In Search of Common Ground II – It Takes Two: Forest Management and Social Management

Here are two current articles that get some things wrong but if we ignore those items and focus on the big picture that they present rather than on the details, I believe that we will find that we have more in common than we thought.

Between the two articles we see the full picture for PRIORITIZED actions to begin the long battle ahead to recover from national ashtrays, lost lives, lost homes and infrastructure, significantly decreased health of both humans and forests. It is a two pronged battle that includes both sound forest management and social management.

A) Using Forests to Fight Climate Change – California takes a small step in the right direction.

“The state’s proposed Forest Carbon Plan aims to double efforts to thin out young trees and clear brush in parts of the forest, including by controlled burning. This temporarily lowers carbon-carrying capacity. But the remaining trees draw a greater share of the available moisture, so they grow and thrive, restoring the forest’s capacity to pull carbon from the air. Healthy trees are also better able to fend off bark beetles. The landscape is rendered less combustible. Even in the event of a fire, fewer trees are consumed.

The need for such planning is increasingly urgent. Already, since 2010, drought and beetles have killed more than 100 million trees in California, most of them in 2016 alone, and wildfires have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres.

California’s plan envisions treating 35,000 acres of forest a year by 2020, and 60,000 by 2030 — financed from the proceeds of the state’s emissions-permit auctions. That’s only a small share of the total acreage that could benefit, an estimated half a million acres in all, so it will be important to prioritize areas at greatest risk of fire or drought.

The strategy also aims to ensure that carbon in woody material removed from the forests is locked away in the form of solid lumber, burned as biofuel in vehicles that would otherwise run on fossil fuels, or used in compost or animal feed.”

B) Why are California’s homes burning? It isn’t natural disaster it’s bad planning

This Op-ed by Richard Halsey (director of the California Chaparral Institute who sometimes posts on NCFP) is well written and, though I would disagree on some statements in his post, I present those that I do agree on in an attempt to show that there are specific components that are middle ground that we all should be able to agree on and focus on rather than focusing on what won’t work. Once we change our emphasis, hostility between opposing sides should decrease and progress should increase.

“Large, high-intensity wildfires are an inevitable and natural part of life in California. The destruction of our communities is not. But many of the political leaders we elect and planning agencies we depend upon to create safe communities have failed us. They have allowed developers to build in harm’s way, and left firefighters holding the bag. ”

“others blame firefighters for creating dense stands of chaparral in fire suppression efforts—when that’s the only way chaparral naturally grows, dense and impenetrable.”

“”we need to recognize that fire disasters aren’t natural, they’re social. And they require social solutions.”” (quote from University of Colorado geographer Gregory Simon)
–> Pay attention to the statement “fire disasters aren’t natural, they’re social”. My first reaction was “not true” but in the context of the Op Ed, I think that the author is making an appropriate distinction between the words “Catastrophic” and “Disaster” by reserving “Disaster” for those situations where the catastrophe falls mainly on humans.

“We also need to examine the best practices of other fire-prone regions. Communities in Australia often install external, under-eave/rooftop sprinklers, which have proven quite effective in protecting structures during wildfires. (Australians understand that wet homes do not ignite.) Such systems should be standard in all new developments in high fire hazard zones. It is likely they would have protected many of the homes consumed in Ventura’s Thomas fire this week.”

“As we do with earthquakes and floods, our goal should be to reduce the damage when wildfires arrive, not pretend we can prevent them from happening at all. That mindset starts at the planning department, not the fire station.”

C) Relevant Prior Posts with included references:

1) Finding Common Ground
Frustration: Will It Lead to Change?

2) Wildfire
Fuels management can be a big help in dealing with wildfires
Air Pollution from Wildfires compared to that from Prescribed burns
Inside the Firestorm
The Impact of Sound Forest Management Practices on Wildfire Smoke and Human Health
Humans sparked 84 percent of US wildfires, increased fire season over two decades
More on Wildfire and Sound Forest Management
Scientific Basis for Changing Forest Structure to Modify Wildfire Behavior and Severity
Articles of Interest on Fire
The Role of Sound Forest Management in Reducing Wildfire Risk
15 Minute TED Talk: “Forest Service ecologist proposes ways to help curb rising ‘Era of Megafires’”

Best Places to Work 2017: BLM Improves Rankings

Thanks to Andy’s closer look I have updated this post, which originally said that the BLM had pulled ahead of the FS, but actually the FS has not been posted yet.

