In Search of Common Ground II – It Takes Two: Forest Management and Social Management

Here are two current articles that get some things wrong but if we ignore those items and focus on the big picture that they present rather than on the details, I believe that we will find that we have more in common than we thought.

Between the two articles we see the full picture for PRIORITIZED actions to begin the long battle ahead to recover from national ashtrays, lost lives, lost homes and infrastructure, significantly decreased health of both humans and forests. It is a two pronged battle that includes both sound forest management and social management.

A) Using Forests to Fight Climate Change – California takes a small step in the right direction.

“The state’s proposed Forest Carbon Plan aims to double efforts to thin out young trees and clear brush in parts of the forest, including by controlled burning. This temporarily lowers carbon-carrying capacity. But the remaining trees draw a greater share of the available moisture, so they grow and thrive, restoring the forest’s capacity to pull carbon from the air. Healthy trees are also better able to fend off bark beetles. The landscape is rendered less combustible. Even in the event of a fire, fewer trees are consumed.

The need for such planning is increasingly urgent. Already, since 2010, drought and beetles have killed more than 100 million trees in California, most of them in 2016 alone, and wildfires have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres.

California’s plan envisions treating 35,000 acres of forest a year by 2020, and 60,000 by 2030 — financed from the proceeds of the state’s emissions-permit auctions. That’s only a small share of the total acreage that could benefit, an estimated half a million acres in all, so it will be important to prioritize areas at greatest risk of fire or drought.

The strategy also aims to ensure that carbon in woody material removed from the forests is locked away in the form of solid lumber, burned as biofuel in vehicles that would otherwise run on fossil fuels, or used in compost or animal feed.”

B) Why are California’s homes burning? It isn’t natural disaster it’s bad planning

This Op-ed by Richard Halsey (director of the California Chaparral Institute who sometimes posts on NCFP) is well written and, though I would disagree on some statements in his post, I present those that I do agree on in an attempt to show that there are specific components that are middle ground that we all should be able to agree on and focus on rather than focusing on what won’t work. Once we change our emphasis, hostility between opposing sides should decrease and progress should increase.

“Large, high-intensity wildfires are an inevitable and natural part of life in California. The destruction of our communities is not. But many of the political leaders we elect and planning agencies we depend upon to create safe communities have failed us. They have allowed developers to build in harm’s way, and left firefighters holding the bag. ”

“others blame firefighters for creating dense stands of chaparral in fire suppression efforts—when that’s the only way chaparral naturally grows, dense and impenetrable.”

“”we need to recognize that fire disasters aren’t natural, they’re social. And they require social solutions.”” (quote from University of Colorado geographer Gregory Simon)
–> Pay attention to the statement “fire disasters aren’t natural, they’re social”. My first reaction was “not true” but in the context of the Op Ed, I think that the author is making an appropriate distinction between the words “Catastrophic” and “Disaster” by reserving “Disaster” for those situations where the catastrophe falls mainly on humans.

“We also need to examine the best practices of other fire-prone regions. Communities in Australia often install external, under-eave/rooftop sprinklers, which have proven quite effective in protecting structures during wildfires. (Australians understand that wet homes do not ignite.) Such systems should be standard in all new developments in high fire hazard zones. It is likely they would have protected many of the homes consumed in Ventura’s Thomas fire this week.”

“As we do with earthquakes and floods, our goal should be to reduce the damage when wildfires arrive, not pretend we can prevent them from happening at all. That mindset starts at the planning department, not the fire station.”

C) Relevant Prior Posts with included references:

1) Finding Common Ground
IN SEARCH OF COMMON GROUND
Frustration: Will It Lead to Change?

2) Wildfire
Fuels management can be a big help in dealing with wildfires
Air Pollution from Wildfires compared to that from Prescribed burns
Inside the Firestorm
The Impact of Sound Forest Management Practices on Wildfire Smoke and Human Health
Humans sparked 84 percent of US wildfires, increased fire season over two decades
More on Wildfire and Sound Forest Management
Scientific Basis for Changing Forest Structure to Modify Wildfire Behavior and Severity
Articles of Interest on Fire
The Role of Sound Forest Management in Reducing Wildfire Risk
15 Minute TED Talk: “Forest Service ecologist proposes ways to help curb rising ‘Era of Megafires’”

20 Comments

  1. Currently, prescribed burning acres are minimal for the Forest Service. There is also a complicated system for turning ‘burn piles’ and landing piles into “acres treated”. It would be nice to see the actual raw numbers, broken down into categories, instead of all lumped together into an inflated amount of acres.

