Fuel reduction treatments: Are we treating enough?

This paper, in the July 2017 edition of the Journal of Forestry, may help us in our discussions of fuel-treatment effectiveness.

An Evaluation of the Forest Service Hazardous Fuels Treatment Program—Are We Treating Enough to Promote Resiliency or Reduce Hazard?

The USFS offers this intro:

In the wrong place at the wrong time, wildfires cause damage to ecosystems and threaten homes, communities, and cultural resources. To manage the impact of future wildfire and help restore its natural role in forest ecosystems, land managers often use fuel treatments such as thinning, mowing, and prescribed burning. How well do these treatments work? Ecologist Nicole Vaillant studies fire behavior and fuel treatments, including how effective they are over time. Her work is important in helping land managers assess wildfire risk and compare different fuel treatment strategies. She recently led a study that addresses the question: Are we treating enough of the landscape to compensate for decades of fire suppression?

Vaillant and her coauthor, Elizabeth Reinhardt, evaluated the extent of fuel treatments and wildfire on all lands administered by the Forest Service from 2008 to 2012. They compared these areas with historical wildfire rates and severities; they found that each year only about 45 percent of the area that would have burned historically experienced either characteristic wildfire or fuel treatment. This indicates a “disturbance deficit.” The good news is that 73 percent of the acres burned by wildfire during this period experienced characteristic fire (wildfire at an appropriate severity level for that ecosystem). However, Vaillant’s study also found that the forest type in the highest wildfire hazard class had the lowest percentage of area treated and also the highest proportion of uncharacteristically high-severity wildfire. This suggests that locating more treatments in areas with the highest hazard could improve program effectiveness. This is the first study to intersect the actual footprint of fuel treatments and wildfire with mean fire-return interval and wildfire hazard on a national scale.

6 Comments

  1. This doesn’t surprise me, because my experience has been that, other than WUI, there has been very little prioritization of where to put fuels treatments on the ground, or, if fuels treatments are part of a larger project area, no prioritization within the project area. The FS is a “widget production” – driven organization in many ways, and since burn windows are relatively unpredictable, and the overall “reward” is for number of acres treated, one acre is as good as any other acre and burning piles is just as good as a prescribed burn, which is just as good as mastication. And, there is that implicit assumption (that is likely incorrect) that there is a linear relationship between the total number of acres treated and the effectiveness of the treatment. So the focus is on overall acres…Plus there is the misguided perception that “integration” means doing everything in the same place at the same time, when, in reality, the highest priority areas for fuels treatments, forest restoration, watershed restoration, etc. are not all in the same place/project area. There are ways to deal with this, but much of the FS, due to reduced staffing, has bought into the idea that the most “efficient” way to do NEPA is on large areas (50,000 acres +), and they only have the staff to “plan” one of these areas at a time. And those areas are usually selected based on the availability of wood products, as keeping the mill infrastructure and jobs associated with that are generally a higher priority.

  2. Thanks for the insightful comments, mom. They shine the light on the lack of transparency of the “decisions” that occur between the forest plan and projects and establish the actual priorities for national forest management. It could help improve effectiveness and accountability if the Forest Service would include the public in this part of the process and disclose its rationale.

  3. Here is a related publication showing that the stands the most need fuel treatment are full of tiny trees that won’t support a viable timber sale. The emphasis of the Forest Service is to pretend there is near perfect alignment between fuel reduction and commercial logging. It’s folly to set fuel reduction priorities based on commercial viability of fuel reduction logging.

    “Hoping to boost their economies and also restore these forests, local leaders are interested in the economic value of timber that might be available from thinning treatments on these lands. … [W]e found that on lands where active forestry is allowable, thinning of most densely stocked stands would not be economically viable.” Rainville, Robert; White, Rachel; Barbour, Jamie, tech. eds. 2008. Assessment of timber availability from forest restoration within the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-752. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 65 p. http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/pnw_gtr752.pdf

    Most of the forests that need restoration will not support a viable timber sale, so restoration will require investment, not profit taking. This very sobering report from PNW Research shows that commercial logging is not a good tool for restoration because it will be useful to address only a small fraction of the restoration needs in degraded forests with relatively low productivity like the Blue Mountains.

