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.

Greenwire: “Federal fire policy may be based on faulty science”

Chad Hanson is featured prominently in a Greenwire article today, “Federal fire policy may be based on faulty science.”

“A growing amount of research by Hanson and other scientists suggests forests with a lot of dead trees are at no more risk of catastrophic wildfire — and possibly less — than woods cleared of them.

“The reason: Live trees with oil-rich needles still attached burn faster than dead trees, Hanson said. And though other factors are only an educated guess, he said, researchers believe keeping loggers out of such woods may have a long-term benefit by letting dead trees fall to the forest floor, where they soak up water and slow the spread of fire.”

Until those large 1000-hour-plus fuels dry out and burn, and burn hot, and burn amongst a sea of brush and, given a seed source, young trees. That’s a recipe for a very high intensity fire. Of course, Hanson might say that’s fine, as long as no commercial harvesting had spoiled the pristine snag forest. I would guess that Hanson has never seen — let alone mopped up — a punky, downed, 40-inch ponderosa pine burning merrily and throwing embers across a fire line.

The Greenwire article even brings up Dan Donato’s controversial 2006 Science paper. Overall, an unbalanced article, but it may help with Hanson’s fundraising efforts.

In any case, federal fire policy is not based on ecology alone, even if, as Andy has pointed out, the agency has rearranged the order of the triple bottom line on its web site: “Deliver Economic, Social, and Environmental Benefits.”

Reading the Tea Leaves

With Trump agriculture secretary nominee Sonny Perdue still awaiting a confirmation hearing, which has not been scheduled because the dog appears to have eaten Perdue’s financial disclosure homework, the Forest Service has been trying to figure out what message will best protect its budget from the new boss’ meat cleaver.

The first clue to the agency’s thinking appeared on its homepage today — make timber #1 again. The short post re-arranges the Forest Service’s Strategic Plan Goals by putting “Economic” benefits ahead of “Social” and “Environmental.” [Note how the two titles switch Social and Environmental between positions #2 and #3, while retaining Economic in first position].

The text of the post re-writes the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act’s alphabetical listing of the multiple uses, by which Congress intended not to prefer one use over others, by putting timber first. And if anyone misses the point, just look at the photo.

Will the tactic work to save the agency from massive budget cuts? Should the Forest Service double-down on its image as the nation’s firefighting heroes or turn the clock back 30 years? Can the Forest Service persuade Congress to increase spending to produce more timber in places where there are few, if any, mills remaining, e.g., Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and southern California? Will the Forest Service be able to convince the House’s budget hawks that spending $100 tax dollars to produce $1 worth of timber makes sense in southeast Alaska?

Humans sparked 84 percent of US wildfires, increased fire season over two decades

How should we deal with the new math on forest fires?

If this article published in the February Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is not a fluke then it would seem to me that our expanding population dictates the need for more forest management not less. The less desireable alternative would be to severely restrict access to our federal forests. The main conclusion of the article is that humans sparked 84 percent of US wildfires and caused nearly half of the acreage lost to wildfire. This number excludes intentionally set controlled burns.

From the above, I would deduce that human initiated fires caused proportionally less acreage loss because they were closer to civilization and to forest access points and therefore closer to and more easily accessed by suppression resources. The fact that nearly half of the wildfire acres lost occur in these areas suggests that we would get more bang for our tax dollars if we increased and focused federal sustainable forest management around high traffic areas easily accessible to humans.

Knowing that humans who cause wildfires are, by definition, either careless or malicious, we might deduce that they are generally not inclined to put great effort into getting to their ignition set points. This would lead us to consider that human caused fires might prove to be in less difficult terrain areas with high human traffic. Fires like the Rim fire being the exception. That, if true, would suggest that forest management for risk reduction on these sites could be done at lower costs per acre than other less accessible forest acreage. Focusing forest management efforts on these high benefit to cost areas would have the biggest bang per tax dollar expended in order to lower the total cost of federal wildfire control. If my thinking is correct, this should play a large part in setting the priorities as to where we should: 1) apply controlled burns to reduce ground and other low fuels, 2) utilize commercial thinnings to reduce ladder and proximity fuels or 3) use commercial regeneration harvests to create greater variation in tree heights between stands in order to provide fire breaks for crown fires when appropriate for the site and species. The net effect would be positive for all species including endangered and threatened species. There would still be plenty of lightning caused wildfire, controlled burn hotspots/breakouts and a significantly reduced acreage of human caused fires to satisfy those who don’t mind national ashtrays. Reducing the number and size of human caused fires would also free resources to attack lightning fires earlier and harder when allowing the fire to burn was not an option.

Pertinent Quotes:

  1. “After analyzing two decades’ worth of U.S. government agency wildfire records spanning 1992-2012, the researchers found that human-ignited wildfires accounted for 84 percent of all wildfires, tripling the length of the average fire season and accounting for nearly half of the total acreage burned.” Italics added
  2. “”These findings do not discount the ongoing role of climate change, but instead suggest we should be most concerned about where it overlaps with human impact,” said Balch. “Climate change is making our fields, forests and grasslands drier and hotter for longer periods, creating a greater window of opportunity for human-related ignitions to start wildfires.”” Italics added
  3. “”Not all fire is bad, but humans are intentionally and unintentionally adding ignitions to the landscape in areas and seasons when natural ignitions are sparse,” … “We can’t easily control how dry fuels get, or lightning, but we do have some control over human started ignitions.””