    In southern California, the Forest Service has done a little over 9000 acres this year. In northern California, they have done over 29,000 acres. By contrast, the Southern Region claims over 560,000 acres treated. Region 1 has done a pitiful 10,000 acres.

    • Well, this year about 800,000 of USFS land in Region One burned in wildfires, most of the USFS land burned was within mixed to high-severity fire regimes and the wildfires burned those areas at low, to mid to high severity, so there’s that.

      People all seem to agree that we need more fire on the landscape, but then again when Mother Nature puts more fire on the landscape some people seem to freak out about it.

      • Matthew

        What support do you have for your assertions?

        When you say “most” are you using number of fires or acreage burned?

        Re your statement: “People all seem to agree that we need more fire on the landscape, but then again when Mother Nature puts more fire on the landscape some people seem to freak out about it.”
        –> So you aren’t really concerned about the health of those downwind and using prioritized thinning followed by appropriately timed controlled burns to minimize the impact on the people downwind, loss of habitat to endangered/threatened species, loss to infrastructure, loss to soil erosion and water quality?
        –> So, why do you freak out about properly planned and executed commercial thinning and controlled burns and even small clearcuts when any damage that they cause is significantly less than that from the ~40% of the acreage with a significantly disproportionate acreage in high-severity fires which is proven to be detrimental to the NSO that you care so much for while claiming that thinnings would be disastrous but apparently high-severity fires aren’t (contrary to current science).

        • Hi Gil:

          Link

          Most = Acres burned.

          Re my statement:

          “People all seem to agree that we need more fire on the landscape, but then again when Mother Nature puts more fire on the landscape some people seem to freak out about it.”

          Yep, that’s what I said.

          “So you aren’t really concerned about the health of those downwind and using prioritized thinning followed by appropriately timed controlled burns to minimize the impact on the people downwind, loss of habitat to endangered/threatened species, loss to infrastructure, loss to soil erosion and water quality?”

          Nope, that’s not what I said Gil. That’s what you said. What I said was: “People all seem to agree that we need more fire on the landscape, but then again when Mother Nature puts more fire on the landscape some people seem to freak out about it.”

          Finally, there are no northern spotted owls in Montana.

          • Matthew

            Nice link but it says nothing even remotely close to what you assert.

            Re your statement: “People all seem to agree that we need more fire on the landscape, but then again when Mother Nature puts more fire on the landscape some people seem to freak out about it.”
            –> People do not seem to agree “that we need more fire on the landscape”. Just ask the majority of the populace on the west coast from San Diego to northern British Columbia.
            –> “freak out” = “phrasal verb – If someone freaks out, or if something freaks them out, they suddenly feel extremely surprised, upset, angry, or confused.”
            –> “concerned” = “anxious, worried / concerned for their safety (i.e. Concerned citizens protested the mayor’s proposal”
            –> “some people” = people other than oneself
            –> The point being that your own words imply that you are not upset/angry/worried/anxious/concerned about the consequences of wildfire (mother nature’s uncontrolled burns even though the negative consequences are much greater than those from properly planned and executed controlled burns). Next time, please try to use your expertise in English to say what you mean instead of obfuscating and being disingenuous.

            Re your statement: “Finally, there are no northern spotted owls in Montana.”
            –> See it’s not so hard, you can communicate in a straight forward way. You can tell the truth. Though why you thought to insert such common knowledge into your reply beats me when the NSO wasn’t even mentioned.

  2. The post says “The state’s proposed Forest Carbon Plan aims to double efforts to thin out young trees and clear brush in parts of the forest, including by controlled burning. This temporarily lowers carbon-carrying capacity. But the remaining trees draw a greater share of the available moisture, so they grow and thrive, restoring the forest’s capacity to pull carbon from the air.”

