Old-Growth Definitions: Loggers, Foresters, Scientists & Modelers

 

Gould and McClay family ranch in the heart of present-day Elliott State Forest, showing the effects of Indian burning, and wildfires of 1840s, 1868, and 1879.

The following editorial was published in today’s Roseburg News-Review: https://www.nrtoday.com/opinion/guest_col/guest-column-manage-our-forests-or-continue-a-losing-battle/article_071441fc-4525-11ef-8e8b-1fa173a2b1ad.html

In April 2022, the Biden Administration issued Executive Order (E.O.) 14072, “Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies.” This order instructed federal agencies to “scientifically define” old-growth trees and to take appropriate steps to protect them for future generations.

The last time the government attempted to achieve these tasks was in the 1980s, resulting in widespread rural business failures and ever-increasing losses of public forests — including old-growth — to catastrophic wildfires, bugs, and disease that continue to this time. This E.O. promises similar results, but on a national scale, rather than just regional.

Biden’s E.O. affects all 128 of the nation’s forestlands managed by the Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM); whereas the 1994 Clinton Plan for Northwest Forests (NWFP) only affected the highly productive Douglas fir forests of Oregon, Washington, and California.

And, whereas the NWFP developed a single “scientific” definition of “old-growth,” the E.O. computer modelers have come up with more than 200!

Different types of trees in different environments live different lengths of time. For most of the past century, Douglas fir — the most valuable timber tree in our public forests — were considered “old-growth” if they were at least 200-years-old.

This has not always been true. Jerry Phillips, Elliott State Forest manager and historian, always maintained old-growth was a “logger’s term” and referred to the deep furrowed bark and change in color from “red fir” — or mature second-growth — to “yellow fir,” or old-growth. On the Elliott, that would be a tree about 250-350-years-old.

In the 1940s, OSU forest scientists attempted to quantify the “logger’s term” and postulated old-growth were 350-450-years-old. In the meantime, field foresters in Coos County were doing the most detailed analysis of native Douglas fir forestland ever conducted — and they said old-growth might only be 191-years-old.

From 1945 to 1947, Weyerhaeuser foresters systematically bored 1466 trees on 1576 1/4-acre plots over 125,000 acres, lying immediately south of the 80,000-acre Elliott. Neither forest had ever been logged by that time, and 90% of both were covered with even-aged stands of native Douglas fir, corroborating observations by noted Douglas fir scientist Thornton Munger (1940):

“The paths of the great forest fires of the last century or two are plainly marked by even-aged stands, consisting to the extent of at least 90 per cent of Douglas fir (if within the preferred habitat of this tree).”

Weyerhaeuser documented 31,650 acres of old-growth, with the oldest tree being 380-years-old, and some were 300-feet tall; among the largest Douglas fir ever measured. These even-aged stands dated at least three “great fires” from 1565 to 1755, averaged 225-years-old [1720], and contained 40% defect from fire, bugs, and decay.

Half of the area (61,870 acres) was 166–190-year-old mature second-growth, averaging 180-years-old [1765] with only 6% defect and dating at least two major wildfires from 1755 to 1790.

In 1945, the Elliott’s 80,000 acres were mostly 60-year-old Douglas fir that had followed ca.1845, 1868, and 1879 catastrophic-scale wildfires.

The remaining 32,480 acres of Weyerhaeuser land was “very lightly timbered” with even-aged stands 10-40-years-old, dating from the 1902 fires through 1936.

These 200,000+ acres of virgin Douglas fir forestland during WW II reflected a minimum 10 — likely more — major wildfires from 1565 to 1936, or on average, a major wildfire every 35-40 years. These lands were subsequently actively managed, have supported more than  three generations of hundreds of local families, and haven’t had a major fire in more than 80 years.

In the 1980s forest ecologists developed the first “scientific definition” of old-growth for Douglas fir. It included big, old trees, large snags and dead wood throughout, and a multilayered canopy of ladder fuels. The scarcity of this unusual timber type was blamed on logging, rather than nature, and active management of our nations’ forests was mostly ended.

