On the BBER Study and R-1 Forest Service Litigation (I): Turning Down the Heat, Turning Up the Light

Thanks to Matthew, here is an appropriate Flathead purchaser. F.H. Stolze Land and Lumber Company

The University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) looked at some Region 1 projects, chose a case study, and tried to quantify the impacts to communities and to the Forest Service in this 2015 study. We have discussed it on the blog before, but it’s of current interest because the findings have been discussed in the current heated debate over wildfire funding legislation, and possibly taken out of context. I think with all the experienced folks on this blog, we ought to be able to jointly and civilly parse this out, and possibly be of help to journalists and congress folk and their staffs. Folks from BBER and those who heartily disagree with them are equally invited to chime in.

This will be a series of posts, and in each one we’ll examine some claims and evidence from the BBER study. Today we’ll start with two that are probably the most contentious.

I’ll put on my science policy nerd hat here..this doesn’t seem like a topic that has gotten enough study relative to the importance of the issue- BBER did only one case study, funded by R-1 (not the research branch of the Forest Service). It’s only one case study, and we can ask the question- in 2015 these topics were raised, why was more not done? So we have to hold both ideas at the same time “it’s only one case study” and “it brought up questions that deserve to be further explored.”

Claim 1.The biggest impacts of this litigation are to communities. Slowing, not stopping projects also has economic impacts.

“Economic impacts to communities – in jobs, labor income, federal, state, and local taxes – are identified as the largest potential impacts of FS litigation (potentially exceeding $10 million and 130 jobs for the SBR project alone), particularly when timber harvesting and other land management activities that create or maintain private employment and generate wages and other taxable revenue are reduced, delayed, or completely forgone as a result of litigation.”

“Even if agency personnel were not spending effort working on these cases each day cases were open, the duration of most litigated cases was over multiple planning and budget cycles, making resource management and financial decisions very difficult for the FS, mills, loggers, and forest-dependent communities in the Region.” (my italics)

Note: I think what this is getting at is that $ comes around on an annual basis for agencies and when the litigation is finally finished, the unit may not have the funds to actually implement the project. This is an angle that perhaps needs to be discussed more, and may have potential (internal FS) solutions through the (internal FS) budgeting process.

Claim 2. We don’t know the impact in terms of costs to the federal government. You can’t estimate costs of DOJ and OGC (the lawyers and their support) because (don’t collect or won’t give you) the information. BBER did look at costs of FWS and FS employees. There are also opportunity costs for what else FS, FWS, OGC and DOJ employees could be doing instead of R-1 vegetation project litigation.
“Findings show that litigation costs of the SBR case (one case study) to the FS (over $95,000) and FWS (over $4,500) exceed attorney fees and Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) payments (none in this case) made to plaintiffs and/or their attorneys. This finding is significant because: 1) previous studies have used attorney fees and EAJA payments as the sole measure of litigation cost, 2) attorney fees and EAJA payments are made in less than 20 percent of recently litigated FS and R1 cases, and 3) the SBR case study does not fully quantify the Regional impact of litigation. “

Note: I have a question in with DOJ public affairs asking why cost information is unavailable. To quote Fred Norbury, Director of Ecosystem Management in the WO for the Forest Service during the Analysis Paralysis days “How can we say it takes too long and costs too much if we don’t know how long it takes or how much it costs?” He was talking about NEPA and project planning, but the same could be said for litigation. Another argument for giving this topic more attention and funding.

19 Comments

  1. Count me as skeptical.
    Everyone should diversify their economic streams. The FS has multiple projects going simultaneously. Hopefully they are smart enough to plan a few that are not controversial and able to move forward.

    Plus the FS tends to plan large projects that feed the pipeline for years, so while one project might be delayed there is still years worth of “shelf-stock” from previous planning efforts.

    Woods workers and mills should also be diversified, getting wood from multiple landowners, and multiple projects.

    Finally, most of the delay is caused by the FS, not the public. Just count the days that the public has to scope, comment, and object, and compare to the number days these projects sit on the desks in the Forest Service (often while they fight fire, go to trainings, and get detailed to other offices).

    • 2ndOutLaw

      There is no consortium that controls what degree of diversity is available. It’s all about making enough of a profit in the good times to survive in the bad times. Too many mills in one area increases the cost of raw materials and may even lead to unsustainable demand given the fixed resources available.