    This does not add up. Forest carbon storage is inversely related to the rate of disturbance. These thinning treatments are disturbances that unavoidably REDUCE carbon storage. The idea that these treatment-related GHG emissions are justified by long-term increases in forest growth and reduced fire/beetle effects is NOT supported by the best available science.

    Law & Harmon (2011) conducted a literature review and concluded … “Thinning forests to reduce potential carbon losses due to wildfire is in direct conflict with carbon sequestration goals, and, if implemented, would result in a net emission of CO2 to the atmosphere because the amount of carbon removed to change fire behavior is often far larger than that saved by changing fire behavior, and more area has to be harvested than will ultimately burn over the period of effectiveness of the thinning treatment.” Law, B. & M.E. Harmon 2011. Forest sector carbon management, measurement and verification, and discussion of policy related to mitigation and adaptation of forests to climate change. Carbon Management 2011 2(1). http://terraweb.forestry.oregonstate.edu/pubs/lawharmon2011.pdf.

    Restaino & Peterson (2013) conducted a literature review of this issue and reported:

    “All studies agree unequivocally that untreated stands release more emissions to the atmosphere during wildfire than treated stands…. However, most studies in this review include assumptions of future wildfire frequency and probability that skew long-term trade-off analyses by overestimating the ability of fuel treatments to reduce wildfire emissions over long time scales. For example, fuel treatments have a finite life expectancy, and fire hazard increases over time as fuels accumulate in treated areas. Repetition and maintenance of fuel treatments are necessary in order to effectively maintain reduced fire hazard over time (Peterson et al., 2005; Johnson et al., 2007, 2011) and thus must be included in analyses of long-term C storage. Although Rhodes and Baker (2008) suggest that 2.0–4.2% of areas treated to reduce surface fuels are likely to encounter wildfires that would otherwise be high or moderate-high severity without treatment, most studies assume future wildfire probability of 100%, reporting inferences that essentially detail a ‘‘best-case scenario’’ for wildfire missions mitigation. Annual probability of wildfire in dry temperate forests for a given stand is approximately 1% (Ager et al., 2010; Pearson et al., 2010; Campbell et al., 2011). … To benefit total ecosystem C storage, the removal and release of C through fuel treatments must not exceed the expected reductions in wildfire emissions. Substantial treatment costs through timber harvest, prescribed fire, and milling waste exceed observed and simulated reductions in wildfire emissions. … The ability of fuel treatments to mitigate future fire behavior and move forest structure to a more fire-resistant condition is well documented. However, C costs associated with fuel treatments have can exceed the magnitude of C reduction in wildfire emissions, because a large percentage of biomass stored in forests (i.e., stem wood, branches, coarse woody debris) remains unconsumed, even in high-severity fires (Campbell et al., 2007; Mitchell et al., 2009). … Wildfire occurrence in a given area is uncertain and may never interact with treated stands with reduced fire hazard, ostensibly negating expected C benefits from fuel treatments. Burn probabilities in treated stands in southern Oregon are less than 2%, so the probability that a treated stand encounters wildfire and creates C benefits is low (Ager et al., 2010).)

    Restaino, Joseph C.; Peterson, David L. 2013. Wildfire and fuel treatment effects on forest carbon dynamics in the western United States. Forest Ecology and Management 303:46-60. http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/journals/pnw_2013_restiano001.pdf

    And by Campbell, Harmon & Mitchell 2011.

    Abstract
    It has been suggested that thinning trees and other fuel-reduction practices aimed at reducing the probability of high-severity forest fire are consistent with efforts to keep carbon (C) sequestered in terrestrial pools, and that such practices should therefore be rewarded rather than penalized in C-accounting schemes. By evaluating how fuel treatments, wildfire, and their interactions affect forest C stocks across a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, we conclude that this is extremely unlikely. Our review reveals high C losses associated with fuel treatment, only modest differences in the combustive losses associated with high-severity fire and the low-severity fire that fuel treatment is meant to encourage, and a low likelihood that treated forests will be exposed to fire. Although fuel-reduction treatments may be necessary to restore historical functionality to firesuppressed ecosystems, we found little credible evidence that such efforts have the added benefit of increasing terrestrial C stocks.