The current Biden E.O. report states for 25 years, since 2000, only 9,000 acres of public old-growth were logged, while insects and diseases killed 182,000 acres and wildfires killed 700,000 acres more.

Humility, Misinformation and Climate Discourse

Matt Burgess, a prof at CU in Boulder,  wrote a guest post on Lee Jussim’s Unsafe Science Substack that might be of interest. You also might be interested in Matt’s “How polarization will destroy itself”

The title is “Both sides should separate misinformation from reasoned debate about climate change policy.” His bottom line is:

Stick to Facts

Progressives turn people off by dismissing reasoned criticism of climate policies as “denial” or “fossil-fuel misinformation”. Conservatives make it too easy to dismiss their reasoned criticisms of climate policies as climate change denial, when they also amplify actual climate change denial uncritically.  Both sides would have the best chance of persuading people if they rigorously seek out and then stick to the facts, and jettison both pseudoscience and ad-hominem attacks.1

I think that many “facts” are in more dispute than Matt does, but that’s not necessarily a problem. We don’t seem to have difficulties discussing the nuances here at TSW.

My favorite part was this footnote:

Lee here. While I generally endorse Matt’s emphasis on sticking to facts and avoiding ad hominem, this final sentence is actually an empirical question. Do facts persuade people more than ad hominem attacks? I do not know. Also, persuade people of what? There is the truth of the claim, the integrity and decency of the claimant versus accuser, trust and credibility afforded to academia and experts, and more. The effectiveness of ad hominem for persuading people of different things might itself vary depending on the outcome. Secondarily, avoiding pseudoscience and misinformation is not that easy. Although some things are clearly pseudoscience (e.g., astrology) and others science (e.g., astronomy), there is no hard, clear line between pseudoscience and science, and misinformation is little more than being wrong — and people are wildly overconfident about wrong beliefs all the time. Avoiding misinformation in science and politics often means doing a deep dive into source credibility, references, and alternative sources or reporting, and most of us don’t usually have time for all that. And if you don’t, you really are in no position to stick to the facts because you do not have them, in which case, the best approach may be epistemic humility — avoiding making strong claims altogether when you really have neither the expertise nor have done the deep dive necessary to do so.

I’d only add that when you do have the expertise, and have done the deep dive, you can still be humble.  It’s really easy to be humble when you’ve worked in many places and seen many things, including the unpredicted and unpredictable.

People living, dumping on Oregon’s public lands ‘overwhelming’ Bureau of Land Management : KOIN Story

Thanks to the Center for Western Priorities for this one.

Here’s the link to this story. No paywall.  Also note that the partners helping (mentioned here) are the oft-maligned off-roaders. I wonder if the Conservation Lease program would allow for leasing these areas and the lessee being responsible for trash removal and law enforcement?

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Hover over the Redmond Municipal Airport on Google Maps and scroll north of the Ochoco Highway. From a distance, the parcels of public land look like undisturbed patches of Oregon’s high desert: Western juniper trees scattered between brown and green tufts of bunchgrass and sagebrush set in the rain shadow of the High Cascades.

But zoom in on the desert plains east of Redmond and satellite images reveal hundreds of acres of trash and dozens of makeshift neighborhoods of trailers, motorhomes and junked cars. This property, whose ownership is divided between Deschutes County and the Bureau of Land Management, is an example of the countless parcels of Oregon’s public land where homeless people are taking refuge in violation of local and federal laws.

Depending on the jurisdiction, the enforcement of these laws falls to the Bureau of Land Management — which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior — the state, or to county and city law enforcement. The added expense of removing the trash left behind at these locations can also cost these government agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Satellite imagery show expansive swaths of land dotted by vehicles that are both inhabited and abandoned, officials told KOIN 6 News. People leave behind garbage, human waste and drug paraphernalia in these areas, which require large community cleanups and the occasional hazmat team. (Satellite images from Google Earth and Google Maps)

BLM spokesperson Samantha Ducker told KOIN 6 News that the federal agency, which owns about 25% of Oregon, knows that people are living and dumping on public lands. While the public is encouraged to camp on BLM land, BLM regulations prohibit people from camping in an area for more than 14 days. Once the two-week limit is reached, campers are required to move 25 miles away from their previous campsite. If people remain in the area past the deadline, BLM Law Enforcement officers can issue a $250 fine. But with 25 law enforcement officers and five special agents employed across the entire state, BLM officers are overwhelmed by the number of illegal long-term campsites in Oregon.

