Watershed, Wildfires and BMP’s – Montana

Continuing improvements in harvesting equipment have facilitated industry’s ability to meet or exceed the guidelines of Montana’s Best Management Practices. (from Exec Summary of 2016 BMP Report Montana

2nd Law said a while back here “Logging on the other hand, is much more likely (than wildfires) to harm watersheds, especially commercial logging that requires dragging logs and maintaining a road system.” At first when I read his comment, I thought “I wonder why he/she thinks so differently than Denver Water, Santa Fe and Flagstaff about the relative risks?”

I think sometimes the more legally trained/inclined and the more ground resource trained/ inclined have a difference in how we think about things and how we talk about things. I wrote about this before in 2010 here (concrete v. abstract thinkers).. do we go into different lines of work because we think this way, or do we think this way because of the line of work we’re in?) but the above comment reminded me of this difference. (For older FS people, when I worked in RPA, my colleague Susan Mockenhaupt called interactions between Jim Caplan and Mark Reimers, “Thoreau meets Perot”).

For those who think like me, 2nd’s statement is the very beginning of a discussion.
What do you mean exactly by “logging?” Is that what we would call “tree-cutting and piling for burning” or “removal of logs via road systems” “removal of logs by helicopter”? Because we could see all those having different potential impacts on watersheds. But 2nd did specify “dragging logs” and “maintaining a road system” (why would you need to do that compared to temp roads?).

Then my next thought would be:
“wouldn’t that depend on … how much risk to the watershed, which would depend on soil characteristics, steepness of slopes, amount and nature of fuels, and so on…frequency of fires and that depends on…”

To the extreme, that would be why, Asheville’s watershed risks would be different from Santa Fe’s. And of course, wouldn’t that depend on BMP’s how they’re designed, whether they’re used, and how well they work?

So I looked around and found this 2016 report summary for monitoring Montana’s BMPs, since Montana seems to be the site of much watershed controversy compared to the other states we’ve looked at.

From the full report for 2016 here, pp 37-38

Evaluate the general effectiveness of BMPs in protecting soil and water resources.

Conclusions drawn from the field review results since the 2000 review cycle inclusive are very straightforward and consistent; when BMPs are applied correctly, they are very effective in protecting soil and water resources. This combined with the efforts of many loggers, landowners, agencies, and
mills to go above and beyond the standards to minimize sediments has kept overall results high and has 38 brought real improvements on the ground, where it counts. When teams review a site they don’t just look at the actual BMP. They look at whatever the BMP was designed to protect as well. Is there silt entering the stream? Are roads rutted beyond typical usage patterns? And so forth. The idea is to look at all aspects of any particular BMP and see if it is working and if not why not. Teams note if it is a fault of the operation, outside factors, or of the BMP itself. The BMP Working Group reviews the combined results and determines if any changes to the BMPs themselves need to be made.

It seems to me that the choice of a) fuels treatment including mechanical treatments vs. b) accepting wildfire impacts is very much a function of the soil, water, vegetation, and weather conditions, plus the design of the treatment, including effectiveness of mitigation measures such as BMP’s in a specific watershed. Now, you can argue that Montana’s checking process is not an accurate representation of what happens on the ground, but that is a very different convo at a very different scale, (with different people being expert).


  1. BMPs are one thing, but the legacy of older roads is another matter, as BMPs tend to address the current harvest/prescribed burn/vegetation treatment. Midslope roads or roads that run parallel and adjacent to streams are still a big issue in places, and roads that disrupt the drainage system of a hillside and redirect/concentrate that drainage so it creates more sediment are a continuing problem too. Tree removal can change the hydrologic processes, so even if BMPs are implemented for the logging, the increased flows that can result from tree removal, when coupled with an existing road system that disrupts the flow of water can be a detrimental situation on some cases. Luckily (not sure if that is the right word to use here), there is more road restoration occurring that remedies these types of situations, and in many cases, it is a very small part of the road system that creates most of the problem, so it is much easier and cheaper to treat the problem spots that will remedy most of the problem.

    • Does the report directly compare the aquatic effects of intense wildfires with modern ‘thinning-from-below’ techniques? Of course, the aquatic impacts from thinning are also for a limited duration but the beneficial effects of thinning remain for decades, in some forests. Many forests require periodic ‘maintenance’, like prescribed burns. Assuming no regular program of burning skews the effectiveness of an entire fuels treatment program. Fuels programs use many tools over many decades, in an individual stand. Shooting down just one step in a program isn’t scientific ‘integrity’. It’s cherrypicking.