I always compare it to the BLM, which has a similar mission, and was 60.1 this year. BLM went up 4.3 points last year. I wonder if they did something workforce-wise, or ??? Many of the individual categories went up, as you can see in this chart, so it seems like something real is going on… ideas?

We’ll have to wait and how the FS did.

Questions about FS national monument shrinkage

An excerpt from a letter to President Trump from two senators:

Because of the implications for USDA Forest Service land stemming from any future executive actions regarding national monuments, please promptly respond to the following questions:

Do you plan to recommend removal of Forest Service acres from the current boundary of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah?

Do you plan to recommend removal of Forest Service acres from the current boundaries of any of the four California national monuments under review containing Forest Service acres?

If the answer to question one or two was yes, please explain why you plan to recommend removal of Forest Service acres where USDA did not recommend removal of Forest Service acres from these monuments.

Federal liability for fires it starts

This topic has come up a few times, and the Missoulian did a little legal research on it for us, but I think it’s incomplete.  In short, federal agencies are protected by sovereign immunity against claims of damages, and its employees are protected when performing their official duties – even if negligent.  What this article doesn’t make very clear is that the government has consented to be sued for negligence through the Federal Tort Claims Act:  “Under the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671-2680 , individuals who are injured or whose property is damaged by the wrongful or negligent act of a federal employee acting within his or her official duties may file a claim with the government for reimbursement for that injury or damage.”

In the Davis Fire example, the article says the court found that “the United States was immune from the litigation.”  But then it seems to address the question of negligence:  “In the government’s review of the Davis fire, it found that Forest Service officials had adequate training, followed proper protocols and ignited the fire within the prescription parameters of the burn plan.”  (I couldn’t find the actual opinion.)  So, while this story makes the FS look pretty bad, on another set of facts that show negligence, private landowners should be able to recover damages.

One Pilot’s Eye View of Aerial Firefighting

Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, shown at the controls of a C-130 transport plane, retired Saturday after 32 years in the Air Force. At the end he was one of the region’s most experienced military aviators with more than 9,600 hours in the cockpit. (AIR FORCE PHOTO)

We’ve heard from a number of folks on suppression tactics and the use of fire retardant. Here’s another voice.. from a pilot, Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, from an article on his retirement here in the Colorado Springs Gazette).

He learned about fire in Covelo, too. After his freshman year at San Jose State, he went to the fire station off Highway 162 between Keith’s Market and the Hidden Oaks Gift Shop and signed on for a summer battling wildland blazes across Northern California.

“It can definitely be the hardest work in the world,” he said.

“I don’t know anything more grueling.”

After one sweaty summer on a fire engine crew and cutting fire lines by hand with a hoelike tool called a Pulaski, Thompson knew there had to be a better way. It’s a realization that he still finds striking as one of the military’s most experienced aerial firefighters.

“I know how much work it is to carve 100 yards of fire line, which we pass over in a fraction of a second,” Thompson said.


He’s more animated when he talks about the 302nd’s most challenging mission: using the C-130 to drop as much as 28,000 pounds of retardant to check the progress of wildfires.

It’s something Thompson has done more than 100 times.

“That’s not that many,” he says.

It is something he loves.

“It’s rewarding,” he said. “It is in the public eye.”

He’s fought fire in every Western state. It’s a mission that takes the C-130 right to the edge of its capabilities: flying a plane with a heavy load at low speed and low altitude through air roiled by rising heat from wind-whipped flames.

Thompson said it’s not that scary.

“You focus on the job,” he said.

He’s flown against fires high in the wildlands and in Colorado Springs.

He’s legendary for keeping his cool while flying, but he’s not completely unemotional when fires rage.

“The hardest for me is when they are ripping through houses,” Thompson said.

Flying against fire is work that requires a gentle touch at the controls and a keen eye.

“You can see when you are coming up on a fire how aggressive it is,” he said. “It can be very daunting.”

The whole C-130 crew acts as one machine during the drops.

The pilot must fly a perfect course, the crew chief must keep the four turbines in harmony.

The crew in back must release the load of orange fire-stopping stuff right on time.

Fighting blazes on slopes is the toughest.

“Our challenge is keeping it slow enough,” he said.

Thompson says a firefighting flight is something that draws on everything he’s learned.

He remembers when the wing was called to battle close to home in 2012 and 2013 as the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires sent clouds of sooty smoke across the Pikes Peak region.

“When its in view of the base, there’s motivation,” he said.

What if our efforts to stop wildfires actually make them bigger?

Yes, what if. The full article from today’s Missoulian is here, and some interesting snips are below.

