Spruce Beetle- Beetle Without Drama and With FS Research

One thing I noticed when panels of scientists came to talk to us about our bark beetle response (from CU particularly) is that they kept talking about our “going into the backcountry and doing fuel treatments” and why this was a bad idea. We would tell them we weren’t actually doing that, but I don’t think they believed us. I have found in general, that people at universities tend to think that a great deal more management is possible on the landscape than actually ever happens. The fact that Colorado has few sawmills means we aren’t cutting many trees for wood..

Anyway, in my efforts to convey this “there isn’t much we really can/can afford to do in these places”, I ran across this story.. It just seems so common-sensical and drama free. Perhaps that is the culture of the San Luis Valley, reflected in its press coverage.

Note: Dan Dallas, the Forest Supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forests (and former Manager of the San Luis Valley Public Lands Center, a joint FS/BLM operation, ended for unclear reasons) is a fire guy, so has practitioner knowledge of fires, fire behavior and suppression.

A beetle epidemic in the forest will have ramifications for generations to come.

Addressing the Rio Grande Roundtable on Tuesday, Rio Grande National Forest staff including Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas talked about how the current spruce beetle epidemic is affecting the forest presently and how it could potentially affect the landscape and watershed in the future. They also talked about what the Forest Service and other agencies are doing about the problem.

We’ve got a large scale outbreak that we haven’t seen at this scale ever, Dallas said.

SLV Interagency Fire Management Officer Jim Jaminet added the infestation and disease outbreak in the entire forest is pretty significant with at least 70 percent of the spruce either dead or dying “just oceans of dead standing naked canopy, just skeletons standing out there.”

Dallas said unless something changes, and he and his staff do not think it will, all the spruce will be dead in a few years.

As far as effects on wildlife, Dallas said the elk and deer would probably do fine, but this would have a huge impact on the lynx habitat.

He also expected impacts on the Rio Grande watershed all the way down to the New Mexico line. For example, the snowpack runoff would peak earlier.

However, Dallas added, “All that said, it is a natural event.”

He said the beetle epidemic destroying the Rio Grande National Forest spread significantly in just a few years. He attributed the epidemic to a combination of factors including “blow down” of trees where the beetles concentrated on the downed trees, as well as drought stressing the trees so they were more susceptible to the bugs, which are always present in the forest but because of triggering factors like drought have really taken over in recent years.

“There’s places up there now where every tree across the board is gone, dead,” Dallas said. “It’s gone clear up to timberline.”

He said the beetle infestation could be seen all the way up the Rocky Mountain range into Canada.

Safety first

To date, the U.S. Forest Service’s response has focused on health and safety both of the public and staff, Dallas explained. Trees have been taken out of areas like Big Meadows and Trujillo Meadows campgrounds where they could pose a danger to visitors, for example.

“Everybody hiking or whatever needs to be aware of this. All your old habitats, camping out underneath dead trees, that’s bad business,” Dallas said.

He said trail crews can hardly keep up with the debris, and by the time they have cleaned up a trail, they have to clear it again on their way back out.

Another way the Forest Service is responding to the beetle epidemic is through large-scale planning, Dallas added.

For example, the Forest Service has 10 years worth of timber sales ready to go at any point in time, which was unheard of a few years ago.

……….

Forest research

Dallas said a group of researchers from the Forest Service will be looking at different scenarios for the forest such as what might happen if the Forest Service does nothing and lets nature take its course or what might happen if some intervention occurs like starting a fire in the heat of summer on purpose.

The researchers are expected to visit the upper Rio Grande on June 17. They are compiling a synthesis before their trip. They will then undertake some modeling exercises to look at what might happen in the forest and what it will look like under different scenarios.

“We have the opportunity now to do some things to change the trajectory of the forest that comes back,” Dallas said. “We want to understand that, not to say that’s something we really want to do.”

He added, “We would have to involve the public, because we are talking about what the forest is going to look like when we are long dead and gone and our kids are long dead and gone.”

If the Forest Service is going to do something, however, now is the time, he added.

Fire risks

Jaminet talked with the roundtable members about fire risks in the forest.

Fire danger depends on the weather and the environment, he said.

If the conditions were such that the weather was hot, dry and windy, “We could have a large fire event in the San Luis Valley,” Jaminet said.

He added that fortunately the Valley does not have many human-caused fires in the forests. The Valley is also fortunate not to have many lightning-caused fires, he added.

“Will there be an increase in fires?” he asked. “Probably not. Will there be an increase in severity? Probably not now but probably later. The fire events are going to be largely weather driven.”

He said some fire could be good for an ecosystem as long as it does not threaten structures and people

One has to wonder whether the reviewers of the NSF studies (in this post) knew that the FS was doing what appears to be addressing the same problem, only with different tools. Seems to me like some folks who study the past, assume that the past is somehow relevant to the best way forward today. I am not against the study of history, but, to use a farming analogy, we don’t need to review the history of the Great Plains before every planting season.

