What if our efforts to stop wildfires actually make them bigger?

Yes, what if. The full article from today’s Missoulian is here, and some interesting snips are below.

“It’s a counter-intuitive result,” said research ecologist Sean Peck. “We put out the fire, but in the long run, there are negative unintended consequences. If we’re putting out all fires under moderate weather conditions, the fire we can’t put out will burn under extreme conditions.”

Peck’s work at the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute on the University of Montana campus recently earned him the 2017 Research & Development Deputy Chief’s Early Career Scientist Award. Since earning his doctorate from UM in 2014, he’s been lead author of nine peer-reviewed journal articles and co-authored another 11.

Much of Peck’s work focuses on wildfire in federal wilderness, including the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Forest fires there typically burn without the swarms of yellow-shirted firefighters and red-tailed aircraft trying to suppress them….

“I think outside wilderness areas, we’re selecting for high-severity fire,” Peck said. “It’s like selecting for a gene in corn crops. It’s not done on purpose, but it happens with certain management practices. We’re not allowing fires to burn in non-extreme years. So fires only occur during extreme events. Those fires are the ones we could not put out.”…

Peck’s current work looks at how future climate changes may affect the tempo of fire seasons. He’s testing the idea that we’re likely to see more extreme fire events in the short term, but less severe fires several decades from now as the climate warms.

“We think we may see the spruce-fir forests converted to something else that may be more resistant to fire, like Douglas fir and ponderosa pine,” Peck said. “And at some lower elevations, dry-forest types are projected to convert to non-forest vegetation, grassland or shrub land. Dry forests are barely hanging on now.

“As Montanans, we’ve grown up with certain kinds of forests,” Peck added. “They are going to change. We can accept it, but it will happen whether we want it to or not.”

Earth Island Institute v. Elliott (E. D. California)

This case was decided on November 16, but has not yet been included in a Forest Service litigation summary. At issue is the Bull Run project, a fire salvage restoration project to treat a strip of land along an area of roadways affected by the Cedar Fire on the Sequoia National Forest. The court denied the motion for a preliminary injunction. The Forest determined that the project could be categorically excluded from an EIS, and that there were no extraordinary circumstances that would prevent the use of a CE.

The court determined that the main issue involving the use of a CE was “whether it is reasonable to interpret a project that “salvages” hazard trees on a large scale as “routine road maintenance.”  Here is the CE:

(4) Repair and maintenance of roads, trails, and landline boundaries. Examples include but are not limited to:

(i) Authorizing a user to grade, resurface, and clean the culverts of an established NFS road;

(ii) Grading a road and clearing the roadside of brush without the use of herbicides;

(iii) Resurfacing a road to its original condition;

(iv) Pruning vegetation and cleaning culverts along a trail and grooming the surface of the trail; and

(v) Surveying, painting, and posting landline boundaries.

After reviewing several similar cases, the court concluded, “the Court cannot determine with certainty at this stage of the case to what extent the Bull Run project is a true commercial “salvage” operation or whether it is, in practice, more like the Nez Perce project (which denied it was a salvage project), or whether, possibly, this is a distinction without a difference.” The court held: “For purposes of this motion for a preliminary injunction, the Court need not definitively determine the issue on the merits; it is enough to conclude that success on the merits as to the CE issue is unclear.” Thus plaintiffs had not made their case for likelihood of prevailing. (I think the FS got away with one here, especially because there is another CE for salvage projects, but for limited acreage; maybe it will become more “clear” at trial.)

The court found no extraordinary circumstances with regard to the federally endangered mountain yellow-legged frog and the Pacific fisher and California spotted owl (both designated as sensitive species by the Forest Service). For the spotted owl, the court determined that the Forest had adequately considered information about their use of post-fire areas (including submissions from the John Muir Project and Chad Hanson). Lack of quality fisher habitat swayed the court to accept the FS explanation regarding fisher connectivity. The project included 30 “site-specific measures” designed to minimize the risks to the frog, and the court cited the FWS conclusion that the resulting risk to individuals was low. (These measures would be good candidates for forest plan components when the Sequoia revises its forest plan.)

Western Watersheds v. USFS (D. Idaho)

This case involves the decision by the Targhee National Forest to issue new Annual Operating Instructions to the Agricultural Research Service in 2017 to allow the U. S. Sheep Experiment station to continue grazing sheep on two allotments. This case was summarized in today’s Litigation Weekly, but since it found two violations of the forest plan these are worth some further discussion. Note that the case was decided on a motion for a preliminary injunction, and the perceived risk to bighorn sheep viability was key factor in granting the PI to prevent irreparable harm. (There is also a NEPA claim that the court did not decide as part of the PI opinion.)

