Owls/logging/fire debate in ongoing “collaboration” in Arizona

This story seems to deal with some substantive and procedural questions that are popular on this blog.  Environmental groups are offering alternatives that the Forest Service doesn’t seem interested in.

Elson, the Flagstaff District Ranger, acknowledged that some parts of the FWPP plan do fly in the face of the Mexican spotted owl recovery plan’s recommendations. But overall, the plan is in the best interest of the species, he said.

“The recovery plan would say we generally don’t want to disturb the owls during breeding season, but that is the necessary price to achieve reduced wildfire risk,” which poses the greatest threat to the birds, he said.

For example, doing thinning or prescribed burning in owl habitat areas during the spring and summer months, which overlap with breeding season, will allow that work to happen two to three times faster, Elson said. And that means a reduced wildfire risk in the area will happen sooner, he said.

Why does the Forest Service get to decide that NOT following the recovery plan is in the best interest of the species – that wildfire poses the greatest threat?  How “necessary” is it really to do a treatment “faster?”  (Doesn’t that just mean that resources could instead be used to treat other areas?)

13 Comments

  1. Remember, Jon, that the Recovery Plan includes “recommendations” to be followed to assist with the recovery of the species. These recommendations help agencies design and mitigate projects so that actions contributing to a recovery of a species can be achieved and adverse effects can be avoided. With the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, it is clear that impacts to the owl are going to occur no matter what.

    In answer to your question, “Why does the Forest Service get to decide that NOT following the recovery plan is in the best interest of the species – that wildfire poses the greatest threat?” No treatment will continue to result in increasing risk of high-intensity wildfire, which is the 2012 recovery plan-identified primary threat to the species. So, you present a false dichotomy here. It’s not that the FS has decided it needs to reduce fire risk and the owl must be impacted. Reducing the risk of high-intensity wildfire reduces the number one threat to the owl (as identified in the 2012 recovery plan) in the long-term. When adverse effects are likely (recommendations in the recovery plan cannot be met), the FS is required to consult with FWS. So, technically, the decision to do treatments during the breeding season was a joint decision made by both the FS and FWS to best meet the management goals and recommendations of the recovery plan given real life project constraints.

  2. There are some unanswered questions about the project. Does it do work within the bird’s nesting habitat? Does it happen after the eggs are in the nest, or even hatched? If the work is done in their foraging habitat, it shouldn’t matter that it is “breeding season”. I don’t think the birds have to find new mates, each year. Occupied nesting habitats should get protections from egg to flying offspring. Biologists usually have a good handle on where the active nests are, when they do the required surveys.

  3. From what I read here, they are disturbing nests during breeding season (contrary to the recovery plan). The reason is to reduce fire risk “faster.” Maybe “it is clear that impacts to the owl are going to occur no matter what,” but the assumption the FS seems to be making is that there is going to be a fire in the next couple of years.

    Formal consultation under ESA is not for the purpose of “a joint decision made by both the FS and FWS to best meet the management goals and recommendations of the recovery plan given real life project constraints.” It is to make sure that the specific proposal doesn’t trigger the extinction of the owl. It doesn’t try to identify the best approach. (It is possible that informal discussions could have looked at different approaches.)

    It is true that recovery plans are non-binding recommendations. However, the forest plan was required by FS regulations to include objectives for T&E species, “that shall provide for, where possible, their removal from listing …” – in other words recovery. It sounds like there should be plan standards that protect nest sites during the breeding season. If this project is consistent with the forest plan, then, maybe the forest plan doesn’t comply with NFMA regulations.

  4. It seems short of cutting the tree down where the nest is the owls would be ok. Some of these rules about not making any noise and such have gone a little too far. The timber operating seasons have gotten so short there are very few projects that can be completed on time and without waivers.

  5. The FWPP decision is clear that there will be no treatments in nest cores during the breeding season. this is from page 41 of the Draft decision:

    “Some treatments proposed within occupied PACs may need to occur during the breeding season (March 1-August 31) and would be coordinated with FWS. Treatments in nest cores would not occur during the breeding season.”

  6. If the question is whether treatments in the “occupied PACs” during the breeding season would adversely affect owls, we know that they would; that’s why there was formal consultation. Unfortunately, the Forest Service didn’t include the BO on its public website (the draft ROD says its in the “project record,” wherever that is). So we don’t know if it sheds some light on whether FWS thinks taking that risk now is worth it to reduce future fire risk and promote recovery.

    • A PAC could be around 5000 acres, containing multiple nests but, only one pair of birds. We cannot assume that logging 3 miles away will impact a nesting pair of birds. Remember, their nesting habitat isn’t where they hunt. Also, the actual nest trees will often have its own buffer of zero cutting. For CASPO. that buffer is 20 acres. Be aware that logging inside of an Owl PAC is only meant to improve that habitat. The last project that I worked on, inside a PAC, cut only trees between 10″ and 14.9″ in diameter. It was purely a fuels-driven prescription designed to enhance and protect the habitat.

      • Thanks for providing that link (the Forest Service should have provided it). The FWS is complimentary about most aspects of the project, especially setting up an adaptive management approach to learn more about the effects of this kind of management in this habitat. However it also acknowledges some places that it does not follow the recovery plan, including the activities allowed in PACs during the breeding season.

