Where to do what: some thoughts and the Blue Mountains

Map from the Oregonian, Dan Aguayo

Map from the Oregonian, Dan Aguayo

Ed raised the question of “where do people on the blog think “intensive management, thinning and prescribed burning” belong.. everywhere? roadless? primitive areas?”

So I’ll go first.

I think that for places where there is no “timber industry” currently:

A. “Thinning for protection” thinning should be done around communities and roads in fire country . We should all work together on building “fire resilient communities and landscapes.” We should analyze all the places fire could start and make sure that for every really dangerous area, there are good areas for suppression between them and communities.

We should work on developing markets for the wood removed, so rural people are employed and we can afford to do it.

We would estimate the acreages and volume through time and then encourage industries to come in and use the material. Watch dog groups would watch to make sure than no more was offered for sale than in the agreement.

When a roadless area or wilderness is in a WUI, we would bring in experienced fire folks and determine if the fire could be fought safely with a break on private land (preferred) or public land.

Otherwise the backcountry would be left alone unless there is some compelling reason for action (protecting endangered species, corridors? or whatever).

B. “Thinning for protection plus resilience” Where there is existing mill capacity, thinnings may also be done if they make stands more resilient to drought and bugs, and they make money (not that they are restoring to the past, but the past had those attributes, say open parklike stands of ponderosa).

Now I was drafting this last night in response to Ed’s question. Meanwhile, I ran across these news stories.. in the Blue Mountains Accelerated Restoration project, it appears to be “thinning for protection plus resilience.” There are several good quotes about the rationale in the story.

The roughly 50,000 acres thinned or logged annually within the four forests is probably less than 20 per cent of what’s needed, Aney said.
“We need to at least double that” to stabilize forest health within 15 years, he said.
The plan Aney will execute calls for managing the Blues in blocks of several hundred thousand acres, instead of the current 30,000-acre planning units. Logging or thinning is likely on no more than 40 percent of each planning unit, Aney said. Individual projects will have to go through environmental reviews.
Work in the woods is expected to start in summer 2014.

Veronica Warnock, conservation director for the La Grande-based Hells Canyon Preservation Council, was more guarded. She said forest restoration is necessary but should be avoided in places where science doesn’t support it, such as stands of old growth or wildlife corridors.

I wonder what “science” that is, that involves what you should or should not do…I thought the role of science was empirical rather than normative. oh well.

21 Comments

  1. As far as “thinning” to help accomplish the goal of protecting homes and communities from wildfire, the very best place to start is with the life work, research and CSI-type investigations of Missoula’s Jack Cohen.

    Cohen is a Research Physical Fire Scientist with the USDA Forest Service Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. Cohen is the pre-eminent researcher on wildfire and home ignitions, and a founder of the Firewise Communities/USA recognition program. Jack coined the concept and phrase “home ignition zone”.

    Lucky for us, we can read his papers on preventing home loss disasters during wildfire, and review his post-fire examinations of home destruction. What we’ll likely find is often times, “thinning” isn’t even needed period, as the home and the immediate home site – the “home ignition zone” – determines the vast majority of home loss, or home loss averted, during wildfires. And when “thinning” is needed or recommended, it’s within the immediate surrounding of the home and community and not a few miles into the forest.

    Personally, I’m opposed to “thinning” all the “roads in fire country, as that would be a tremendously large undertaking as there are likely upwards of 250,000 miles of roads (yep, that’s about the distance between planet Earth and our moon) in “fire country.” I also think thinning around all these roads would be a big concern for wildlife due to a lack of big game security, increased poaching (Yes, currently at “epidemic” levels in Montana according to our MT FWP), etc. And how we do all this “thinning” in the areas where there is “no timber industry currently” is a mystery to me.

    Our organization, WildWest Institute, has had some experience in this arena. And I even managed to raise about $25,000 over a two year period to hire a local fuel reduction crew to help create defensible space around the homes of elderly and economically challenged members of a rural community:

    WildWest Helps Establish FireSafe Montana

    Working together to keep the DeBorgia Community safe from wildfire

    As far as the concept of “Thinning for protection plus resilience” I think that gets a little more complicated, as the devil is very much in the details. I have a feeling that some people would see regeneration harvest or shelterwood harvest as falling under the banner “thinning for protection plus resilience,” while others of us would clearly not.

    Our organization has some experience in this area too, as we even worked with a Lolo National Forest district ranger to conduct our own “Ecologically-based fuels reduction pilot project.” Unfortunately and ironically, after we did the pilot project and received much praise from the Forest Service ranger and all his specialists, Plum Creek Timber Company mowed right over it a few months later as the Forest Service employee on site managing the timber sale was mistaken about the boundary of our pilot project.

  2. While home construction is important, there are more complex issues that cannot be separated from the whole. As seen on the Wallow Fire, treatments did save homes but, they did not save the forests close to town. This always results in increased bark beetle populations and an increase of dead fuels. Of course, the dead trees could be removed but, it would have been better to remove them BEFORE the wildfire begins to burn. Clearly, the famous picture shows high intensity wildfire effects, including the loss of all the needles and nearly 100% mortality. The treated area shows some (currently) live trees, with assorted fire damage that often leads to group mortality, either through cambium kill, or bark beetles, or both.