      Yes, there are some areas where thinning doesn’t do a lot, with more significant impacts. Those examples include lodgepole and pure true fir stands, as well as some Doug-fir stands. It’s all about site-specific conditions.

  2. Sharon’s post discusses the potentially mitigating effects of BMPs which certainly deserve consideration, but equally important considerations include:
    (i) the effectiveness of fuel treatments, which are very marginal. Small, short-term changes in fire extent and behavior would be expected. There is almost always enough fuel to carry fire regardless of fuel treatments.
    (ii) the actual watershed effects of wildfire, which are fairly modest. Most acres burn with low- and moderate-intensity. If the fire is not salvaged, the watershed effects of the fire alone is rarely of great concern.
    (iii) Bayesian probability. No one can predict where or when fire will occur. So fuel reduction must be applied on extensive areas that will not burn during the brief period that fuel treatments are effective. Probability says that the cumulative watershed effects of mechanical fuel reduction (plus wildfire) are more significant than the effects of wildfire alone.

    • 2nd Law, brief responses to your three points:

      (i) the effectiveness of fuel treatments, which are very marginal.

      As always, it depends — on many factors — but fuel treatments often are designed not to prevent fire, but to decrease its severity. In fact, the goal is usually to allow fire to play its crucial role in forested ecosystems. Removing fuel makes for less heat and a fire shorter in duration. Basic laws of chemistry and physics apply here: more fuel equals more, hotter fire.

      (ii) the actual watershed effects of wildfire, which are fairly modest.

      True in many cases, but not all. Denver’s watershed is an example. I prefer reducing the risks of high-severity fire and increasing the resilience of forested watersheds, rather than no action and hoping for the best.

      (iii) Bayesian probability. No one can predict where or when fire will occur.

      True again, but foresters and other forest managers can identify zones at the greatest risk of fire and where fire poses significant threats to people, property, and resources/values. I prefer reducing the risks of high-severity fire and increasing the resilience of forests, where doing so is appropriate (not in Wilderness, for example), rather than no action and hoping for the best.

      FWIW, I was once a wildland firefighter and for 12 years taught forest fire management and fire ecology classes at Mt. Hood Community College, Gresham, Oregon.

    • We do know that areas where humans go are subject to increased chances of severe wildfires and firestorms. Hoping for ‘natural’ fires is not science. We do know that reductions in human ignitions just aren’t sustainable. Dumb humans are dumb. They also think fires are great, vaccines are bad and think that jet airliners knowingly spread evil chemtrails.

      We also don’t know where rampant preservationism will happen to work out just the way we want. Again, we should not be trading public safety for some fuzzy idea of “ecosystem integrity” and strict adherence to the narrow idea of “natural succession”.

    • 2ndOutLaw

      As the others have already explained quite well, you have shown that you are very good at blowing smoke.

      This is the 2nd time that you’ve referred to Bayesian probability. As to “Bayesian probability. No one can predict where or when fire will occur.”

      I don’t think you understand “Bayesian probability” which basically says ‘Bayesian inference is a method of statistical inference in which Bayes’ theorem is used to update the probability for a hypothesis as more evidence or information becomes available.’

      So your statement that “No one can predict where or when fire will occur” contradicts “Bayesian probability” which says the more we know, the better we can predict. An example would be a coin toss – where the probability of getting tails increases the more you get consecutive heads. BTW not all statisticians buy into Bayes Theory.

      Fire and plant science and the laws of probability tell us that (all else being equal):
      1) The more people – the greater the probability of a fire
      2) The denser the stand – the greater the probability of a catastrophic fire, insect or disease incident.
      Those are real Bayesian statistics. Not perfect predictions but better than your “Que sera, sera”

      • Gil, please tell me you didn’t really mean what you wrote: “An example would be a coin toss – where the probability of getting tails increases the more you get consecutive heads.” If you did, you are welcome to play poker at my card table anytime! Bring cash; lots of it.

        • Andy

          Like I said – not all statisticians buy into Bayesian Statistics. As for me, I believe that it applies to flipping an unbiased coin but it’s suitability must be assessed for each particular situation. The fewer the number of possible random outcomes, I’m guessing, the more appropriate it probably is. Hence it’s unsuitability for card games. 🙂 So thanks for the offer but poker is not my game. Besides I have to save my money to pay taxes. 🙂

      • Here’s another probability. Since 84% of wildfires are human-caused, does that also mean that preservationism can only work 16% of the time? (No, I’m not statistically-serious about that hypothesis) Of course, that 84% figure is skewed, being a nationwide total. It would be a good thing to see the numbers for remote Forests, just for contrast. These amazing “lightning busts” will also skew the numbers. (Back in 1987, we had 40 fires in 3 days, just on our Ranger District, alone.)