    In a nutshell:
    • Carbon (C) losses incurred with fuel removal generally exceed what is protected from combustion should the treated area burn
    • Even among fire-prone forests, one must treat about ten locations to influence future fire behavior in a single location
    • Over multiple fire cycles, forests that burn less often store more C than forests that burn more often
    • Only when treatments change the equilibrium between growth and mortality can they alter long-term C storage

    Conclusions
    Across a range of treatment intensities, the amount of C removed in treatment was typically three times that saved by altering fire behavior.

    the protection of one hectare of forest from wildfire required the treatment of 10 hectares, owing not to the low efficacy of treatment but rather to the rarity of severe wildfire event.

    Long-term simulations of forest growth, decomposition, and combustion illustrate how, despite a negative feedback between fire frequency and fuel-driven severity, a regime of low-frequency, high-severity fire stores more C over time than a regime of high-frequency, low-severity fire.

    John L Campbell, Mark E Harmon, and Stephen R Mitchell. 2011. Can fuel-reduction treatments really increase forest carbon storage in the western US by reducing future fire emissions? Front Ecol Environ 2011; doi:10.1890/110057 http://forestpolicypub.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/campbell-2011.pdf It is important to recognize that “the equilibrium between growth and mortality” must consider all forms of mortality, not just that caused by fire, but also mortality caused by logging.

    • It’s not like the carbon stored in the trees that were cut goes right into the atmosphere. Often, the carbon stored in the wood stays sequestered far longer than it would have in an overstocked and unhealthy forest affected by drought, bark beetles and wildfires. There is no one-size-fits-all “Holy Grail” for forest management. I doubt any study has used site specific data from all over the world, or even all over a particular State.

    • 2ndLaw (AKA ? Dr. Beverly Law ?)

      Are you the “Law” in “Law and Harmon (2011)”? Does that make you Law, Beverly E. at OSU since Law, Duncan K would be the 1stLaw? BTW, knowing your name and your expertise helps me to take your thoughts much more seriously but not on blind faith.

      Your link above at http://terraweb.forestry.oregonstate.edu/pubs/lawharmon2011.pdf is dead.

      I only have time to address the following items, from your comments above, which jumped out at me.

      Re: ” fuel treatments have a finite life expectancy, and fire hazard increases over time as fuels accumulate in treated areas. Repetition and maintenance of fuel treatments are necessary in order to effectively maintain reduced fire hazard over time”
      –>Exactly – It has been stated many times on this site that treatments need to be prioritized to focus on:
      a) Areas with high probability of access by irresponsible/malicious humans which are the source of 84% of the fires and ~ 50% of the acreage burned.
      b) Areas where ladder fuels can be removed in the first effort and can be kept out by repeated low cost controlled burns at appropriate intervals which, in effect, returns fire dependent forests to something akin to their natural state of geologically short term equilibrium as long as the dynamics of exogenous variables don’t get in the way as they often do. Note: this drastically changes all of the calculations that you have cited above since un-burned grasses, leaves/needles, twigs and small limbs don’t store carbon for any significant length of time. But when burned they can turn into char which can have a positive impact on any forest. In addition, any analysis must span a very long time not just a tree’s typical life span but multiple life spans.
      c) Other priorities that we could come up with if the participants in this blog really want to find something in common that we can use as a starting point to make both human and forest ecosystems better off in the long run. To date, talk has accomplished nothing.

      Re: “It is important to recognize that “the equilibrium between growth and mortality” must consider all forms of mortality, not just that caused by fire, but also mortality caused by logging.”
      –> Yup and that includes mortality from senescence which can be reduced by logging.

      Re your expertise: “Ecosystem processes, including carbon and water cycling (e.g. photosynthesis, transpiration by trees and shrubs, autotrophic and heterotrophic respiration) as influenced by climate and disturbance; processes contributing to whole ecosystem CO2 and water vapor exchange measured by the eddy covariance method; remote sensing of canopy structure; modeling ecosystem processes in response to climate and disturbance”
      *****–> The significance of all of your statements in your reply above all hinge on there being a direct long term cause and effect relationship between atmospheric carbon and global warming. Can you explain why ice core and atmospheric carbon data show that in the last 10,500 years there has been no direct cause and effect relationship at all? Note that many periods in the first link below show that temps were more than 2.5 degrees centigrade warmer than current temps yet CO2 was significantly lower than present levels. if there was a direct link, at current CO2 levels of ~ 405, according to all of the sky is falling stories, we should all be boiling up or consist of a few survivors living way underground in the mountains where flood waters can’t get to them or living in a bubble floating deep in the Marianas trench. It seems to me and many others that any impact of CO2 on climate is the result of interactions with many other parameters ranging from sun cycles, fluxes in the earth’s magnetic field, volcanic activity and countless other things that mankind is aware of and, quite certainly, much that we are clueless about.