    This confirms what we have known for years, that past management has taken too many of the big trees and left current managers with limited options. After being clearcut or high-graded in the past, and given the high production costs and low value of small logs, most dense over-stocked stands will not support a viable timber sale that still sustains the other important values in the forest. The report says that retained receipts will help some, but not much. And if the 21″ diameter cap in the Eastside Screens were lifted to make ‘restoration’ more profitable, no one can legitimately call it “restoration” anymore.

    Too many people seem to be under the false impression that thinning is a magic bullet that will solve all our problems. Other forms of restoration such as prescribed fire and non-commercial thinning might make but funding will be a challenge. How will these action be funded if Congress is under a false impression that thinning is the universal antidote?

    MORE EXCERPTS FROM RAINVILLE ET AL:

    In the 46 percent of the three Blue Mountains national forests that is forested, thinning with timber removal is an unlikely treatment method. This does not mean that other vegetative management options (prescribed fire, wildland fire use, or thinning without commercial timber removal) could not be used to reduce fire hazard, but it is doubtful that these areas would produce much commercial timber.

    The distribution of the densely stocked stands within the active forest MAC will present challenges to management. In most cases, stands in need of treatment are widely scattered. A few larger blocks exist, but they are the exception. The fragmented nature of the densely stocked stands will result in increased transportation costs. More roads will be needed to access stands. The volume of harvested material will be transported on more miles of road than if the densely stocked stands were located in blocks. This situation will increase operation costs and prohibit treatment of some stands through traditional federal contracting methods.

    Restricted and lynx MACs account for 1,107,000 acres (20 percent). Although some timber products could result from treatments within these areas, outputs will likely be low and unpredictable because of the controversial nature of timber harvest and thinning treatments within lynx, riparian, and old-growth areas. Faced with limited budgets, national forest managers will likely focus their restoration efforts in less controversial areas.

    Over the 14 years prior to this analysis, about 30 percent of the 1.6 million acres of national forest land available for active harvest underwent some sort of timber harvest (Braymen et al. this volume). … most commercially harvested stands were treated by using seed-tree cuts or clearcuts.

    From 1988 until about 1995, clearcuts, seed-tree harvests, and removal harvests were the most common commercial harvest techniques, generally accounting for over 60 percent of the acreage treated commercially. After 1995, use of these treatments dropped off precipitously. For all years after 1997, they accounted for less than 30 percent of the harvested area— dropping to 10 percent in 2000 and 2001. In contrast, commercial thinning shows almost the opposite pattern: it increased from less than 10 percent of the area treated in 1988 through 1994 to more than 50 percent of the area treated by the end of the preanalysis period

    we conclude that regenerating stands located in many of the areas harvested since 1988 have matured into densely stocked1 conditions where thinning treatments will primarily yield small, noncommercial timber. Past experience suggests that funding will be needed to accomplish these treatments.

    The analysis indicated that up to 943,000 acres (58 percent) of national forest lands in the active forestry timber availability category are densely stocked (table 4-4). Simulations showed that thinning would yield less than 400 CF of merchantable timber per acre on nearly half of the acreage (472,000 acres) (fig. 4-2). These low yields would be inadequate to support a commercially viable treatment,

    Simulated thinning of densely stocked stands with potential yields greater than 400 CF per acre generated relatively low volumes per acre. Almost 40 percent of the volume was composed of trees smaller than 10 inches d.b.h., and 67 percent were trees smaller than 13 inches d.b.h. Trees larger than 16 inches d.b.h. accounted for less than 15 percent of the harvest volume. Harvest volumes averaged 3,200 BF per acre ….

    … Commercial thinning would only be possible where the value of the timber harvested exceeds the cost of the harvesting, hauling, road maintenance, and contractual requirements (i.e., a positive net revenue exists). Because most simulated thinnings harvested low volumes of small trees, commercial removal was possible on only 39,900 (± 4,600) acres, or less than 10 percent of the densely stocked acres (table 4-8).