        If I’m going to push for site-specific discussions, I just think we need a more accurate percentage of human versus natural ignitions. We should at least use a percentage for the western USFS Regions, and I expect the human-caused percentage to drop.

        I’m seeing a large amount of right-leaning folks on Facebook and other comment sections. They seem pretty ignorant of forestry, and tend to parrot emotion-laden sound-bites. When pressed for specific examples of solutions, they’re ‘stumped’. There is also an angry component to their very general criticism. I’m not about to challenge their ignorance and anger. (There are some real kooks out there, on Facebook, who might just find out where their enemies live.)

        • Larry

          I think that we have a sense as to an order of magnitude answer to two of your questions.

          Beginning with the facts from a prior post titled “Humans sparked 84 percent of US wildfires, increased fire season over two decades

          1) Your 1st question: “I just think we need a more accurate percentage of human versus natural ignitions”
          The Fact: “humans sparked 84 percent of US wildfires” is not relevant IMHO
          –> I would suggest acreage lost is a more meaningful measure than number of ignitions.
          —-> So your first question goes away and restated in terms of acreage is roughly answered in #2 immediately following.

          2) Your 2nd question: “It would be a good thing to see the numbers for remote Forests”
          –> Aren’t both questions answered by this quote from the previous post:
          The Fact: “humans … caused nearly half of the acreage lost to wildfire”
          So, as I stated in that same previous post, the answers to both of your questions should come as follows:
          –> “I would deduce that human initiated fires caused proportionally less acreage loss because they were closer to civilization and to forest access points and therefore closer to and more easily accessed by suppression resources.” I don’t believe that we are going to get any better info than we already have until a very long time from now, if ever.

  3. 2nd.. can you give me a spatial location for your claims..

    i ) because I have read many “fuel treatment effectiveness” reports in different parts of the country and they would say that fuel treatments did have desired effects on helping suppression efforts and protecting communities and environmental values at risk

    ii) because I have seen watershed effects at first hand that are not “modest.”

    iii) I think the Californians working with problem fires have looked at fire history and determined that there are some things that happen with problem fires where history repeats itself. We can’t predict “where fire will occur” but we can predict “if it occurs there it’s a problem”.. or nowadays “it’s already burned so we don’t have to worry about it again for some years”.

    It seems to me that you are making a kind of generic argument, whereas it seems to me that designing and putting fuel treatments on the landscape is absolutely, and inevitably site -specific.

  4. I am probably way out on a limb here, but the majority of the “timber” projects (actually a mix of commercial sale, non-commercial thinning and prescribed fire) I’ve reviewed recently had a “restoration” purpose and need a.k.a. return to Natural Range of Variability. To focus on the commercial side and also to judge these projects on the “effectiveness of fuel reduction” seems a too narrow perspective. Also serves to ignore the wide support for the “restoration” (or move to a more NRV) goal among nearly all stakeholders. If I’m misunderstanding this, feel free to ignore with gusto!

    • Brian, you raise a good point. I had left out the HRV/NRV idea because it can get caught up in debates among historic veg and fire ecologists in some places, or require super-complicated analyses, and you don’t have to go there to argue that fuel treatments can be helpful to suppression and protective of values. But if, as you state, people agree that there is something desirable about changing things to prior conditions, that does make the fuels treatment part of a broader purpose and need. May I ask where these projects were located generally?

        • I’m gonna guess that just about any timber project nowadays says it has a “restoration” component in its purpose and need. That has been the trend since Chief Bosworth’s speech about what we leave behind is more important than what we remove; a policy now in the 2012 Planning Rule as desired vegetation conditions based on NRV, which are supposed to drive projects. It may take a closer look to see if they are in fact ecologically sound.

          • I will send project names for Boise and Payette. They were products of collaborative efforts with lots of conservation involvement. But I’m going take your point, assuming I understand it correctly. (Possible to spin a commercial logging project as restoration?) My problem is coming up with a sufficiently pithy “depends on the definition of ecologically sound” comment. I’ve wracked my brain all day. I got nothing. I guess what I was trying to get at is, as humans, we sometimes focus more on what we can fight about and ignore what we can agree on. If we agree moving towards a more NRV/HRV is worthwhile, we should focus on that.

  5. I agree with Steve: “I prefer reducing the risks of high-severity fire and increasing the resilience of forests, where doing so is appropriate…” “Appropriate” is a value judgment that needs to be resolved for public lands through a public planning process. Unfortunately, I’m not seeing ongoing forest planning addressing this question very well. (As Sharon suggests, once we are talking about a specific location, the rest of the discussion becomes a little easier.)

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