Enviros protect 8,000 acres of old-growth, or hold people of Utah ‘hostage?’

This blog has highlighted the Dixie National Forest, Utah, “Iron Springs Vegetation Reduction Project” before.  Yesterday, the Salt Lake City Tribune reported:

Wildlife conservation groups on Thursday praised a decision by Dixie National Forest withdrawing a plan to harvest 8,000 acres of old-growth forest near Escalante.

“Conservationists are calling this a valentine for wildlife,” said Kevin Mueller, program director for Utah Environmental Congress. “The withdrawal really is a reprieve for wildlife.”….

Mueller said the harvest has appeared dead at least three times before, as far back as 1999.  “This is a horrible game of whack a mole that’s been going for about a dozen years, and I just really hope the Forest Service gives up the ghost on this project and doesn’t resurrect it again,” he said.

The timber harvest area of 8,306 acres is about 15 miles northwest of Escalante at elevations ranging from 9,000 to 10,750 feet. Mueller said the trees that were to be cut down are an estimated 150 to 400 years old.  Conservation groups have fought the harvest, saying the trees provide needed nesting and forage habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl and sensitive-species goshawk….

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab said opposition by groups outside of Utah like the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, is a “perfect example” of why state officials want to take control of public lands. “This is another reason why our Utah lands and forestry people and local people can do a better job of managing lands because we’re not held hostage to groups in … other areas,” he said.

23 Comments

  1. “…the trees that were to be cut down are an estimated 150 to 400 years old.”

    AND:

    “…populated mostly by Engelmann Spruce, a high-elevation tree type that naturally burns at long intervals, 100 to 400 years.”

    AND:

    Mueller: Fire “…is part of the natural cycle of things,” he said. “The forests actually become more valuable to sensitive and rare species after a fire.”

    The area is due for a fire, so why not light one? If it would be better for sensitive and rare species, shouldn’t the agency be compelled to do so in the name of restoration?

    • Steve, I think that the question for the area is:

      1Leave it alone and let the trees (so to speak ) fall and burn where they may..
      2) Cut some (use the trees) and then burn the piles at least in some areas (future fire breaks)
      3) Prescribed burn (under the right conditions)… trying to make the same (future fire breaks)

      2 has the advantage that some of the material is used and not burned..clearly in terms of human values this is desirable to some and not to others.

    • Ironically, owls and goshawks do not nest in burned stands. Since those birds often re-use nests, “nest stands” need to be protected, not only from logging but, from catastrophic wildfires. Chances are, logging such nest stands could never be economical, on its own. It could be that nest stands might need only the small, non-commercial trees thinned, of course, only after nesting season. I doubt anyone would be in favor of torching off a nest stand, without some kind of fuels treatment.

  2. My late 70s final exam in undergraduate Silviculture, taught by OSU’s Dick Hermann, included a series of hypothetical forest situations for which we were to write a silvicultural prescription. One hypothetical described a subalpine fir forest in Oregon’s Cascade mountains at 5,000 feet on steep slopes within a national forest. The students’ range of answers included sophisticated aerial logging systems and various partial cutting schemes using multi-span high-lead yarding.

    Mine was a three-word answer: “Leave it alone.” I got an A+. My proudest moment as a forestry student.

    • Andy: Dick Hermann encouraged me to take an independent research course from him as I was first returning to college in the late 1980s. My resulting paper on Oregon Coast Range fire history — and his encouragement — resulted in my PhD dissertation on the same topic nearly 15 years later. He is still living in Portland, Oregon and his long-delayed book on forestry is going through its final edits this month. A great teacher.

  3. In the Iron Springs project, the “Terrain is slightly rolling to level,” according to the EA.

    The sale would have involved commercial conifer thinning on 3,603 acres, pre-commercial conifer thinning on 381 acres, commercial conifer sanitation/salvage on 366 acres, commercial aspen regen of 152 acres, “aspen cleaning” on 388 acres, and planting existing areas of low stocking, for a total on 5,044 acres.

    I’ve never been to the area, but I imagine that this thinning would help make the remaining trees more resilient to insects, disease, and climate change generally.

  4. Southwest Utah has been severely impacted by drought and other factors. I was there last October and continued to see widespread mortality, especially at those higher elevations. The higher elevation Cedar Breaks National Monument has excessively mortality, and I previously showed this blog what those forests look like. I’m not convinced that goshawks and owls live that far up. Chances are, opponents think those areas could be “colonized”. If there were actual rare birds in the project, I’d bet the point would be moot. That being said, I’m still not a big fan of cutting big, old trees. Burning will probably need some fuels treatments, first, before burning can safely be accomplished.