    Another reality that home construction doesn’t address is high intensity re-burns, with hazards lasting for decades, if those dead fuels are not removed. Also not addressed is the high probability that bark beetles will cross firelines and infest all of the green trees within the town. Cambium-killed green trees often support a year’s worth of beetle generations, with those beetles migrating dozens of miles during each generation. The San Bernardino National Forest is a perfect example of bark beetles exploding populations, killing nearly 100% of ponderosa pines in the Crestline and Lake Arrowhead areas. Also adding to the problem is the lack of active forest management in the entire Forest, for more than 20 years. The Bitterroot NF and other Forests have also experienced blooms of bark beetles, infesting forests that survived the wildfires. Clearly, private property was impacted by accelerated beetle kills there, too.

    I’m not a fan of “regeneration cuts” or “shelterwood” treatments, while I do recognize their potential benefits. Forest resilience in ponderosa pine is the all-encompassing goal for those forests, and not just home fire safety. It IS important to save the forests surrounding communities, and not just the homes. Pretending that wildfires are “natural and beneficial” doesn’t look at the big picture, especially within 10 miles of communities.

    Once again, my version of “restoration” includes correcting species compositions, tree densities and enhancing the survival of old growth habitats. Preservationism does none of those.

  3. Sharon, I agree with your thinking about forest management outside wilderness and roadless areas to a point. I would suggest that since these areas, regardless of the lines on a map, are often key watersheds, there needs to be some serious discussions about protecting the important watershed values of such lands without introduction of mechanical equipment. Maybe the answer is a series of low intensity prescribed fires.

    I think the importance of water here in the West is going to force us to think hard about how we manage wilderness and unroaded areas in future years.

  4. A snippet from the article speaks for itself:

    “A staggering 800 million board feet of wood fiber annually reaches maturity in the nearby Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests. Only 11 percent gets to sawmills, while 400 million board feet succumb to insects, disease, fire and age, said industry spokesman Tom Partin. He likened the mills’ situation to “starving to death when you are standing beside the refrigerator.” “

  5. Matthew,
    We have had the discussion before about Cohen’s work and what that means in terms of communities.
    http://ncfp.wordpress.com/2010/03/01/science-or-scienciness-situations-that-shout-watch-out-1-3/
    also this one on Graham, Jain , and Loeseke.
    http://ncfp.wordpress.com/2010/03/01/science-or-scienciness-situations-that-shout-watch-out-1-3/
    In the ensuing three years, we have had some situations and fires where suppression efforts helped, and/or trees survived due to changes in fire behavior due to thinning and removing of fuels.

    And on the question of thinning for resllience, I would think that group selection or shelterwoods might be handy to get intolerant species reestablished to promote overall species diversity. I’d be interested in why or why not you would think that to be appropriate.

    I didn’t mean thinning around all roads (sorry that wasn’t clear) but rather key ones that afford a potential fireline. I don’t see how that would increase poaching People probably prefer to poach somewhere they can’t be seen by folks driving by.. maybe, then it would increase the visibility and apprehension of poachers (kind of like a long narrow salt lick for poachers?)

    • RE: Poaching. Around Montana much of the poaching takes place when cars/trucks drive down forest roads and the poachers see animals near the road. So when you wrote that you’d like to see “thinning around roads in fire country” it made me think of poaching as one of the potential unintended consequences. That’s all.

      • I’m guessing far more animals are killed by vehicles than poachers. The only deer I ever hit with my car jumped out of a thicket next to the road I was driving. When trees are thinned along roadways, it is much easier to see the wildlife. I think the poachers issue is not nearly as critical as the vehicle issue. There are other advantages to thinning along roads, too — economical, biological, aesthetics, etc.

  6. Thinning may be fine and dandy in some areas, however I feel that they are missing the boat so to speak when it comes to mixed conifer stands and historically was and is mixed severity fire regimes. This probably is not that big of deal on the Ochoco or Malhuer forest which don’t have a lot of grand fir sites. The Wallowa Whitman and the Umatilla have grand fir sites that had overstory removals that took out the seral Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and Western Larch, leaving behing mostly grand fir. Thinning grand fir is not generally a good idea. They tend to scar easy and are suspectable to rot. And any thinning just tends to promote grand fir regeneration. The Ponderosa, Wetern larch, and Douglas fir need opennings and sunlight to become established, live long, and prosper. If they are serious about restoring the forest to become more resilient, they need to take a good look at the grand fir sites, which lack seral species, and create some openings and plant serals.

    • Michael and Larry, it’s interesting that you would see things differently, which I think actually has to do with the stands you are thinking of. I have seen the grand fir stands and they could use being broken up for diversity …but I don’t know that there is a “right number” for needed ponderosa stands to break up the grand fir, formerly pine stands. If models are right about getting drier, too much true fir could be a problem..