    Financial analysis indicated that most densely stocked stands could not be thinned without some investment. Up to $250 per acre would be needed to treat 136,000 acres (fig. 4-5). Another 138,000 acres could be treated for $250 to $500 per acre.

    High operational costs and low market values associated with harvest of such low volumes of small trees would undermine the potential for commercial treatments on most densely stocked acres. The industry that existed in the Blue Mountains prior to the early 1990s was primarily focused on processing mid-sized to large logs (>15 inches in diameter). Use of materials from thinning densely stocked stands will require the development of new markets for a different set of products…

    Changes in market values, industrial demand, availability of subsidies, or agency policies could make thinning commercially viable on many of these densely stocked acres.
    Nevertheless, even when considered under the most favorable of assumptions, most densely stocked stands would not be treatable without significant investments.

    In thinking about the future of the timber industry in this region, it may be useful to consider whether national forests can make a difference

    The assessment found that an additional 75,000 acres could be thinned, and 225 million board feet (MMBF) of saw logs could be harvested commercially if national forests were able to reinvest receipts from the thinning of stands with positive net revenues to treat those with negative net revenues (table 5-1).

    When the regional forester’s forest plan amendment restriction on harvest of trees larger than 21 inches d.b.h. was removed, the number of densely stocked acres with positive net revenues nearly doubled, increasing from 39,900 to 79,100 acres.

    The saw-log volume with a positive net revenue increased from 167 (±36) MMBF
    to 356 (±57) MMBF (table 5-2). …

    This assessment did not, however, include considering the effects removing those large trees would have on other forest resources, such as snag dependent wildlife. During project planning, habitat needs of animals that use large trees, and public input are considered. Consideration of these factors is likely to substantially reduce the number of acres and volume of large-diameter timber that would actually be harvested if the east-side screens were removed.

    Both the new and proposed policy changes evaluated here enhanced managers’
    ability to treat densely stocked stands cost-effectively. The modifications improved net economic results sufficiently to permit thinning of many of the 136,000 acres with borderline negative financial returns (chapter 3). Figure 5-1 compares the effectiveness of each policy modification in improving managers’ ability to treat densely stocked stands.

    Of the modifications, reinvestment of receipts yielded the most promising results. Often, negative net revenue stands are located close to positive net revenue treatments. Reinvestment of receipts improves managers’ ability to treat more acres by providing funds needed to treat nearby negative net revenue stands.

    The report verifies local land managers’ observations that the land base to support timber harvest targets is in reality smaller than anticipated in past planning exercises. Restrictions and best management practices developed since forest plans were approved in the early 1990s have reduced the land base for harvest and mechanical restoration activities.

    The report’s projections of treatable acres and commercially removable timber volumes are likely high because site-specific needs, such as bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus Linn.) nests, fragile viewsheds, special local places, and snag requirements were not considered. The report, therefore, represents an upper limit for possible timber harvest given current laws, regulations, and prevailing public opinion about how federally administered forests should be managed.

    The requirement to maintain live trees greater than 21 inches diameter at breast height has a small effect on managers’ ability to treat densely stocked stands. Large trees are generally lacking on the forests, especially in areas where mechanical treatments have been possible. Where large trees are found, they are often needed to meet multiple-use objectives that were not analyzed in the study. Unless there is some compelling ecological reason, their short supply makes it unlikely that managers would add larger trees to the harvest to make thinning operations financially feasible.

    To implement restoration prescriptions in light of these limitations, managers must be strategic, collaborative, and in tune with changes in policies, technology, and markets.

    • 2ndLaw, there are forest products other than sawlogs. A few examples” Miller Timber, a contractor in the PNW, routinely takes material from thinning projects down to a 2-inch top, for pulp and fuel chips. Bear Mountain Forest Products in Cascade Locks, WA, makes wood pellets and bricks (fuels used in residential and commercial heating/power systems), and animal bedding, from small-diameter logs. Avista’s Kettle Falls, WA, generating station has been generating power from wood waste since 1983. More such plants might be opened if there were long-term contracts for woody biuomass — the stuff of thinning that is otherwise unmerchantable.

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