    The State of Utah has had problems with the Forest Service “Let-Burn” program, having seen how quickly such fires can travel and spread. The Mill Creek incident convinced the public not to trust the Forest Service, and their “Let-Burn” policies. In fact, the Forest Service paid for all of Utah’s suppression costs on that incident, as Governor Hebert demanded.

    I do think that more projects like http://ncfp.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/before-and-after-utah-style/ should be done, near communities and recreation spots. The mortality is vast and the economic value is minimum in all those millions of dead trees.

  5. I skimmed the introduction to the EA for the iron Springs project, and my general impression was that the project was either not a good idea or presented weakly. It seems I am not alone in thinking that.

    One of the things that bothered me about the EA was the old-school terminology, such as “intermediate treatment” and “precommercial thinning”, that left me wondering if I was reading about a fully controlled forest plantation. In mixed-objective management I think it is best to use more appropriate, less inflammatory language. Unfortunately, I learned this lesson the hard way. But I have learned.

    • Hamis,

      Haven’t read the EA and I’m not disagreeing with your assessment of their presentation, but do you have suggestions on what “more appropriate, less inflamatory” language might be??? I am genuienly curious since I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last few years trying to explain in layman’s terms what treatment/harvest/logging will LOOK like following harvest. Seems that peoples willingness to support a project is based on LOOKS, even though that is a short sighted and selfish basis for evaluation.

      Further, why would we not want to use the actual proper silvicultural terminology….why dumb it down to “less inflamatory” language? (BTW, intermediate treatment and precommercial thinning are not “old school”). Why not explain EXACTLY what silvicultural prescription is to be applied, (and why) and what the stucture of the residual or target stand will be? (i.e – 14-30 trees per acre will be left. Trees selected for retention will generally favor the largest trees or most desireable species x, y, z. Retention will generally be in clumps distrubuted across the unit, blah, blah, blah, you get my point). Of course an explanation of WHY a prescription is designed the way it is will answer your “mixed-objective” (“integrated”, in the vernacular of the FS) management.

      After all we are trying to build trust, and that should mean telling it like it is…not trying to camouflage responsible forest management. When I take my truck to the shop I want to know what’s wrong and how to fix it, even if I don’t understand what the mechanic is saying. I don’t want to hear some sort of patronizing explanation.

      • Well, as a veteran of the Old Days, we used to think that “precommercial thinning” was thinning of trees so they would become commercial. In other words, it was an investment and we would analyze to see if it would pay off. Where trees grow slowly and the conditions they grow in are not controlled, it is not likely.

        This came up when we were working on the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment. A representative of the timber industry didn’t like a certain aspect of the decision because you wouldn’t be able to precommercially thin lodgepole (or do less PCT). At that time, I didn’t realize that the Forest Service was funding even still funding PCT. Of course if you asked people today, they would say they are just doing it for forest health. Which would be fine, except then logically it would be in competition with other forest health projects and not funded from timber.

        Anyway, I think the whole approach to timber management could use updating. Most of the policies and procedures originated in the day when the FS was doing serious timber management and now only fits those areas where that is still happening.

        Updating would also be an opportunity to review language and see if it still serves to communicate clearly among the agency, various branches of the scientific community, and the public and their elected officials.

      • I appreciate your thoughtful comments JZ.

        In the case of the ISVRP, the “intermediate treatments” proposed were thinning and clearcutting. The clearcutting they call aspen cleaning, and although aspen regenerate primarily through suckering I would not consider a clearcut an intermediate treatment. When they say “precommercial thinning” they mean thinning of small trees, which they define as trees less than 5″, or trees less than 8″ depending on markets. I believe that “thinning” and “small-diameter thinning” are more informative and more easily understood terms that avoid unnecessarily linking the proposed treatments with commercial profits and unspecified/unplanned future final harvests. Project economics can be presented separately.

        There are some interesting parts in the introduction to the EA, such as the section stating that, according to the forest plan, management objectives for much of the project area should be directed toward the conversion of old-growth to young, thrifty forest and the utlilization of large roundwood.

        I expect we will see a different approach and different terminology in the draft EIS for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative is released sometime this month (if the 4FRI is still on schedule). I could be wrong though.

        • I cant edit my earlier comment, so I’ll make a correction with another comment. It was pointed out to me that the clearcutting and aspen cleaning, whatever that is, are different treatments and clearcutting was not classified as an intermediate treatment. +1 to the Dixie staff for not making that mistake, -1 to me for not being careful.