Maybe there should be financial incentives for those who find duplicative research, with a percentage of the savings targeted for National Forest and BLM recreation programs ;)?

15 Comments

  1. Really? The Forest Service never goes into the ‘backcountry’ to doing logging/fuel treatments using beetles or fire as an excuse? Really?

    Also, couldn’t help but notice that Super Dallas said, “All that said, it [spurce beetle outbreak] is a natural event.”

    And couldn’t help but notice that while some claim the Forest Service “does nothing” the article pointed out that “The Forest Service has 10 years worth of timber sales ready to go at any point in time, which was unheard of a few years ago.”

    Or that the fire expert said, “Will there be an increase in fires? Probably not. Will there be an increase in severity? Probably not now but probably later. The fire events are going to be largely weather driven. He said some fire could be good for an ecosystem as long as it does not threaten structures and people.”

    Hmmm….Seems that enviros have been saying the same thing for years, often mocked by the logging industry and their supporters. Anyway…..

    • Matt: I am not a member of the logging industry or necessarily even a supporter — however I have spent years mocking the enviros for claiming that wildfires are “weather driven.” It’s a dumb claim. Wildfires are dependent on fuel, a source of ignition, and weather conditions — which are usually seasonal and relatively predictable from one year to the next. A wildfire can make its own weather — even rain — for that matter.

      Fuel can be managed. Seasonal weather can be predicted. That equation hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. Most of this planet is covered by water, ice, and desert. Those areas don’t have large wildfires, no matter the weather conditions. Wildfire risk and severity can be mitigated by active management of surface fuels. The weather is still beyond our control and is a poor excuse for recent increases in catastrophic-scale wildfire occurrences on federal lands.

      • Thanks for a good chuckle Bob.

        Point of fact is that SLV Interagency Fire Management Officer Jim Jaminet stated, “Will there be an increase in fires? Probably not. Will there be an increase in severity? Probably not now but probably later. The fire events are going to be largely weather driven.”

        So, Bob, mock away all you want, I could care less. In fact, it reminds me of this short clip from a couple of doctors.

        • Very enlightening, Matt. Sounds a little like you’re trying to mock me, according to the link and your chuckling. My PhD research was in the study of catastrophic wildfires. I don’t know Jim Jaminet’s background, or whether he was accurately quoted or not, but I will stand behind my statements. Which are backed, in very large part, by numerous scientific studies.

          What is Jaminet’s basing his “probablities” on? On the surface, scientific predictions and prophesies can appear to be very similar. And my training is to be very skeptical of both.

          • Bob, perhaps you forgot that I respond “in kind” and that it was you who stated, “I have spent years mocking the enviros for claiming that wildfires are “weather driven.””

            So, therefore, if an enviro (me) is going to “mock” you….seems like you brought it upon yourself and sort of deserve it. Besides, I’ve been trying to bring “Spies Like Us” and Chevy Chase into these discussions for years.

            • Jeez, Matt: YOU (not me) started this whole “mockery” thing with your statement: “Hmmm….Seems that enviros have been saying the same thing for years, often mocked by the logging industry and their supporters. Anyway…..” — which is what I was responding to “in kind.” Maybe you don’t get dry humor — your link might suggest not.

              In any instance, I have no idea what “SLV” stands for, so had to stick with the topics and verbiage at hand. Now it looks like we’re just stuck with the verbiage.

              • Once again, Bob, “google” is your friend….Pretty sure SLV stands for San Luis Valley…..and that Jim Jaminet is an award-winning Fire Management Officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

                2009 NATIONAL FOREST FIRE MANAGEMENT OFFICER AWARDED TO COLORADAN JIM JAMINET

                Golden, Colo., August 24, 2010 – Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Rick Cables announced today that Jim Jaminet, Fire Management Officer with the U.S. Forest Service and part of the San Luis Valley Interagency Fire organization, received the 2009 National Forest Fire Management Officer of the Year award. The national award rewards fire managers that have exhibited exceptional leadership to the fire management program at the forest level.

                “Jim´s dedication to make firefighting safer and more efficient is an inspiration to everyone that works with him,” said Regional Forester Rick Cables, “Their commitment and dedication is amazing and has directly impacted the forests and surrounding communities in a far reaching and very meaningful way.”

                ————–

                Oh, and as far as the “mocking” thing and who started it, my initial statement was simply stating the fact that:

                “Seems that enviros have been saying the same thing for years, often mocked by the logging industry and their supporters.”

                As you’ll clearly notice I didn’t mock anyone, but instead claimed that us enviros have been “mocked” for bringing up the fact that many wildfires are “weather driven.”

                To which you directly responded with your proud proclamation:

                “I have spent years mocking the enviros for claiming that wildfires are “weather driven.”

