“Counties in Crisis”: A Draft Introductory Narrative

Note from Ron:  Earlier this month, I posted an article on Shoshone County, Idaho’s 2005 documentary, “Forests in Crisis” at the “Not Without a Fight!” blog — including a field for viewing the 27-minute film.  Yesterday, by way of continuing the same theme, I posted a possible draft intro to a new and updated version of the County’s film, now titled, “Counties in Crisis.”  Sharon generously invited me to cross-post the newer article to “A New Century of Forest Planning.”  Thank you, Sharon!

U.S. national forests and grasslands

U.S. national forests and grasslands

Scene One:  Setting Up The Problem

It’s a story that, for the most part, has fallen below the national news horizon.

America’s 155 national forests cover almost 190 million acres, the great majority in the West.  This great expanse of forested land falls across and affects more than 700 American counties, roughly a fifth of the nation’s total number of counties.  Some counties host only small patches of national forest while in others national forests may cover much or even most of their landscapes.

This presence has manifold consequences for local communities.  The Forest Service owns and governs these lands, thus limiting the inputs of local citizens and governments to an advisory role only.  For many years, national forests and local communities got on tolerably well.  The Forest Service’s multi-use philosophy made ample room for the needs and economies of local communities.  But this working relationship has broken down.  Now, local communities and counties have in effect become unhappy captives of Forest Service policies and limitations –- policies that no longer serve local needs and aspirations.

There are four basic local needs that define the relationship, and thus also the breakdown:

  1. The protection and enhancement of forest health;
  2. the protection and enhancement of local forest-related economic activity;
  3. the planning and execution of hazardous fuels reduction and forest thinning to reduce threat of catastrophic wildfire; and
  4. the provision of adequate support for the functioning or operation of local governments and schools.

In better times, each of these four domains helped serve the requirements of the others, all acting in concert to keep local communities and their surrounding forests healthy, productive, and in balance.  In bad times, however, the four domains act against one another, thus exacerbating the circumstances within each domain.  Without timber harvests, for example, the increase of fuel in the forest worsens the risk of catastrophic wildfire; by the same token, the absence of revenue from such harvests weakens county government and school resources and, as well, shortchanges Forest Service efforts to manage forest health.   (continue reading)

21 Comments

  1. Just watched the entire film. Interesting…..Have a hard time believing that Shoshone County spending $20,000 of Title III Secure Rural Schools funding on the film was a wise use of resources, but that’s just my opinion.

    For all that talk about wildfire sure was interesting how the concept of climate change wasn’t mentioned once. Also, while I heard the term “catastrophic” wildfire repeatedly I heard no talk about the forest types in Shoshone County. Let’s see, Shoeshone Co has lots of high-elevation lodgepole, sub-alpine fir/spruce forests.

    Q: How does those types of forests typically (and naturally) burn?

    A: High-intensity, low frequency fires.

    Shoeshone Co also has plenty of grand fir and western red cedar.

    Q: Just how fire resistant are grand fir?

    A: Not at all.

    As a history major myself I found lots of the old pictures and stories very interesting. Nearly everyone seems to agree that the “Big Burn” of 1910 was the result of high winds, high temperatures and low humidity.

    Q: Is there any type of “fuel reduction” or logging that can prevent or stop wildfires when you have high winds, high temps and low humidity?

    A: No.

    • (This comment is really from Gil but WordPress was behaving strangely, so I am posting this for him)

      Matthew:

      You posed the following rhetorical question but answered it incorrectly “Q: Is there any type of “fuel reduction” or logging that can prevent or stop wildfires when you have high winds, high temps and low humidity? A: No.”

      Science gives us a different answer. The threshold for high winds, high temps and low humidity causing a fire to spread depends on the ignition source as well as the quantity and structural placement of the fuel. The probability of lightning strikes or other ignition sources causing a catastrophic conflagration is:

      1) directly proportional to stand density, fuel accumulation on the ground, frequency of small trees with limbs close to the ground, wind speed, temperature, terrain and other parameters as well as interactions between these variables.

      2) inversely proportional to humidity and fuel/soil moisture content.

      Since fires can cause their own weather in terms of wind and heat which dries out fuels ahead of the fire, the most critical thing that you can do is to maintain the forest in such a way as to keep the ignition source from spreading beyond the ignition point or, at least, slow the rate of spread. Thinning significantly reduces the chance of the fire spreading (see #1 above) which significantly reduces the chance of the fire creating its own high winds to spread sparks and create a large heat source to pre-dry the fuels ahead of the fire.

      An ignition in a well managed forest has a significantly lower chance of spreading if dry lightning strikes a few trees when the wind is at 10MPH as compared to the same event occurring in an overly stocked stand. The 10mph wind can easily increase up to ~60mph by the fire “taking off” in the overly dense stand while the fire in the properly managed stand will have a much poorer chance of “taking off” and creating its own fire weather. So by way of comparison the threshold wind speed at the time of ignition for a conflagration might be as low as 0mph in an overly dense stand while it might be as high ~30mph in a well managed stand all other parameters being equal.