      No one in their right mind would think that the USFS was “smart enough to plan a few that are not controversial and able to move forward” when there are plenty of ambulance chaser’s out there trying to make another dollar.

      “Hopefully” you will eventually catch on to the difficulties of life in the real world.

      • There are a lot of projects that don’t get litigated. So either the enviros need more ambulance chasers, or some FS managers are doing something different. If the latter, maybe one could learn from the other. There is no reason the FS couldn’t plan based on past experience.

        You’ll hear the argument from some places that everything is controversial. If so, maybe those places are the wrong places and the timber program should be shifted to other places. If different places means different administrative units, that probably means moving personnel. That might explain some of the inertia of programs that have been in place a long time and staffed accordingly.

        • Jon

          I respect your insight but would like to know if you can put a # on what % don’t get litigated or held up by threats/fear of litigation and efforts to resolve such issues in order to avoid a trial.

          If I understand you correctly the USFS is already doing what 2ndOutLaw insinuates, through skepticism, that they aren’t.

          • I’m sure that information exists to give a definitive answer to what doesn’t get litigated, but I would have to research it (I’ve seen such stats over the years). My comment was based on general knowledge, reinforced by your info from this post – http://forestpolicypub.com/2017/03/13/region-1-a-years-worth-of-harvests-tied-up-in-litigation/ (“litigation has encumbered 40 to 50 percent of R1’s planned timber harvest volume and treatment acres”), and Matt’s information below that R1 is nevertheless basically meeting its timber targets despite the litigation. You probably can’t put a number on “fear of litigation,” but that would be included in their success rate. Whatever the extent and effect is, it is possible to accommodate it.

  2. For whatever it’s worth, overall during the past 15 years the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region (which includes Montana) has met 89% of their timber sale volume target. That target is based on funding from Congress, and the target has also increased 72% from 2002 to 1026.

    More information can be found here.

    P.S. RY Timber is owned by Idaho billionaires, the Yanke Family Trust.

  3. The system as it is all about avoiding litigation. The environmental community can,and does, litigate any project they choose and hold up that project, often after years of planning.
    The result from my view is that billions of dollars of economic activity is curtailed or eliminated totally.
    But also watching how fires were managed this summer in Southern Oregon and Northern California all this planning and litigation doesn’t begin to approach the impact of wildfire management gone wild.
    I wonder how many miles of fire was ignited by firefighters along roads during the month of August on the Umpqua NF fire alone?
    It seems that the FS is now really all about fire. Lots of money, power to do about anything and no oversight. I think the fires this summer on the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rouge Siskiyou NFs were so large because of how the fire managers choose to manage them.
    Maybe the RY timber company is owned by billionaires because they are the only ones who can afford to have a timber company these days. Remember that almost all local sawmills, the economic activity associated with them, and the ability to have a diverse industry were eliminated by the litigation associated with the NWFP.

    • Bob, just a note.. the NWFP was not part of Montana, as far as I know. I picked RY because I could find a photo of it that didn’t seem to be copyrighted and it seemed like it might be a purchaser of R-1 timber.

      • Sharon,

        Upon further review the case study that the BBER report looked at (likely because this case study may bolster some of their claims/agenda more than other case studies) was a timber sale on the Flathead National Forest.

        I bet that RY Timber (either their Townsend mill, and most certainly their small mill in Livingston) have never bid on on a timber sale on the Flathead National Forest.

          • I called the Flathead National Forest yesterday, talked with Brian King (pretty sure that was his name, but he was the timber guy). One of the timber sales that was part of the Spotted Bear River (SBR) project was purchased by FH Stoltze Land & Lumber Company. He confirmed that RY Timber has never (to his knowledge) bid on a timber sale on the Flathead NF.

      • Yes, I don’t know what plan they use in Montana but the results seem to be the similar. I do try to keep my comments to things I experienced first hand, which is mostly Southern Oregon.
        Some forests list who and for how much purchased their timber sales. Seems the Flathead NF doesn’t.

        • “Some forests list who and for how much purchased their timber sales. Seems the Flathead NF doesn’t.”

          That’s what I found, or didn’t, also Bob. I looked and searched the Flathead NF website yesterday but found nothing about who purchased the Spotted Bear River (SBR) project timber sales and for how much. I called and got some basic information, but not the ‘how much’ part.