        The BO discusses the effects of disturbance on p. 29. The FWS concludes with this: “Treatments within individual PACs would be limited to no more than two breeding seasons, which is expected to reduce the duration of expected disturbance to breeding owls.” Now do the math. In comparison to following the recovery plan and not disturbing owls at all during the breeding season, how would allowing disturbance in two breeding seasons “reduce” that disturbance? If that is the basis for claiming this approach is better for the owl, the Forest Service had better take the objection seriously.

  7. This is another example of logging habitat to save it from fire. This looks beneficial if there is a 100% chance that fire will affect treatments during the brief time period that treatments are effective, but this assumption is not accurate. Since no one can predict where or when fire will occur, fuel treatments must be widespread and repeated in order to effectively modify fire behavior. That much logging is probably worse than the effects of fire. A state-and-transition model is necessary to properly account for the probability of habitat degradation from fire and the probability of habitat degradation from logging. I seriously doubt the District Ranger took all this into account before confidently declaring that he knew better and was doing the owl a big favor.

    Lehmkuhl et al. (2015) found –

    Tradeoffs between fire resistance and NSO habitat quality are real. Our results demonstrate that balancing the goals of increasing fire resilience while maintaining habitat function, especially nesting and roosting, for the NSO in the same individual stand is a difficult, if not an impossible, task. Even lighter thinning treatments typically reduce canopy cover below 40 percent. The reality is that nesting and roosting NSO habitat is by definition very susceptible to high-severity fire; owl habitat value and fire risk are in direct conflict on any given acre. …

    Lehmkuhl, John; Gaines, William; Peterson, Dave W.; Bailey, John; Youngblood, Andrew, tech. eds. 2015. Silviculture and monitoring guidelines for integrating restoration of dry mixed-conifer forest and spotted owl habitat management in the eastern Cascade Range. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-915. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 158 p. http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/pnw_gtr915.pdf.

    Same result here: Dennis C. Odion, Chad T. Hanson, Dominick. A. DellaSala, William L. Baker, and Monica L. Bond. 2014. Effects of Fire and Commercial Thinning on Future Habitat of the Northern Spotted Owl. The Open Ecology Journal, 2014, 7, 37-51 37. http://benthamopen.com/toecolj/articles/V007/37TOECOLJ.pdf

    • Once again, you cannot use the northern spotted owl recommendations for use with other spotted owls. Their nesting habitats are MUCH different, and the fire dangers are different, as well. We are talking about a different species of owl, here. Once the nesting habitat burns to a crisp, it won’t be coming back, anytime soon. Low to medium intensity is fine for their highly-varied foraging habitats, and there is no danger in (catastrophically) losing those habitats to thinning projects.

  8. Ahhh..the Flagstaff Watershed Project. Couple quick thoughts. Contrary to the continuing mantra of thinning “small diameter trees”…85% of this timber sale is “sawtimber.” A quick look…or analysis of the cut and sold reports show that by far most of what is harvested in the SW is “saw timber.” They harvest more sawtimber and less “non-saw” than Region one LOL. Maybe their idea of “small diameter” is different from mine…or maybe the mantra buzz phrase of “logging small diameter trees and brush” is politically and palatably neutral for all sides. This sale actually harvests 8 MBF/acre…pretty decent for a “thinning.” A real Money loser…as usual the biggest money loser is RX burning at $500/acre…that’s like a 7 million dollars LOSS on the whole project. Stumpage is only gonna be $20/MBF…but I guess that’s what you get when you have destroyed the timber industry and have no market. A Montana DNRC timber sale featuring “ponderosa” pine recently fetched $250/MBF…but then I guess that’s what you get when you have 5 bidders.

    Love that the CBD “doesn’t want to hold up the project”….no no no. I spose not after they took a PR beating after the Schultz fire…remember that one kids…ouch. Am skeptical of their “change of heart”…would like to believe they have moderated…but suspect more that their PR Madmen told em to lay off…donations declining…or I meant revenue projections are down.

    I read the USFWS MSO recovery plan a couple years ago. The SW was classic “post Dwyer mass judicial activism” run amok. Lets see…a forest where 95% of the forest “wasn’t” MSO habitat in pre-settlement times…where MSO prefer nesting on +40% slopes which would never have been logged anyway…where the last vestiges of old growth were really the last vestiges of pre-settlement 20-30 TPA that had undergone a couple shelterwood steps…they basically saved the last “overstory removal” harvest of an average of 6 trees per acre. 6 big trees/acre in a matrix of young does not make a MSO habitat. A forest where 20,000 acres/year were pre-commercially thinned throughout the 60’s and 70’s…which has created the nice pathetically dense but sawtimber stands they have everywhere now…very merchantable. In short…the perfect example of how radical enviros bungled forest policy.

    • Derek, you seem to fundamentally misunderstand the project. The FWPP project started after the citizens of Flagstaff passed a bond measure to reduce the risk of high intensity wildfire in their drinking water watersheds and to reduce the potential for post-fire flooding in downtown Flagstaff and nearby neighborhoods. The project is based on reducing these risks, which everyone recognizes will be a very costly endeavor. So, I don’t think analyzing the potential economic costs based on timber receipts really gets at what this project about nor does it make much sense for a project of this type. That decision has already been made – by the citizens of Flagstaff who are paying for the large majority of the fuels reduction efforts.

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