      In conclusion, since many conflagrations do not start out in high winds, high temps and low humidity – It is very important to exercise sound forest management (including thinning) in order to minimize the chance of an ignition building to the point where it creates its own weather. The practice of sound forest management will minimize total acres burned in any single fire event and collectively over the entire scope of the National Forests.

      SEE ALSO http://forestpolicypub.com/2013/12/20/diameter-screens-age-limits-applied-science-forest-management/comment-page-1/#comment-33853

      • Sharon

        Thanks for digging this out of the archives.

        Too bad that it didn’t generate any discussion.
        Too bad that some people can ignore the facts because they don’t fit in with their wishful thinking.

        Your efforts are appreciated.

  2. If you have “climate change” manifest in terms of lower water yield, more uptake per basal unit, what’s the response if the forest started on a higher water basis? Are you going to leave the entire thing, all that basal uptake, and RATIONALLY expect each basal unit to prosper? Nah.
    If you KNOW (and we don’t, for that matter) that 20 inches a water year is going to be 10 from here out, then you need to match the vegetation to what it will get. So as far as I’m concerned, anyone serious about “climate change” needs to think about getting densities down.
    So, if it burns, maybe it’s not top-to-bottom, wall to wall crown, maybe a good number of stems survive, and they do even better with the removal of competition that didn’t make it through a lower-intensity fire. Doing nothing in the face of change is not smart.

  3. In rural Josephine County, a tax increase is a hard sell. The county’s tax rate is the lowest in Oregon, at 59 cents per $1,000 of property value. The levy would raise that rate to $1.48 for the next three years.

    http://www.opb.org/news/article/josephine-county-tax-levy-would-add-deputies-fund-the-jail/

    Hey, guess what… Josephine County voters wanted to keep their ridiculously-low taxes, and preferred paying virtually nothing in taxes to having basic government services.

    GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — A failed levy vote in an Oregon county is taking a toll: government workers facing dismissal, a pending prisoner release, and crimes such as misdemeanor domestic assault and shoplifting likely to go unprosecuted.

    A day after Josephine County voters resoundingly turned thumbs down on a levy to plug a $12 million budget gap, the sheriff and district attorney began handing out pink slips Wednesday, cutting staff to levels probably not seen since the region was settled during the 1850s Gold Rush.

    http://bigstory.ap.org/content/ore-county-cutting-law-enforcement-bare-bones

    Hard to feel sorry for people who refuse to raise their own taxes to pay for their own services. Especially when they’re paying the lowest taxes anywhere in a given state.

  4. By the way, I am entirely in favor of PILT and SRS funding. I believe they are equitable contributions that recognize local needs.

    But when local residents refuse to pay their fair share in taxes, that crisis is not the result of any federal action – rather, that is a local decision by residents who value keeping their taxes as low as possible more than maintaining effective government services.

  5. That levy is old news. As for PILT and SRS, both are no longer sufficient, in fact PILT was just cut and SRS hangs on year to year in a fickle Congress. Never mind SRS was just a transitory bribe to defuse a political crisis until the promised “new economy” somehow materialized. But even Headwaters Economics admits that didn’t happen.

  6. This is the same Ron Roizen, Ph.D. sociologist and alcoholism expert who moved to Shoshone County from Berkeley, California, correct? And a vocal opponent of the lead cleanup in the Silver Valley? Which may not relate to his views on national forests, and doesn’t imply that they’re right or wrong, just wondering if it’s the same guy.
    http://www.times.org/archives/2002/thumb5.htm “Roizen, who has a Ph.D. in sociology, is among many self-designated lead experts in the area who oppose the EPA cleanup. He is a member of the Shoshone Natural Resource Coalition, an organization funded by the mining industry that has already filed suit to block the EPA cleanup plan. (Other plaintiffs are the cities of Smelterville, Wallace, Pinehurst and Mullan.)”
    http://www.spokesmanreview.com/news-story.asp?date=072502&ID=s1187766 “However, lead exposure through soil is likely a less serious problem than in the Kellogg children she (Lynette Stokes, CDC epidemiologist) studied, who inhaled smelter emissions and had extremely high blood-lead levels, she says. Roizen wrote a local newspaper story, quoting Stokes. Mining advocates applauded, and brought him into their circle, the 50-member Shoshone Natural Resources Coalition.”
    “Roizen has become their lead researcher. He helped organize a “science summit” last summer to critique EPA’s plans. He also took a $2,000 check from Holly Houston, a former consultant for area mining companies, to support his work.”
    “Now, he’s getting paid from a $36,500 EPA grant to Shoshone County to review EPA documents. He’s also preparing a paper to present to the National Academy of Sciences, which decided in June to review the science behind EPA’s expanded cleanup plan if Congress approves $820,000 to pay for it.”