    • http://www.tahoesierracleanair.org
      October 17, 2017
      USEPA Region 9
      Office of Air and Radiation

      Subject:
      1. Request for a Temporary One Year Moratorium on all Federal Burn Agency “Prescribed” Burns in California and Nevada

      2. Request the USEPA Protest the Toxic Air Pollution Created From Increased Federal Agency “Managed” Burns

      In the spirit of prioritizing public health throughout the Sierra Range and its foothill communities in California and Nevada, the Tahoe Sierra Clean Air Coalition urgently requests that the USEPA place a temporary one year moratorium on all federal burn agency and federal burn agency related or contracted “prescribed” burns in California and Nevada effective immediately.

      Additionally, we request that the USEPA lodge a formal protest with the US Forest Service, US BLM and National Park Service against the toxic smoke impact being produced by increasingly purposefully grown and uncoordinated federal “managed’ burns. These would be “managed’’ burns undertaken for the purpose and priority of debatable forest land and resource objectives over the priority of the scientifically proven toxic pollution effects on humans that these burns produce.

      Largely unknown to the public, the federal practice of “managed” vs “full suppression” burns has been going on since 1978 when According to the US Forest Service Document titled Fire-Management Policies and Programs, (Susan J Husari) “federal burn agency terminology and practice changed from fire control to fire management”.

      The document goes on to state “this fire-management policy directed fire managers to minimize fire-suppression costs and damage consistent with land and resource objectives. It defined appropriate suppression response (ASR) as a range of suppression strategies. These strategies-called contain, confine, and control-were to be employed to accomplish a cost-effective response to fires that escaped initial attack. ASR implies that the most cost-effective response might deviate from a suppression philosophy that emphasized keeping all fires small.” Today’s terminology is often referred to as “box and burn”.

      The public is also largely unaware that tactics for these destructive “managed” burns include Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics (MIST), per Federal burn agency fire management policies since at least 2003. These tactics result in purposely grown, therefore sometimes becoming out of control, agency produced “mega fires” that are often reported to the public and politicians as “wildfires” from their inception. There is nothing “natural” about this human intervention eco-engineering process or the toxic pollution that ensues. This destructive process results in significantly degrading air quality not only in the region of the “managed” burn but sometimes for hundreds or thousands of miles and can go on polluting and destroying for months.

      The Sierra Region has experienced a full summer and now a fall season of seemingly endless ongoing toxic, and even tragic and cumulative pollution effects of federal burn agency “managed” burns. These federal burn agency “managed” burns have resulted and are currently resulting in significant degradation of the air breathed by hundreds of thousands of our citizens and visitors, pets, wildlife and degraded recreational opportunities. No one was spared the effects of unhealthy air, most importantly our children, the frail elderly, and those members of our community with cardiovascular and respiratory health conditions. In short, hundreds if not thousands of Sierra Range and Lake Tahoe Basin community members and visitors susceptible to the effects of poor air quality had to endure curtailed activities and perhaps exasperated symptoms on “moderate” and “unhealthy” air days. Beyond the acute adverse effects from the smoke, it is also now recognized that oxidants found in smoke can cause genetic damage.

      This leaves us to ask the question, how much toxic smoke exposure for Californian’s and Nevadan’s seems to be enough to motivate the federal burn agencies and our air quality regulators to significantly reduce, or end all together the toxic air pollution created by these highly destructive but preventable and controllable “managed” burns?”

      These federal burn agencies pollute, plain and simple. Current policies and practices are not compliant with the spirit of the Clean Air Act and constitute an assault on public health. The agencies granted authority to protect our air quality (the US EPA and State and Local Air Quality Boards) appear to be unable or unwilling to fulfill their public health obligation to the citizens/communities they serve. Why?

      The toxic pollution from federal agency created “managed” burns seems to be exempt from being adequately or accurately monitored or from determining or establishing meaningful public health impact metrics. Apparently, there are no agency checks and balances in place holding federal burn agencies accountable for the short and long-term true impact on citizen/community health or degradation of quality of life. Hundreds of thousands of citizens within and around Sierra Range and Lake Tahoe Basin communities in California and Nevada continue to be exposed to toxic smoke by-products, including PM10, PM 2.5, carbon black, aldehydes, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, methanol, benzene, ozone and ozone precursors and other noxious emissions.