In order to “provide an opportunity to minimize conflicts between domestic and bighorn sheep,” the Targhee Forest Plan required these allotments to be “phased out on an opportunity basis.”   “Opportunity” was defined to include “resource protection.” The court found that new telemetry data showing proximity of the bighorn sheep to the domestic sheep and other new information “reasonably could have been identified as an opportunity” to close the allotments based on the objective of resource protection instead of issuing a new AOI.

The forest plan required the Forest to maintain “at least viable populations of all native and desired nonnative wildlife . . . in habitats distributed throughout their geographic range on National Forest System lands.” The court summarized the Forest Service argument as follows: “the Forest Service asks the court to the measure the Forest Plan’s maintenance requirement not herd-by-herd, but by considering the sum of all of the individual bighorn populations Forest-wide.” The court used a dictionary definition of “maintain” to find that allowing this small herd of bighorn sheep to be extirpated “potentially will diminish the overall population of bighorn sheep throughout the Forest.” “Thus, in no way do the common definitions and understandings support neglect or deterioration of a population of animals (taken as a whole, or in part) that the Forest Service is mandated to maintain.” The court also cited agency requirements for ensuring that sensitive species do not become threatened or endangered (bighorns are classified as sensitive species on the Targhee).

Litigation Weekly December 1

Litigation Weekly Dec 1

The court issued a preliminary injunction against grazing domestic sheep on two allotments on the Targhee NF that are used for the U. S. Sheep Experiment Station because the forest plan appears to require removal of the sheep to prevent disease transmission to bighorn sheep to maintain a viable population.  (D. Idaho)

In a case involving a permit issued by the Bridger-Teton NF to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission for supplemental elk feeding, the District of Columbia District Court granted the Forest Service request to transfer the case to the District of Wyoming.

This is the second lawsuit brought against the Rosemont Copper Mine project on the Coronado NF and involves alleged violations of the Clean Water Act, NEPA and other legal requirements.  Other links are provided here.  (D. Ariz.)

Alleged violations of ESA for failing to monitor road culverts as required by prior consultation on bull trout, and failure of consultation to address the impacts of climate change.

The non-profit owner of conservation lands is challenging FERC’s process for condemnation of those lands for a natural gas pipeline.

Plan revision on the Rio Grande

They are a little ahead of the Helena-Lewis & Clark discussed on Nov. 29.  They are taking comments on their draft plan and EIS.  I haven’t read either, but this article provides an overview.  Here’s the big picture:

“The purpose and need for revising the forest plan is the changed economic, social, and ecological conditions in the plan area that have occurred since the current forest plan was approved in 1996,” Dallas stated this fall when the draft was released for public review. “These changes include the spruce beetle infestation, closure of mills and timber-related infrastructure in southwest Colorado, changes in communications technology, increased development along the Forest boundary, and the need to shift fire management direction focused on suppression to the use of fire for resource benefit.”

Unlike what we saw on the HLC, this seems to reflect some of the issues that preoccupy this blog (especially the last item recently).  Similar to the HLC, there are only two action alternatives, but they are the more traditional left and right of the proposed action (more or less active management).

Alternative B, the draft plan that the Forest is proposing, provides for a balance of multiple uses; Alternative C would increase acreage available for multiple uses and reduce the amount of management areas; and Alternative D would propose less active management of resources and increase semi-primitive, non-motorized opportunities.

I think the planning process can work with a small number of alternatives if they are well-designed to address the relevant issues and impacts and if, as the Rio Grande says here, the parts can be mixed and matched to produce a final preferred alternative that is within the range of what was in the DEIS.  Here’s the Forest’s explanation of what their plan does:

Blakeman said the draft plan is broken down into: overarching goals that provide “big picture” guidance such as protecting water resources and terrestrial ecosystems and contributing to economic sustainability; desired conditions representing the vision of what the Forest should look like in the future; concise, measurable objectives, which guide the process and timeline to attain the desired conditions; and standards, guidelines and management approaches that provide constraints and/or site-specific direction. Blakeman said standards and guidelines are harder to change once in place but management approaches can be changed to adapt to changing conditions on the ground.

“Management approaches” are a possible red flag.  I’ve seen them used where the standards and guidelines are needed.  If the Forest can change or ignore management approaches, this has to be recognized in the effects analysis.  And they shouldn’t count towards meeting requirements for plan components (like diversity) because they are not plan components.

One other pet peeve.  Why can’t they use map colors that mean something, like mirroring the active/passive management scheme?