      John, I agree with you on the protecting watersheds concept. Not sure that prescribed burning would work or be affordable, but I wonder if it’s OK to do erosion control with helicopter in the wilderness? Maybe postfire is the best way to handle reducing the sedimentation.

      • I completely see Michael’s situation, and agree that different methods apply to different conditions. In his situation, there aren’t any good leave trees. I’m not so set in my ways to go for a one-size-fits-all solution. As long as the science is site specific. Yes, I have seen some pretty decadent grand fir and doug-fir stands.

      • Western Larch is one of my favorite trees, big larch rival any Ponderosa Pine for beauty in my opinion, plus they are the only conifer in our part of the forest that turns yellow in the fall. They are definitely an early seral that need disturbance and opennings to thrive. They tend to be found in huckleberry understories which are grand fir sites.

  7. You need to break some eggs to make an omelette Larry. EArly seral is the biggest missing ecosystem component on most forests. I don’t want to sound like we got to clearcut it all…by no means. I luvs the thinning. I come from a “non-clearcut” ponderosa forest…and that fact may have something to do with the popularity of logging here…but, let’s face it, throughout the west, the forests are a mono culture of mature forests. A “frequent fire” Ponderosa forest with 95% mature isn’t normal either.Shelterwood and removals ARE age diversity.

    Nobody needs to log old growth anymore. 100 years of fire suppression mean there’s no shortage of 100 year old merchantable trees. When I read all these EIS’s and forest plans and FIA’s…65-75% of these forests are classified as “sawtimber”. Now…informed people like us know there’s no way that all that “mature” is Old Growth. I’d say there’s more mature now than at any time in natural history.

    I was gonna post a photo of the “Como lake” thinning, but Matt got there first. A rec area loaded with 80-100 year old trees. Just big enough for the saw mill. I’m gonna guess, that they paid $100/thousand stumpage for that stuff…which is pretty high. A far cry from “unmerchantable”…and the WEst is loaded with that stuff. (In fact, the Missoulian story about the project talked about it…and how much stewardship money was coming from it. I’ll look for it.) What’s controversial about thinning that? If you can’t find compromise on thinning this place, there is no compromise to be found.

  8. I’ve seen some assertions in various comments that wilderness and roadless areas have a higher percentage of wildfire and beetle-kill. Does anyone have a link to maps overlaying designated wilderness and IRA boundaries with accurate wildfire and beetle-kill acreage (within, say, the last couple decades), and additionally showing such instances in non-wilderness/roadless areas for a compare and contrast? Just curious if such maps are readily available – I’m sure they exist. It’d help provide better context, as a cause-and-effect seems implied by such assertions.

  9. John, that’s a great question. I think it varies by area. You can see in this photo that there are many more dead trees. Does that happen everywhere? No but in some places it does.

    pine_beetle_park

    I was sent this link to Evergreen today serendipitously today and it features our own Derek!

    So the question is not “on the average does management help with pine beetles or spruce beetles or fir beetles” but will it help in this place at this time, based on the best information we have.

    Wildfire is more complicated. To my mind it’s not about fires or not fires, it’s about 1) “will lots of dead trees change fire behavior to make it more dangerous to nearby communities and/or firefighters?”
    and 2) will lots of dead trees change fire behavior to make it more dangerous to endangered species and to water quality?

    But even given that, in most places you can’t get to the trees anyway and it’s not economic to log them (if you even have an extant timber industry). And we had MPB in central Oregon in the 80’s (remember trying to get a waferboard plant in Chiloquin for all those dead lodgepole?) even with the then-vibrant industry. So like many things, I think it is best not generalized. Perhaps we can all agree on that?

  10. RE: The South Dakota picture.

    Ah, the Black Elk Wilderness, site of my first solo Wilderness backpacking trip.

    But wasn’t much of the Black Elk Wilderness actually logged, mined, developed, etc prior to being designated a Wilderness area in 1980? Doesn’t the “white man” history go back pretty far in that area? How does/would that historic management (or likely exploitation) of that area impact the area now, and the into the future? How did that previous management in what became the Black Elk Wilderness impact not only the size of trees, but also the composition of tree species?

    Also, are we supposed to believe that all the forests/trees to the left of the Wilderness line were “treated” as the photo claims? And again, that nothing to the right was “treated” pre-1980.

    Also, looking at this map, and especially the aerial view, you can clearly see how much of the forest OUTSIDE Black Elk Wilderness has been impacted by beetles.

    For example, look at the map in the aerial view and check out the portion of the Black Hills National Forest and state forest to the north/northwest of the Black Elk Wilderness (around Palmer Creek Rd going clear to HWY 87 and 244). You’ll see that area outside of Wilderness has also been heavily impacted by bark beetles.

    If you look on the map you’ll also notice the same deal outside of the Wilderness on the southwestern side, between HWY 87/89 and HWY 16. You can also clearly see lots of evidence of logging and logging roads in that area too…yet there is lots of beetle activity too.

    Seems to me that the photo point that Derek settled on was carefully crafted to fit with his agenda and world view. That has to be tough to pull off from an airplane.

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