“The BLM is experiencing many problems with unauthorized, illegal long-term occupancy of public lands,” Ducker said. “This is distinctly different from camping for recreational purposes. These long-term occupancies are overwhelming the agency’s resources to deal with them, and in many cases result in hazardous wastes that require specialized contractors for removal and remediation.”

The BLM’s Oregon and Washington office requests $100,000 each year to clean up the illegal dumping, Rebecca Hile, assistant district manager of BLM operations in Northwest Oregon, told KOIN 6 News. These cleanups are often related to illegal, long-term campgrounds, the agency said. However, the BLM makes no distinction in its records between the removal of dumped trash and the cleanup of long-term campsites.

Kyle Sullivan, spokesperson for the BLM’s Medford office, told KOIN 6 News that people often dump old RVs and other vehicles on public land instead of paying to take them to the landfill, making it difficult to determine if any one cleanup is related to illegal camping.

In many cases, Sullivan said, the BLM partners with various local organizations and government agencies to clear these frequented dumping grounds, which can extend into city, county, state, Forest Service and private properties.

Tate Morgan, the founder of the off-roading organizations Gambler 500 and Sons of Smokey, told KOIN 6 News that the groups have helped to remove 2 million pounds of trash in Central Oregon since 2017. Most recently, the group of volunteers cleared roughly 250,000 pounds of trash from public lands in Deschutes County in a single weekend. Morgan said that roughly half of the trash comes from the area’s homeless population and half is dumped there by local residents and businesses.

“Bend and the surrounding areas are the worst we’ve seen anywhere in the U.S.,” Morgan said. “Fast growth, zero planning for affordable housing, adjacent public land which they have pushed their houseless population onto with no accounting for trash byproducts.”

Past Gambler 500 and Sons of Smokey cleanup events held in Central Oregon. (Photos courtesy of Tate Morgan)

Although organizations regularly host cleanup events around the country, large community cleanups aren’t appropriate for areas still occupied by homeless people or sites that contain hazardous waste. When hazardous waste is discovered, government agencies like the BLM hire special hazmat teams to complete the work. According to records obtained by KOIN 6, the BLM spent more than $477,000 on hazmat remediation in Oregon between 2021 and 2023.

“We find a lot of asbestos, needles, chemicals,” Sullivan said. “There’s a lot of potentially hazardous situations that don’t lend themselves to community cleanups.”

Middleman Treatment Before and After Photos From the EA

Thanks to Matt Koehler for linking to the Middleman EA.  I briefly ran through the EA  and noted the photos.. they help a lot for us folks from California, Oregon, New Mexico or even North Carolina to understand what the forests and treatments look like in Region 1.  Shout-out to the Districts for the photos!  I copied them via screenshots from the EA, so to compare before and after,  you have to look at the figure # plus the before and after treatment description.

Falls Fire 2024 Burning in 2007 Fire Scar

Part of the ~111,000-acre Falls Fire on the Malheur National Forest in eastern Oregon is burning in the 2007 Bear Canyon Fire scar. I’m posting this photo by Mike McMillan/USFS only to show what a 17-year-old fire scar looks like, and that the dead down/standing and live fuels (saplings and brush) can burn with fairly high intensity.  Click on the photo for a larger view. More at InciWeb.

History of Forest Service Engineering at the National Museum of Forest Service History

 

Above, one page of the newsletter.

The National Museum of Forest Service History had a terrific newsletter this month with a history and update on Forest Service Engineering.  They tend not to be in the news much, except for local papers, so shout-out to all FS engineers, current and retired! Not much drama, just doing their very important work, day in and day out.