      Referenced Data (note the c3headlines site has been up and down lately but I successfully accessed all of these graphs within the last hour):
      ***–> Greenland Temperature and CO2 data back 10,500 years
      –> Greenland Temperature data back 10,500 years
      –> Vostok Temperature data back 140,000 years

        • Here’s the answer from my “blog administrator” perspective. Gil-Anonymous posters are anonymous for a reason.. that is, their reason. And they get to have it. So it’s not OK to go exploring who they might be (didn’t we go through this with Larry?).

          Here’s my personal view: I appreciate greatly 2nd Laws’ contributions here. Like Matthew’s and others, if it weren’t for thoughtful contributors like you all, we wouldn’t be talking among people who disagree,and are still in conversation with each other. And look how discussion silos are working for the rest of public policy in this country! (not well IMHO).

          So I wouldn’t call Gil’s questions “allegations”.. and I thought Gil was respectful saying
          “BTW, knowing your name and your expertise helps me to take your thoughts much more seriously but not on blind faith.”

          I always thought 2nd was a lawyer, so Gil raising that question has made me question how I think of expertise- and how deeply I would engage in discussions with 2nd if I thought he/she were another scientist compared to my previous thinking. The point being we all can make assumptions about anonymous contributors, but questioning assumptions is always a good thing.

    • 2nd, what about this study? Hurteau et al. 2016.
      https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/north/psw_2016_north001_hurteau.pdf

      Seems like they are careful to not over generalize- they are talking about a specific area (wildfire-prone southwestern ponderosa pine forests), and are talking about a realistic fire frequency for the area, and assume that once thinned, a program of prescribed burning can continue (which seems reasonable to me because the treatments won’t work for modifying fire behavior unless they are kept up.)

      Do you think that these authors overlooked something? Or are they using different terminology or approaches?
      You quoted…
      “Law & Harmon (2011) conducted a literature review and concluded … “Thinning forests to reduce potential carbon losses due to wildfire is in direct conflict with carbon sequestration goals, and, if implemented, would result in a net emission of CO2 to the atmosphere because the amount of carbon removed to change fire behavior is often far larger than that saved by changing fire behavior, and more area has to be harvested than will ultimately burn over the period of effectiveness of the thinning treatment.””

      It seems like on the basis of this quote you posted above, your paper would disagree with the Hurteau et al. paper.

      • Both are true in different situations. One size does not fit all situations. As larry is fond of saying, it is all site specific.

        The problem with both studies is that they are only looking at the imact of densty control on fire. We found out, in the south, that once you let any significant acreage of loblolly get above 120 ba you were guaranteed to lose it all to the southern pine bettle including a bunch of stand with much lower ba. The whole state of Va got wiped out because they thought they could grow high density stands to age 17 or 18 and thereby maximize growth. It would have worked in theory if there hadn’t been any interacton beetween density and other variables. Too bad that they didn’t pay attention to the fundamentals of forest science, entomology, plant physiology and etc. One large compny thought that they could get around it by going to even shorter rotations. But all that they did is dig a deeper hole that they couldn’t get out of.

  3. Trees grow faster in a thinned forest than in a overcrowded one. I would think this would make for more carbon being sequestered and more fire resiliency.
    (Of course it seems from observation that if a forest is left alone long enough a forest with thin itself. Maybe that is what happening in the Sierras? I have not been there. I did have a sheep rancher from that area tell me in the fall after they took the sheep off they use to light the grasslands on fire. But eventually they were not allowed to graze the sheep on public land.)
    And it is not like after a fire the forest is nice and clean, around here the brush grows back like crazy. There might not be as much fuel because the forest is gone but it will still burn. Wildfires are very destructive to a living forest, and the communities around them, isn’t that oblivious?

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