    • Yes, the same guy. Your post is a kind of guilt-by-association slur. Too bad. Would be better, of course, to judge assertions on their merits. As a student of the alcoholism social movement and, more broadly, alcohol sociology in general, my career familiarized me very well with how epidemiological science can be used to “inflate,” “enhance,” or “maximize” the apparent seriousness of public problems. I saw many of the same rhetorical tactics in use in EPA’s assessment of childhood blood lead in the Silver Valley. It’s a long, complicated story stretching over a number of years. I never accepted any sort of check from Holly Houston but I did get hired by the county commissioners, on an EPA-funded grant, to interpret EPA science to the local community. I’d taught epidemiological methods at Berkeley, so this extension of my humble expertise wasn’t entirely illegitimate. The end result of my efforts, and those of the Shoshone Natural Resources Coalition, was the empaneling of a National Academy of Sciences review of EPA scientific method in the expanded Coeur d’Alene Basin Superfund site. This review had mixed results, but that — once again — is another long story. I suppose I should be flattered that you bothered to look me up — but somehow the tone of what you’ve reported, and how its reported, falls a little short of flattery, no. Ron

      • Ron, no induction of guilt intended, hope I didn’t get any facts wrong, just trying go figure out where you’re coming from. I didn’t “report” anything other than my first two sentences, again hopefully they are factual, no problems from my perspective with sociology and Berkeley’s a fun town with a great university. The quotes are from local newspapers, the only ones I found. If by “association” you mean Silver Valley mining interests, like many Idahoans I hold them in very low regard, that’s just how it is. I’ve also worked on downstream CDA River sediment lead pollution research, and have tripped over enough dead waterfowl there, to have an opinion on that. Having also served on more than one National Academy of Sciences panel, I have some familiarity with those, mixed results is par for the course so that’s understood. But this blog’s about forestry, not mining and lead pollution, so maybe all this is neither here nor there.

  7. Many facts on Shoshone County here: http://www.city-data.com/county/Shoshone_County-ID.html
    Lots of poverty, that’s for sure, definitely above the state average. Some might consider that highly correlated to the general collapse of the Silver Valley mining industry (much of the valley is now a superfund site), and the disappearance of the Bunker Hill mining company, and what was once the largest smelting facility in the world. As Wikipedia notes about Bunker Hill et al: “Many of the mine tailings were dumped directly into the Coeur d’Aléne River and its tributaries, which were polluted with high levels of sulfur dioxide, lead, and other metals. The water in the river turned opaque gray, earning the stream the nickname “Lead Creek.” An estimated 100 million tons of arsenic, cadmium, and zinc were released into the air, along with 30,000 tons of lead. During the 1970s, when the smelter was still operating, children living in nearby areas began displaying very high blood lead levels. Approximately 26% of the two-year olds in the region had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.” Apparently Mr. Roizen and mining advocates remain opposed to cleaning that mess up. The extensive vistas of denuded hillsides that resulted from many decades of mining pollution make his newfound concern about “forest health” a little suspect. Mining ranks far and away the largest industry in Shoshone County (22%), about ten times the state average. Forest industry doesn’t rank very high at all, only 4%, about half the state average.

  8. The list of “basic local needs” above sounds like it was drafted mostly to serve those who profit from wood products and fire suppression with a few popular buzz words (like “forest health”) added for good measure.

    To serve the broader community, the list of “basic local needs” should be expanded to include:
    * a diverse economy that is not overly tied to commodities that tend to boom and bust;
    * a high quality-of-life capable of attracting high-skilled, high-mobility workers and entrepreneurs;
    * health watersheds that provide clean water and stable late-season water flows;
    * a stable climate;
    * a social safety net: including education, health care, fair distribution of wealth, help for those who fall through the cracks;
    * conservation of biological diversity in all its dimensions;

    • Saying that forested communities benefit from the wood products industry is like saying that California Central Valley communities benefit from agriculture, or that ocean communities benefit from the fishing industry. There is little chance that such isolated communities can “diversify” their economy. People need to work, regardless of where they live.

      • that’s true, but in Shoshone county where only 4% of the economy is forest-products based (less if you take out agriculture, but there’s not much of that), the benefits seem pretty limited (maybe unlike nearby Benewah county, also very poor but with 17% forest products industry). The Shoshone county population is relatively old (median age = 46, vs ID average of 34) and white (93.5%), almost half vote Democrat which is quite high for Idaho, probably a high proportion of retired former urban (CDA. Spokane etc) folks. Bigger local industries than forest products include auto dealers (“worlds biggest Chrysler dodge dealership”) and tourism/recreation (“world’s biggest ski area on a superfund site”).

    • I think most of us would agree with your expanded list. Also remember that we who profit from wood products and fire suppression also include us who try and to improve the communities in which we live. We make those communities better places to live by supplying jobs, paying taxes, and being involved in the our communities. We would welcome more diversity. We live, in my opinion, in one of the most beautiful places on earth. But we need more jobs before anyone else is going to want to live here, even our children.
      I think these jobs are going to have to come from our federal forests by making their vast resources available to everyone. (not by closing more roads and campgrounds)
      One of the biggest problems we face is that the federal lands owners, who own most of the forested land in our counties, are so controlled by the laws and science of the Clinton forest plan and the corporate environmental groups that no reasonable managament can take place.
      And talk about a boom and bust economy, ever summer we import thousands of fire fighters for a few months and spend hundred of millions of dollars burning up the forests that the “forest activists” have said we need to “survive”.
      Hopefully the forests and our communities outlive our foolisness.

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