Here’s a link to the newsletter.  There are great historic photos.  If you are interested in learning more about any of the topics, or prefer a different format, head to this link.

Feel free to share stories in the comments.

 

Horse Gulch Fire and Middleman Project: More Montana Late Litigation

This is HFHC’s take. What I think is interesting..

The Environmental Assessment for the Middleman Project totaled 584 pages and the project took over a year and a half from scoping to assessment to decision.

A year and a half doesn’t seem that long to me for 53K acres (and 584 pages).

Two years after the project was approved, two anti-forestry groups sued to stop the project, claiming it violated federal law and in particular the National Environmental Policy Act. The litigants focused on the adequacy and detail of the 584-page Environmental Assessment.

According to the Frontier Institute, instead of a lengthy court battle over the adequacy of the environmental analysis, in April 2024 the Forest Service agreed to a settlement in which it made huge concessions to reduce the scale of the Middleman Project, forgoing almost all of the planned timber harvest and temporary road construction. The Forest Service even agreed to pay a bonus of $39,000 of taxpayer dollars to the anti-forestry groups to cover attorney fees!

Now the Frontier Institute may not be objective source of info.. are settlements and payments filed somewhere so we can go look for ourselves?  I would like to see the results of litigation including the settlement documents and payments, posted somewhere by the FS.  Also note the litigation started “two years after projects were approved”.  Jon said in an earlier comment on the Pintler Face project, that the reason for lateness was that not enough environmental attorneys were available due to former President Trump’s administration policies.  FWIW, I didn’t find that a compelling argument.  Perhaps that’s also the case here?

Below is the entire HFHC post.

 

Writing recently on X (formerly Twitter), Frontier Institute President and CEO Kendall Cotton observed that Montana’s Horse Gulch Fire is burning in a portion of Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest that was slated for landscape-scale thinning and controlled burns, that is, before anti-forestry litigation dramatically scaled back the planned effort.

 

According to an analysis by the Frontier Institute, Middleman Project planned active forest management on 53,131 acres to mitigate wildfire risks, improve forest health, enhance wildlife habitats and reduce carbon emissions. The U.S. Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment for the project noted that a substantial proportion of the project area contains accumulations of hazardous fuels that “pose a risk to the communities of York and Nelson (including outlying developed subdivisions of El Dorado Heights and American Bar), as well as to public and firefighter safety in the event of a wildfire.”

The proposed Middleman Project would have addressed these risks via a combination of active forest management strategies, including logging and prescribed burns, conducted on 53,131 acres out of the total 141,799 acres included in the project.

Ultimately, the Environmental Assessment for the Middleman Project totaled 584 pages and the project took over a year and a half from scoping to assessment to decision. The Forest Service determined the Middleman Project “will not significantly affect the quality of the human environment, nor will it significantly impact any resource areas,” meaning that it did not require preparation of an even lengthier Environmental Impact Statement.

Two years after the project was approved, two anti-forestry groups sued to stop the project, claiming it violated federal law and in particular the National Environmental Policy Act. The litigants focused on the adequacy and detail of the 584-page Environmental Assessment.

According to the Frontier Institute, instead of a lengthy court battle over the adequacy of the environmental analysis, in April 2024 the Forest Service agreed to a settlement in which it made huge concessions to reduce the scale of the Middleman Project, forgoing almost all of the planned timber harvest and temporary road construction. The Forest Service even agreed to pay a bonus of $39,000 of taxpayer dollars to the anti-forestry groups to cover attorney fees!

Just as the Forest Service warned, the area was ripe for wildfire. To date the Horse Gulch Fire has burned almost 15,000 acres, threatening nearby communities and tragically claiming the life of a firefighter. To date, the wildfire has cost an estimated $6 million to contain.

Horse Gulch Fire

In celebrating the settlement, one of the anti-forestry litigants proclaimed, “We can now be happy that grizzly, elk and lynx habitat will not be sacrificed to subsidize the timber industry in the Big Belt Mountains northeast of Helena.”

As the Horse Gulch Fire continues to burn, it’s unclear how much grizzly, elk and lynx habitat has been sacrificed in a wildfire that possibly could have been prevented through active forest management.