U.S. House OKs bills paving way for mining near the Boundary Waters Wilderness

In the (very dry) summer of 1988 I did an extended Outward Bound trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which for a variety of reasons, changed my life forever.

According to Minnesota Public Radio:

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday to reopen Superior National Forest land near the Boundary Waters [Wilderness] to mineral exploration and, potentially, to new copper-nickel mines on the doorstep of one of the nation’s most popular wilderness areas.

The bill, introduced by Minnesota Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, would allow a company called Twin Metals to continue developing a potential copper-nickel mine near Ely, Minn., on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The bill would restore the company’s mineral leases — which the federal government declined to renew at the end of President Barack Obama’s administration — and stop a two-year study into the effects of mining within the watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters [Wilderness]. That process that could lead to a 20-year ban on mining in the area.

When enduring much longer and drier portages in the Boundary Waters Canoe Areas Wilderness back in 1988 there’s no way my 16 year old self could’ve imaged that year’s later the U.S. Congress would be circumventing our nation’s bedrock environmental laws to make it easier for a foreign company (with a terrible history of environmental violations) to build dangerous sulfide-ore copper mines on the edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness…but there you have it.

Also this week, the U.S. House passed H.R. 3115, a bill that would require that 6,650 acres of the Superior National Forest be traded to PolyMet Mining for the construction of an open-pit copper-nickel (sulfide) mine. Thousands of acres of irreplaceable wetlands at the headwaters of Lake Superior were valued for exchange at $550 per acre, five times less than what other mining companies have paid. There are currently four lawsuits pending against the land exchange. H.R. 3115 would essentially declare these lawsuits null and void and undermine the Endangered Species Act to ram through the land exchange, bringing PolyMet’s open-pit copper-nickel (sulfide) mine a few scary steps closer to reality.

These anti-Boundary Waters Wilderness bill are just a drop in the bucket. Essentially, unless Congressional dysfunction saves the day, America’s public lands, wildlife and Wilderness legacy will be laid to waste in the next couple of weeks. There are literally too many terrible bills pending in Congress, and certainly being hatched behind closed doors as we speak, to even keep track of them all.

GOP Bill Would Amend Wilderness Act to Allow Bikes in All Protected Wilderness Areas

On December 7, 2017 the House Natural Resource Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Lands will hold a hearing on H.R. 1349, a bill from Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) [Lifetime 4% LCV rating,], which would “amend the Wilderness Act to ensure that the use of bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers, and game carts is not prohibited in Wilderness Areas and for other purposes.”

The text of H.R. 1349 is only one paragraph in length, and based on the wording, ALL Wilderness areas in America would be open to bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers, and game carts.

Here’s some more information and an action alert on this issue from Wilderness Watch:

For over 50 years, the Wilderness Act has protected Wilderness areas designated by Congress from machines of all types. This has meant, as Congress intended, that Wilderness areas have been kept free from cars, trucks, ATVs, snowmobiles, bicycles, and all other types of motorized and mechanized transport.

Unfortunately, a loud contingent of some mountain bikers and an off-shoot mountain biking organization, the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC), have convinced notoriously anti-Wilderness Congressman Tom McClintock (R-CA) to introduce H.R. 1349, a bill which would amend the Wilderness Act to allow bikes, strollers, wheelbarrows, game carts, survey wheels and measuring wheels in every unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

In an especially cynical and disingenuous move, the mountain bikers seem to hide behind people with disabilities in their effort to make America’s wildest places merely a playground for cycling! The mountain bikers list “motorized wheelchairs” and “non-motorized wheelchairs” as the first uses to be authorized in Wilderness under their bill (even prior to the listing of “bicycles”), though the 1990 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have clearly allowed wheelchairs in designated Wilderness for more than a quarter-century.

For more information regarding “Fake News” being spread by some mountain bikers, see Five Lies Being Used to Get Mountain Bikes into Wilderness.

You may recall that the STC had a bill introduced last year in the U.S. Senate by the Utah Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, whose lifetime conservation voting records as compiled by the nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters are just a paltry 9% and 10% respectively. That bill would have opened the Wilderness System to mountain bikes, and also to chainsaws.

Fortunately, last year’s bill went nowhere, in no small part to the actions taken by Wilderness defenders around the country!

Unfortunately, the new bill could very well advance in the current anti-Wilderness Congress, allied with the new Trump Administration that seems hostile to environmental protection. Rep. McClintock, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, also chairs that panel’s Subcommittee on Federal Lands. This means he is in a significant position of leadership, and could mean that this year’s mountain bike bill might well advance in Congress. McClintock’s lifetime conservation voting record is even worse than those of the Utah Senators, at a barely-registering 4%.