“It’s a counter-intuitive result,” said research ecologist Sean Peck. “We put out the fire, but in the long run, there are negative unintended consequences. If we’re putting out all fires under moderate weather conditions, the fire we can’t put out will burn under extreme conditions.”

Peck’s work at the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute on the University of Montana campus recently earned him the 2017 Research & Development Deputy Chief’s Early Career Scientist Award. Since earning his doctorate from UM in 2014, he’s been lead author of nine peer-reviewed journal articles and co-authored another 11.

Much of Peck’s work focuses on wildfire in federal wilderness, including the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Forest fires there typically burn without the swarms of yellow-shirted firefighters and red-tailed aircraft trying to suppress them….

“I think outside wilderness areas, we’re selecting for high-severity fire,” Peck said. “It’s like selecting for a gene in corn crops. It’s not done on purpose, but it happens with certain management practices. We’re not allowing fires to burn in non-extreme years. So fires only occur during extreme events. Those fires are the ones we could not put out.”…

Peck’s current work looks at how future climate changes may affect the tempo of fire seasons. He’s testing the idea that we’re likely to see more extreme fire events in the short term, but less severe fires several decades from now as the climate warms.

“We think we may see the spruce-fir forests converted to something else that may be more resistant to fire, like Douglas fir and ponderosa pine,” Peck said. “And at some lower elevations, dry-forest types are projected to convert to non-forest vegetation, grassland or shrub land. Dry forests are barely hanging on now.

“As Montanans, we’ve grown up with certain kinds of forests,” Peck added. “They are going to change. We can accept it, but it will happen whether we want it to or not.”

Earth Island Institute v. Elliott (E. D. California)

This case was decided on November 16, but has not yet been included in a Forest Service litigation summary. At issue is the Bull Run project, a fire salvage restoration project to treat a strip of land along an area of roadways affected by the Cedar Fire on the Sequoia National Forest. The court denied the motion for a preliminary injunction. The Forest determined that the project could be categorically excluded from an EIS, and that there were no extraordinary circumstances that would prevent the use of a CE.

The court determined that the main issue involving the use of a CE was “whether it is reasonable to interpret a project that “salvages” hazard trees on a large scale as “routine road maintenance.”  Here is the CE:

(4) Repair and maintenance of roads, trails, and landline boundaries. Examples include but are not limited to:

(i) Authorizing a user to grade, resurface, and clean the culverts of an established NFS road;

(ii) Grading a road and clearing the roadside of brush without the use of herbicides;

(iii) Resurfacing a road to its original condition;

(iv) Pruning vegetation and cleaning culverts along a trail and grooming the surface of the trail; and

(v) Surveying, painting, and posting landline boundaries.

After reviewing several similar cases, the court concluded, “the Court cannot determine with certainty at this stage of the case to what extent the Bull Run project is a true commercial “salvage” operation or whether it is, in practice, more like the Nez Perce project (which denied it was a salvage project), or whether, possibly, this is a distinction without a difference.” The court held: “For purposes of this motion for a preliminary injunction, the Court need not definitively determine the issue on the merits; it is enough to conclude that success on the merits as to the CE issue is unclear.” Thus plaintiffs had not made their case for likelihood of prevailing. (I think the FS got away with one here, especially because there is another CE for salvage projects, but for limited acreage; maybe it will become more “clear” at trial.)

The court found no extraordinary circumstances with regard to the federally endangered mountain yellow-legged frog and the Pacific fisher and California spotted owl (both designated as sensitive species by the Forest Service). For the spotted owl, the court determined that the Forest had adequately considered information about their use of post-fire areas (including submissions from the John Muir Project and Chad Hanson). Lack of quality fisher habitat swayed the court to accept the FS explanation regarding fisher connectivity. The project included 30 “site-specific measures” designed to minimize the risks to the frog, and the court cited the FWS conclusion that the resulting risk to individuals was low. (These measures would be good candidates for forest plan components when the Sequoia revises its forest plan.)

Western Watersheds v. USFS (D. Idaho)

This case involves the decision by the Targhee National Forest to issue new Annual Operating Instructions to the Agricultural Research Service in 2017 to allow the U. S. Sheep Experiment station to continue grazing sheep on two allotments. This case was summarized in today’s Litigation Weekly, but since it found two violations of the forest plan these are worth some further discussion. Note that the case was decided on a motion for a preliminary injunction, and the perceived risk to bighorn sheep viability was key factor in granting the PI to prevent irreparable harm. (There is also a NEPA claim that the court did not decide as part of the PI opinion.)