  6. I can think of several timber sales(projects) in Colorado that have the exact same spruce-fir logging prescriptions as this one. But there is no litigation. I guess we can thank the “new perspectives” on forestry that is coming from the Colorado enviros for that. How did Mark Udall phrase it, “I’ve had a personal evolution towards logging.” I think the alliance for the wild rockies should open an office in Aspen to show the moderates “the error of their ways” and start litigating these illegal timber sales.Especially the timber sales that clear deadfall from the gravel roads that lead to my favorite wilderness trailhead. I can think of a nice large timber sale about ten miles from Boulder where the AWR could start their litigation. It’s obvious the reactionary elements in the Colorado enviro movement have taken over and the true revolutionaries have lost their discipline(and probably their funding!).

    • Derek- some individuals in the Colorado environmental movement may have refocused their energies on coal and oil and gas development. Perhaps funding is available for climate change related issues.

      Students- I see an opportunity to find projects with similar purpose and need, vegetation type, treatments, and acres, across different states and interview 1) the id team leader, 2) the Ranger, 3) environmental groups, 4) timber industry, if any, 5) local mayors, county commissioners and see what the different perspectives are. If they were fuel treatment projects, it might be eligible for JFSP. Maybe we could work climate modelling in somewhere and be eligible for more funding.. 😉

  7. Here’s a question for everyone. If the proposed project is scientifically and legally defensible in court relative to NEPA, ESA, and other regulatory frameworks, then why does the FS keep pulling the project when it’s appealed rather than just letting it go to court where they can finally win their case and get the project underway? The answer is this, and it’s typical FS strategy, they CAN’T defend their action legally or scientifically so they pull it and try to sneak it in again at the expense of taxpayer dollars. They are afraid for it to go to court plain and simple and this ‘propose a project and then pull it if challenged’ is far too common and wastes too much of our taxpayer dollars. There are plenty of legal cuts that go unchallenged and if this one was legal then it too would be unchallenged. If the science and legality is sound then they shouldn’t have to worry. For the sake of jobs and forest health, go demand that they don’t pull it again. Have at it, but the FS clearly doesn’t want to go down that road because they know it will get shot down for good in court. BTW, that would mean it was illegal from the get go at everyone’s expense. This ‘propose and pull strategy’ is the only way they can keep the project alive. Think about it, what do they have to fear if they are in the right?

    • “Bill”: When did “going to court” become part of the planning process? And why are you so confident that “science” is somehow in support of your perspective? You ask: “what do they have to fear if they are in the right?” How about wasting more time and taxpayer dollars while trying to manage a forest? I think unnecessary and unending litigation would be something to reasonably try and avoid, if not “fear.” I also think it may have a lot more to do with experience, cost, and common sense than “cajones” — or cahones, either one. Let me guess why your “expertise” is being freely shared via a pseudonym . . .

  8. And the FS doesn’t even attempt to change the project between appeals. That’s pretty bold. They must be pretty darn confident in the legitimacy of the project if they refuse to change it based on criticisms put forth in appeals. And still they don’t have the cahones to put it to the legal test.

  9. Plenty of people on here use just their first names. Yes, my first name really is Bill. I don’t need a pseudonym to be anonymous, there are plenty of Bills in the world, and I feel no need to give my last name since it adds nothing to the discussion. Oh, and of course the internet is insane. But thanks for the personal attack “Bob”.

    Litigation is a check on planning or projects that violate the law. This is what courts are for, to hold people accountable for violating laws. In these cases, if plans formed by managers with or without public input yield proposals that may violate laws enacted to protect habitat and species, then how else does this conflict get sorted out? What other mechanism is there to resolve the validity of the science, whether laws are being violated, or to scrutinize the process from a legal perspective? The planning process sometimes involves public input, but time and time again issues/concerns are raised that are ignored by agencies, but that later turn out to be pretty bad errors in planning or judgement. If propsed actions are illegal and determined to harm species and habitat according to something like ESA, or if say the NEPA process was violated, then the breakdown in the process happened in the planning phases at great taxpayer expense long before it had to go to court.

    As it stands in this case, the FS is drawing out the litigation. They’ve drawn it out for years. The FS keeps proposing the same project and then withdrawing it instead of either standing by what they know is a good defensible project from a scientific and legal standpoint (and would be thereby be judged as such in court), or just doing what it might take to make it so according to the appeals, thus avoiding a lawsuit and then implementing a good project. At this point the FS might as well defend it where it counts, win it, and get the project going. Then they’ll be far less likely to be taken to court over similar projects in the future because they won and precident is set. And as with any form of law, only winnable lawsuits get filed because there is a predetermined cause for filing them. Known losers are not filed – that would be stupid. Attorneys do their homework before taking on cases and no attorney in their right mind would work for no money on loser cases. And if the FS wins cases like this then they won’t be getting sued over similar actions because they will be known loser cases.

