Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatments IX: Whatever Happened to Stewardship and Fireshed Assessment?

Gil’s post from Friday here reminded me that we had left “Why We Disagree” just before we got deep into the nitty-gritty of the problems associated with increasing prescribed fire. We had a science-based, public-involved, GAO-supported approach (posted here) that was looking good in the Sierra. This post is long, but should serve as a jumping off point for “what kind of alignment would be necessary, internally and externally to the FS, to get prescribed fire back on the landscape (and possibly increase opportunities for WFU at the same time)?

Looking around on the internet, I found a presentation by Don Yasuda, a wildlife biologist in the Region 5 Regional Office, given to a Fish and Wildlife Service Dry Forest Workshop. It is pretty self-explanatory and here is a link to his presentation. Here is a link to the entire workshop presentations (thanks, Oregon FWS!). The workshop was in 2009, but I am not sure that the situation has changed substantially.
Here is his slide about why it didn’t work..
I don’t think that any of these will surprise anyone here.

I was intrigued by his slide below in which he goes deeper exploring some systemic issues:

Here’s an explanation of these points:

. Safe, Cheap and Easy refers to how we were deciding where to plan projects. Safe meant typically avoiding any areas of controversy, like areas with high controversy wildlife. Easier to drop them than analyze for treatment of them. Cheap similarly meant avoiding places that required a lot of NEPA planning dollars to go to several years of survey or analysis before we could make a decision. Easy was the culmination of the other two plus continue to do what we’ve done in the past and not venture into trying too many “new” things that might suddenly not be “safe” or “cheap”.

· Waste disposal problem referred to the fact that the majority of the work we needed to prioritize was removal of small and medium sized trees and small and medium fuels that accumulated from past land management and mostly from decades of fire suppression. There was little economic value to these “biomass” materials but there was value in the medium sized sawlogs that also needed to be removed to reduce fire risk and move forests towards more resilient desired conditions. So the problem was there was more material to be removed than there was capacity to utilize. So the idea of “ramping up” work to remove even more of it would just create a bigger disposal problem to solve.

· The concept of Boutique forestry centered around recognizing that we may be doing good work in the projects we do implement but it is in really small and localized locations and not making a difference at the landscape scales that our primary threats (high severity wildfires and landscape scale insect outbreaks) operate.

· The bullet on economics reflects the reluctance to have an open and honest discussion about the cost and opportunities of doing the magnitude of work we are trying to do. The reality is that the congressionally appropriated budget to do this work only goes so far and cannot possibly cover the amount of work we know needs to happen. But, even though there is economic value in sawlogs because they produce a consumer product and with new (at the time) opportunities like stewardship contracting, we were reluctant to talk about leveraging appropriated funds with the value of saleable products that we need to remove anyway to pay for more small diameter material that is the primary driver of the thinning and restoration work. We wanted to highlight that there is a concern that we might remove more or larger sawlogs (a return to intensive, short-rotation harvesting) just to treat more acres of fuels that cost money. We noted that it was a legitimate discussion to have openly to dispel the interest or intent to return to intensive harvesting, but in an evaluation of alternatives we could discuss the tradeoffs of different levels and intensities of restoration. We emphasized that if ecological restoration was the primary purpose of a project then we should never be removing trees purely for the economic value alone, but also shouldn’t be shy to discuss trees we want to remove for restoration having value that enabled us to treat a lot more acres at landscape scales that we couldn’t have afforded to in any other way.

· The last bullet about triage was to bring home that whether we like it or not, we’re at the point of needing to decide how we are going to focus our limited time and resources to tackle this overwhelming problem of difficult choices. We could continue to spend all of our energy on Safe, Cheap and Easy, but that’s like focusing all of your energy on the “green tagged” patients. Similarly the waste disposal problem is largely outside of the agency’s hands because it requires other regulatory and economic and social mechanisms to all line up and it won’t be quick to come on line so focusing just on that is like focusing on the “black tagged” patients because it won’t help anyone in the immediate crisis now. We talked about those things (biomass utilization opportunities) being like preventative medicine, best address before the patient is sick and to reduce the numbers getting sick in the future. So it’s important, but not what you focus on in the middle of an emergency.

This is one person’s opinion.. but from someone who is a expert and was involved. Do these observations ring true for others involved in this effort (I know there are Californians among our blogging community)? What about other parts of the country?

3 Comments

  1. This echoes one point I have harped on about the “bake sale” approach of cutting big trees to raise funds to cut small trees: “We emphasized that IF ecological restoration was the primary purpose of a project then we should never be removing trees purely for the economic value alone, but also shouldn’t be shy to discuss trees we want to remove FOR RESTORATION having value that enabled us to treat a lot more acres at landscape scales that we couldn’t have afforded to in any other way.”

    I added the emphases because my point has been that forest plans are where we determine the “primary purpose of a project;” projects must be designed to achieve forest plan desired outcomes, so we should be having these discussions during plan revision. I’ve also questioned how often restoration, presumably to return to the natural range of variation, would require the removal of large trees, since they are almost always short of the desired amount. Not enough to fund “a lot more acres” in any case.

    • Jon- I wonder how anyone could determine is the “desired amount” of “big” (what diameters/heights) trees based on NRV? Is that per acre, over a watershed, or multiple watersheds? Except by using some form of HRV which we all know is supposed to be a reference and not a prescription.

      Plan revision might be a good time to talk about this, but I think the Sierra Forests have a giant plan amendment that tried to deal with these kinds of things across forests (which makes sense to me). https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5434157.pdf I think it’s been in litigation and reworked since 2004 (maybe someone can post a history).

      Here’s the page that relates to the MegaAmendment https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r5/landmanagement/planning/?cid=stelprdb5349922 and they also have annual monitoring reports.
      From the 2014:

      In 2014, fuel treatments were conducted on 85,664 acres on the Region 5 Sierra Nevada national forests (Table 1). Of those acres, 36% were located in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). The regional goal was to have 50% of all initial fuel treatments in the WUI (SNFPA ROD,page 5), and we have now completed many of those treatments.

      What I hear the author saying is that “in some cases, we will need to remove “merchantable” trees (which may or may not be “big” depending on the markets), and we should be open about the fact that selling those trees can help pay for projects” – as Larry says – to do enough of it to make a difference.

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