Last year, anticipating the 2016 Senate bill to open Wilderness to mountain bikes, Wilderness Watch spearheaded a sign-on letter to Congress in opposition to opening up the National Wilderness Preservation System to bikes. It resulted in a total of 114 wilderness-supporting organizations from around the nation signing on, clearly showing that the conservation community is united in its opposition to the mountain bikers’ efforts. We are in the process of putting together a similar sign-on letter for 2017.

Now we need your help! Please take a few minutes to urge your representative and senators to oppose H.R. 1349 and all attempts to amend and weaken the Wilderness Act to allow mountain bikes in Wilderness.

At a time when Wilderness and wildlife are under increasing pressures from increasing populations, growing mechanization, and a rapidly changing climate, the last thing Wilderness needs is to be invaded by mountain bikes and other machines!

Call to Action on Wildfire Funding Fixes- TNC Action Center Makes it Easy

Caveat: I have not been following the ins and outs of what’s currently in the bills, but The Nature Conservancy has this as a draft letter to Senators and Representatives.. on their site here. It makes it easy to contact them and you can even tweet more or less automatically!

Fix the wildfire funding problem
As wildfires grow hotter and larger, Congress must lead the way to preserve our national parks and forests, along with our homes, from disaster.

That’s why I am asking you to support a comprehensive wildfire funding fix like the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 2862 and S. 1842) or section 102 of S. 1571 in the Senate. These proposals are supported by broad, bipartisan organizations, including conservation, timber, tribal, recreation, sportsmen and employer groups.

A comprehensive fire fix would change how the federal government budgets for wildfire suppression, bringing the process in line with the way other disasters are funded. A comprehensive solution includes: 1) addressing the continued erosion of agency budgets that results from increasing suppression costs; 2) accessing disaster funding for extraordinarily costly fires; and 3) significantly reducing the need to “borrow” from non-suppression budget accounts and programs.

You have an opportunity to act now by including this solution in an upcoming disaster relief package. I’m asking you to support that effort.

Protecting American homes, lands, and wildlife from catastrophic fires grows more important with every passing fire season. Please fix the wildfire funding problem before the next major fire strikes!

My question to those who keep up with this.. is this one of the controversial bills? It was hard to tell from a brief glance.

What people want from the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest plan

There’s a summary of the scoping comments available on the Forest’s planning website.  “The number of comments for or against forest uses or management were not tabulated as ‘votes,'” but here’s the top 3:

“The most common topic was the concept of recommended wilderness or designated
wilderness. Roughly 46% of the comments offered input related to these designations,
including desires for more, less, specific area or boundary suggestions, and input as to
what uses should be allowed in such areas.”

“Many comments included input related to motorized uses, nonmotorized uses, trails,
roads, access, and other travel planning issues on the Forest. Comments related to these
topics represent about 28% of all comments received…”

“Comments about wildlife and habitat frequently overlapped with comments about motorized use, recommended wilderness, and other resource management issues. Comments that included input on these topics represented roughly 21% of the total comments received.”

Other categories of likely interest: Water – 10%, and fire/fuels, climate change and vegetation management each at – 7%.  (The %s add to more than 100, so these must represent the % of comment letters that addressed each topic.)

Despite not counting votes, it looks like they aren’t considering any alternatives related to wildlife, vegetation or fire except as a timber harvest and production problem.  I’m not seeing anything ecological here, making me think they just want to meet the legal minimum for diversity.  It reminds me of the current Helena plan I helped write 35 years ago (but I don’t think that’s a good thing).  Hopefully there’s more here than it appears.

More Domestic Cows and Sheep Coming to Your Favorite Wilderness Area?

I just got a heads up that there is a provision in the Interior Appropriations bill that would require the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to give grazing permits to ranchers on any vacant allotment to replace lost grazing opportunities to due to fires or anything else “beyond the permittees control.”

The permits would be issued with the same rules in place as at the time the allotment was last grazed, which may have been decades ago. There would be no NEPA and there are no exceptions for Wilderness.

Folks might not know this, but there are a lot of vacant Wilderness allotments that were never “closed,” they are still on the books as “vacant.” The grazing guidelines clearly prohibit what the requirement in the pending Interior Appropriations bill does, but this new provision may well trump the grazing guidelines. Moreover, the guidelines don’t apply to any of the pre-1980 Wildernesses.

I’m in the process of trying to find more information and will provide it here when obtained.