In order to “provide an opportunity to minimize conflicts between domestic and bighorn sheep,” the Targhee Forest Plan required these allotments to be “phased out on an opportunity basis.”   “Opportunity” was defined to include “resource protection.” The court found that new telemetry data showing proximity of the bighorn sheep to the domestic sheep and other new information “reasonably could have been identified as an opportunity” to close the allotments based on the objective of resource protection instead of issuing a new AOI.

The forest plan required the Forest to maintain “at least viable populations of all native and desired nonnative wildlife . . . in habitats distributed throughout their geographic range on National Forest System lands.” The court summarized the Forest Service argument as follows: “the Forest Service asks the court to the measure the Forest Plan’s maintenance requirement not herd-by-herd, but by considering the sum of all of the individual bighorn populations Forest-wide.” The court used a dictionary definition of “maintain” to find that allowing this small herd of bighorn sheep to be extirpated “potentially will diminish the overall population of bighorn sheep throughout the Forest.” “Thus, in no way do the common definitions and understandings support neglect or deterioration of a population of animals (taken as a whole, or in part) that the Forest Service is mandated to maintain.” The court also cited agency requirements for ensuring that sensitive species do not become threatened or endangered (bighorns are classified as sensitive species on the Targhee).

Litigation Weekly December 1

Litigation Weekly Dec 1

The court issued a preliminary injunction against grazing domestic sheep on two allotments on the Targhee NF that are used for the U. S. Sheep Experiment Station because the forest plan appears to require removal of the sheep to prevent disease transmission to bighorn sheep to maintain a viable population.  (D. Idaho)

In a case involving a permit issued by the Bridger-Teton NF to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission for supplemental elk feeding, the District of Columbia District Court granted the Forest Service request to transfer the case to the District of Wyoming.

This is the second lawsuit brought against the Rosemont Copper Mine project on the Coronado NF and involves alleged violations of the Clean Water Act, NEPA and other legal requirements.  Other links are provided here.  (D. Ariz.)

Alleged violations of ESA for failing to monitor road culverts as required by prior consultation on bull trout, and failure of consultation to address the impacts of climate change.

The non-profit owner of conservation lands is challenging FERC’s process for condemnation of those lands for a natural gas pipeline.

Plan revision on the Rio Grande

They are a little ahead of the Helena-Lewis & Clark discussed on Nov. 29.  They are taking comments on their draft plan and EIS.  I haven’t read either, but this article provides an overview.  Here’s the big picture:

“The purpose and need for revising the forest plan is the changed economic, social, and ecological conditions in the plan area that have occurred since the current forest plan was approved in 1996,” Dallas stated this fall when the draft was released for public review. “These changes include the spruce beetle infestation, closure of mills and timber-related infrastructure in southwest Colorado, changes in communications technology, increased development along the Forest boundary, and the need to shift fire management direction focused on suppression to the use of fire for resource benefit.”

Unlike what we saw on the HLC, this seems to reflect some of the issues that preoccupy this blog (especially the last item recently).  Similar to the HLC, there are only two action alternatives, but they are the more traditional left and right of the proposed action (more or less active management).

Alternative B, the draft plan that the Forest is proposing, provides for a balance of multiple uses; Alternative C would increase acreage available for multiple uses and reduce the amount of management areas; and Alternative D would propose less active management of resources and increase semi-primitive, non-motorized opportunities.

I think the planning process can work with a small number of alternatives if they are well-designed to address the relevant issues and impacts and if, as the Rio Grande says here, the parts can be mixed and matched to produce a final preferred alternative that is within the range of what was in the DEIS.  Here’s the Forest’s explanation of what their plan does:

Blakeman said the draft plan is broken down into: overarching goals that provide “big picture” guidance such as protecting water resources and terrestrial ecosystems and contributing to economic sustainability; desired conditions representing the vision of what the Forest should look like in the future; concise, measurable objectives, which guide the process and timeline to attain the desired conditions; and standards, guidelines and management approaches that provide constraints and/or site-specific direction. Blakeman said standards and guidelines are harder to change once in place but management approaches can be changed to adapt to changing conditions on the ground.

“Management approaches” are a possible red flag.  I’ve seen them used where the standards and guidelines are needed.  If the Forest can change or ignore management approaches, this has to be recognized in the effects analysis.  And they shouldn’t count towards meeting requirements for plan components (like diversity) because they are not plan components.

One other pet peeve.  Why can’t they use map colors that mean something, like mirroring the active/passive management scheme?