      Our assessment is this: Federal burn agency activities are out of control, uncoordinated, and lack adequate checks and balances or accurate, meaningful pollution/public monitoring or health metrics. The annual burn period now seems to extend to 365 days a year, supporting unacceptable instances of “managed” burns throughout the summer and fall, ongoing as we speak. This destructive and toxic practice will then followed by numerous cumulative uncoordinated local, state and federal burn agency “prescribed” and “pile” burning between now and the end of fall, winter and spring.

      One has to wonder if those establishing and carrying out these “must burn” and “let burn” policies and practices really understand the extent of the toxic and cumulative air pollution and public health consequences of their decisions.

      It is time for the health needs of our citizens to be heard and for a balanced approach. It is time for the federal, state and local burn agencies to make citizen/public air quality health the #1 priority when setting burn policy and practices. The public is becoming increasingly intolerant with burn agencies “must burn” and “let burn” policies/paradigm and their continued unfettered glide path to create pollution with impunity.

      Additionally, we are now aware of a new push for an old idea to increase “prescribed” burning in return for reducing the growing number of federal agency “managed” burns, which in the eyes of the private citizenry, is akin to federal agency deception. This idea will simply increase agency created pollution each year without meaningful control and boundaries of either “managed” or “prescribed” burns. In short, this appears to be a burn agency scheme to “burn more”.

      Not only are our Sierra Range citizens/communities facing the threat of continued year around toxic air pollution, they also face the very real threat of escaped agency created “prescribed” burns. Sadly, there has been many tragic losses connected with agency escaped “prescribed” burns. With such incidents, there is a growing opinion that burn agencies may not be trusted to competently control agency created “prescribed” burns.

      As far as increased toxic air pollution, when “prescribed” burn permits are issued, many of these agency created burns fall out of prescription almost immediately or by nightfall when the evening inversion layer forces the toxic smoke downward and our Sierra Range citizens and visitors are forced to breathe the polluted air. There are usually no criteria to hold burn agencies responsible to provide any ongoing, adequate or accurate air monitoring or to put the fire or the intense smoldering out as soon as the prescribed burn goes out of prescription. Instead the burned areas are left to burn and smolder sometimes for days, weeks or months. A permit to burn is not a permit to pollute!

      It is time to return clean air to our Sierra Range and California and Nevada citizens and we can start by a simple one-year moratorium on all federal burn agency related “prescribed” burning and protesting the destructive, massive toxic pollution from subjective and uncoordinated federal “managed” burns.

      During this period, we urge open and fair discussion with all stakeholders to help restore our regulatory agency checks and balances that were originally in place to protect our citizens air quality but have been eroded by the “must burn” and “let burn” special interests for now going on approximately 39 years.

      Additionally during this time period, we suggest alternative practices be considered to reduce the dangerous number of fire hazard slash piles that the burn agencies have accumulated throughout the Sierra Range.

      Hasn’t the entire California Nevada Sierra Range including the Lake Tahoe Basin had enough toxic air pollution for the year? How much burning is enough burning? How much ash/ and toxic particles are enough?

      It is time that the prevention of toxic smoke pollution exposure and public health becomes the priority over the “must burn” and “let burn” paradigm embraced by our burn agencies particularly at the federal level.

      Sincerely,
      TahoeSierraCleanAir.og

      “Tahoe Sierra Clean Air…Protect it”

        • I must admit that they have a point about “managed” burns the federal agencies call ‘wildfire’.
          If you ignite miles of fire along road systems in the summer months, you are going to have a big ‘wildfire’, even if was just a 1/4 acre lighting fire to start with.
          I agree with the idea that federal fire management is out of control.
          From what I have viewed so far this year it is hard for me not to believe that the intent of the fire managers was to burn as much forest as possible. (You know, reintroducing fire on the landscape, with lots of money.)
          It may be necessary to do some prescribe burning. Late October and early November might be a good time, not the summer months.

          • Really, though, they don’t do much in the way of “Let-Burn” fires, here in California National Forests. It’s more about safety. Hey, some Forests even come right out and say that they do not let fires burn, “for resource benefits”. The San Bernardino NF may still have that on their web page.

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