefighting is the key to high initial attack success. Forest Service researchers say he’s wrong: “Achievement of these [high initial attack success] levels is often hailed as extraordinary success, but, as we explain here, environmental factors alone (e.g. weather, fuels, terrain) will tend to constrain the majority of wildfires to < 300 acres, regardless of suppression activities." If the cost cutting becomes real, will the Forest Service have the guts to admit that it can just as effectively respond to fire ignitions with much less money. Or will the agency jettison its national forest system management, research, and conservation missions altogether and double down on chasing fire dollars.

Region 1 – A Years Worth of Harvests Tied Up In Litigation

How many times on this site have we heard that acreage and timber volume tied up in litigation is insignificant? This would seem to indicate otherwise:

“Covering Idaho, Montana and portions of the Dakotas, Region 1 of the U.S. Forest Service has reached a grim milestone.

Over 35,000 acres of forest projects on Region 1 National Forests are stymied by litigation. The amount of timber tied up in lawsuits (355 million board feet) is now more than region’s entire timber harvest of 321 million board feet”

Forest Service wins 2

The Forest Service turned back a challenge on the Manti-La Sal National Forest to its management of a research natural area in Utah Native Plant Society v. U. S. Forest Service. The state of Utah had introduced mountain goats outside of the national forest boundary, over the objections of the Forest Service that they could adversely affect the plants being protected by the RNA. Plaintiffs challenged the Forest Service for allowing the reintroduction, and failing to remove the goats after they were introduced. The court dismissed plaintiffs’ claims because there was no requirement for a special use permit for actions beyond national forest boundaries or for “migrating wildlife,” and the Forest had not yet determined the effects of the introduction nor decided to take any action on the mountain goats that could be challenged. The court did indicate that this was not the end of the story:

“Indeed, it would be nonsensical if an administrative agency could kick the proverbial can down the road by merely stating that more research must be conducted before acting. Eventually, after further research, the Forest Service will need to take a position.”

In Granat v. USDA a federal district court in California upheld the travel management plan for the Plumas National Forest against a NEPA challenge from counties and motorized user groups. It refused to require the Forest to conduct field surveys to support its environmental analysis because plaintiffs did not explain how that would have changed the outcome of the analysis conducted by the Forest. The court found that the Forest had considered an adequate range of alternatives, that the prohibition of non-highway legal vehicles on maintenance level three roads was reasonable, and that the Forest properly coordinated with local governments. The EIS also adequately considered economic and recreation impacts and the Forest adequately responded to public comments. A cumulative effects analysis beyond the Forest boundaries was not necessary. Changes between the draft and final EIS were not “substantial” and did not require a supplemental EIS. The court also upheld compliance with requirements of the Travel Management Rule.