    But that only works if the project in defensible. The project is a good one right? No violations right? Protective of species and habitat according to law? But if the planning process didn’t vet out legal or scientific problems with the project, then the process is flawed somewhere and much of the planning itself was a waste of money before courts ever came into play. If the plan/planning is flawed legally and/or scientifically, then planning it will have been the biggest waste of taxpayer money in this whole project to-date, and egregiously so if planners are aware of flaws everytime they re-propose it. This seems likely since appeals make it go away so easily for a little while. If it did go to court and the FS lost, I’d wager that planning would still make up the majority of the now wasted taxdollars even after attorney pay/fees are paid to both sides. All of that interdiscplinary, management and administrative personnel working on the planning and design for years…that’s a lot of money. Are taxpayers supposed to pay federal environmental agencies to break laws? No, and noone would answer yes.

    And you can’t say this doesn’t happen. FS loses cases in court because of this very failure to properly plan, or by violating the lawful planning process, which is the very target of some lawsuits. Maybe sometimes it’s due to ignorance of the regulatory framework – it is wildly complicated – or sometimes maybe not. But losing such cases is proof of a failure somewhere in the planning. Courts aren’t part of the planning process and no one wants them to be. Better planning to avoid the courts would be better. Perhaps lawyers need to be more involved in agency planning to avoid lawsuits. Better legal oversight in the planning stages would better ensure that projects are legal with respect to the entire regulatory framework that’s in place for protection of fish, habitat, wildlife, water quality, etc. Then there won’t be a need for lawsuits. In short, my vote is for better planning, the whole point is to have good planning, but courts are also necessary to keep everyone honest. That pretty much goes for everything I suppose. If I’d planned better, I’d have given myself more time to proofread this and not ramble on so much.

    Bill
    Biologist by trade involved in no litigation thank goodness

    • “Bill”: For the record, most of the people that use a single name here have identified themselves by other means, or are otherwise well known — much like your “biologist by trade” tag at the end of your long entry helps identify you (assuming you are being truthful — no way to check of course). Maybe the internet is “insane,” and maybe you somehow think that “you” are being “attacked” because I dislike having public discussions with anonymous individuals claiming “expertise” and wanting attention for their thoughts and opinions BUT — how is it even possible to attack “you” when you have no identity? Sounds a little paranoid, Bill. From a couple of angles.

      No need to put quotes on my name. Use Google. That’s who I am, just as if I’m writing a letter to the editor of the local paper or participating in a radio interview or writing an article or a report. Not sure how “insane” the Internet is, but I’m certainly not one to slog through a long, detailed posting from someone who prefers to remain unknown. Not worth my time, and I tend to avoid such situations as a result. If you think that is being “attacked,” I have no idea why. Just as I have little idea as to what you just posted. Your choice. And mine.

    • Bill, you said “Perhaps lawyers need to be more involved in agency planning to avoid lawsuits. ”

      I can only speak for my experience..but here is what that world looked like to me when I was in the middle of it.

      Lawyers are involved in training agency planners on what to look out for and be careful about, and if there are difficult questions related to legal matters.

      Ironically, lawyers were against us writing down lessons learned from appeals, as they thought appellants would get hold of these documents and learn from them (more than we would ourselves.. I never quite go this). Sure they would get the documents because even if protected by attorney-client privilege, someone would leak them. I never knew anyone to get in trouble for doing this, but you think it is against some rule, it does seem a bit odd. Because litigation is adversarial, but one side must show its cards and the other one doesn’t. Doesn’t really seem that fair to me.

      This worldview, in my opinion, contributes to inefficiency in continual improvement (just think if you could only talk about things going wrong with BMP’s in phone calls to the folks with the problem and not share with the rest of the organization in writing!)

      I would like to say some things about OGC lawyers here.. the ones I worked with are very, very, good and very, very dedicated (many phone calls at all hours of the day and night). Sometimes it is harder than other times for the DOJ folks who come in at the end to pick up all the nuances.

      Lawyers were involved in appeals reviews (that make it to the Regional Office) even to the point of editing documents.

      We had an inkling when people (who have legal chops) are interested ideologically in certain projects (due to FOIAs and appeals and usually statements in the press about How Absolutely Awful the project is) and attempt to bullet-proof the document.

      There are a variety of judgment calls along the way, but as one of my associates in another region once said, when it goes to court it’s a “crapshoot.”

      Anyway, the above is a snapshot of what goes on behind the scenes of project planning, appeals and litigation.

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