                So there you have it.

                • You know when I read it, I thought “weather driven” means that individual fires tend to occur when it is hot and dry, or in N. Colorado sometimes when it is just dry..

                  Which is pretty obvious. I think you are really debating what management options are best for reducing risk to communities. Note that Jim did not say ” risk reduction efforts are pointless.”

                • Mathew: 1) The word “mock” is not a fact, or even close. It is an adjective you chose to use. I just had a little fun with it. 2) Mr. Jaminet is a firefighter, not a seer or a scientist. Why should he be given any particular weight for his predictions of future weather conditions and wildfire severity? Or his own personal values as to what is “good” for an “ecosystem?” If I were a professional firefighter, I think it would be good to have wildfire in my ecosystem, too.

    • OK… Matt.. let’s look at specific projects (in Colorado, since that was the discussion) that are in the “backcountry” and see what the FS said was the purpose and need. Folks here have enough trouble getting thinnings around communities.

      Some ponderosa and southern pine outbreaks can be reduced by thinning and gettting trees healthier. Lodgepole or spruce not so much. So let’s see what the purpose and needs really say and what the FS plans to do in the “backcountry.”

      It sounded to me as if these scientists believed that the FS was going to do “splats” or some other mega-project. Of course those have been proposed in research papers, but unlikely to happen in practice without a major reengineering of “the way society thinks” and “the way things work.”

  2. Matt highlighted the same phrases I noted.
    These discussions on sporadic natural events are interesting. Have you heard of any one asking the government or “someone” to fix the tornado situation? “Why can’t you guys stop all these deadly tornados” would be somewhat similar to these constant requests for the USFS to stop all these mega-fires. Of course, we all know that control of the weather and freakish storms is beyond our means, but we do know that those folks in Oklahoma can survive if they invest in a solid storm shelter.
    Likewise folks living in or near forests can survive wildfire by fireproofing their holdings and buildings.
    A fact…there is no real control of these beetle outbreaks, just stand back and watch, salvage what is reasonable and economic, and let nature take its course. Of course, some don’t like that answer, and insist that something be done.

    • There ARE intermediate projects proposed, other than roadbuilding and clearcutting the “backcountry”, which some seem to define as everything else outside of the tiny WUI they want around other people’s homes and property. It simply isn’t enough for me for homes to survive wildfires. Excuse me for being selfish but, I want forests that survive wildfires, like they used to.

      • Your premise is flawed. An analysis of trends in burn severity in the Northwest over the last 20 years found that “there is a [statistically] significant increase in average fire size between 1984-1999 and 2000-2005 [yet] there is still no trend toward higher burn severity… MTBS data does not support the assumption that wildfires are burning more severely in recent years.” MTBS: Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity: Report on the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Southwest Fires (1984 to 2005). http://mtbs.gov/reports/MTBS_pnw-psw_final.pdf. The majority of fire effects remain low severity and the proportion of high severity fire is not showing an increasing trend, therefore one could conclude that the increased incidence of fire on the landscape is just a re-establishment of a natural process. Natural fire is not a problem, but a solution to decades of fire suppression.

        • Tree: Here is an area where you and I have totally opposite perspectives. I’m not sure where you got your statistics (please don’t make me google) or how they measured burn severity over time, but I can assure you that annual total acreage of wildfires — particularly on federal lands — have reached historic proportions in the past 30 years. No matter how you measure severity (I like the mortality version, but then you don’t need an extra word), there has definitely been more of it lately in the western United States than at any other time since the very earliest days of the Forest Reserves.

          Another key point where we differ (other than one of us being anonymous) is your idea that “natural fire is not a problem, but a solution to decades of fire suppression.” I’m pretty sure I know what you mean by “natural fire” (not caused by people or managed by people?), but your idea of “a solution” is nuts. I guess if your house and family all burned up, that would be a “solution” to your medical problems or paying bills, but that would be a very strange way to look at things. That’s basically what I think of your idea of “solving” our wildfire problem by letting everything just burn up. But only if started by lightning or a volcano, of course.

          Yes, we need fire back on the landscape — but people have always handled it much better than lightning or volcanoes, and I think we would be very wise to resume doing so.

        • Just because “only” 125 square miles burned at high intensity in the Biscuit Fire doesn’t mean that it is a trivial amount. When old growth ponderosa pine burns and dies, I consider that to be “high severity”. The invasion of shade-tolerant and highly flammable species, growing under majestic pines is fueling the destructive crown fires. The Lodgepole-Ponderosa Interface has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 200 years, resulting in a forest WAY out of balance, by any definition.

          Finally, with all the past and current impacts on our forests, there is very, VERY little “natural fire”. Couple this with a VERY dangerous Let-Burn program, and you have a recipe for yet another record fire season during this new millennium. The public has already shown an intense distaste for dying, dead and burning public forests.

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