Some Ideas for Managed Fire (WildFire With Benefits): Nadine Bailey

We have some folks at TSW of these varying positions.

(1) No managed fire

(2) Some managed fire if…

(3) Current approach is fine, no changes needed.

There’s much possible territory to discuss in (2). There’s my idea.. to do a stand-down of plan revisions and OG amendments until wildfire amendments are completed for all wildfire-prone NFs.  The wildfire amendments would have an EIS, development and maintenance of PODs and fuelbreaks, conditions for managed fire,  areas delineated for prescribed fires,  and coordination with communities’ efforts, plus public involvement.

What other ideas are out there? Nadine Bailey has some in her comments on the NW Forest Plan on Canva.  She explains her views and experiences very clearly and she has great photos.

 

areas, so that we can work on the communities and areas that are at the highest risk.

The other thing that strikes me is that the NWFP amendment process is going forward without a formal and open lessons learned of what might have gone better with the NWFP.  Of course, JWT never meant that to happen, as we see in Nadine’s slide above,  and he was a knowledgeable and well-meaning individual.  So why did have bad things to wildlife and watersheds and people apparently resulted?   Was that actually from the NWFP or from other causes?

What worked well and what didn’t? And, as I’ve said before, why do we have lessons learned for a GS-5 who rolls a four-wheeler, but not for the massively disruptive policy interventions?  It’s almost as if the greater the impact to the public, the less we think any kind of improvement is important.  Are we afraid to question powerful people? Trust in government= accountability plus transparency plus access.  Whoops, sorry about the soapbox.

Back to “what do you think of Nadine’s ideas?”  Do you have other ideas?

 

Pintler Face Project: Why Wait Three Years to Litigate?

Going through the Fix Our Forests litigation tweaks (which hopefully someone understands better than I), I was reminded of another Nick Smith story about the Pintler Face Project on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge. I did see a time limit for filing in Fix our Forests, which seems like a good idea, especially when we look at this case.

According to AFRC,

Almost three years after the Pintler Face Project’s approval, and after nearly half of the commercial timber harvest had been completed, anti-forestry groups filed a complaint alleging that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Three months later, just as commercial harvest was about to resume, anti-forestry groups filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to halt all project activities, alleging irreparable harm under their NEPA and ESA claims.

On June 25, Judge Christensen held a hearing on the preliminary injunction, with strong support for the Forest Service, AFRC, and Defendant-Intervenors, evidenced by over 30 supporters present in the courtroom. This community support underscores the importance of projects like Pintler Face, which benefit forest health and the rural communities relying on a steady source of timber from federal lands.

In his decision, Judge Christensen ruled that the commercial harvest component of the project, encompassing 3,934 acres, can proceed. However, the non-commercial work, covering 7,765 acres, is enjoined until the court decides the case’s merits. Operations, which were suspended in May, can now resume on July 16 following the spring bear season’s close.

The Pintler Face Project includes four timber sales, all timber salvage contracts aimed at removing dead and dying trees from pine beetle infestations. One sale is complete, two are approximately 25 to 30 percent complete, and the last is set to begin in November.

Anti-forestry challenged the project based on a remapping of lynx habitat by the Forest Service in 2020, which reduced habitat without a NEPA analysis. They also contested the adequacy of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Biological Opinion (BiOp) for the project concerning the grizzly bear.

During the hearing, the federal attorneys argued for the dismissal of anti-forestry groups’ claims on the 2020 remapping due to their failure to raise concerns during the project’s objection and public commenting period. The government also argued against the preliminary injunction, highlighting the groups’ nearly three-year delay after the project’s approval in 2021 to file their motion.

In denying the injunction, Judge Christensen recognized that enjoining the project’s commercial activities would harm the local, timber-dependent communities, noting the significant economic investments made and the many jobs provided by Iron Pine and Sun Mountain. The judge highlighted the salvage nature of the commercial work: “Because dead and dying timber loses its commercial value rapidly, even a short-term injunction would jeopardize the local economy.

Here’s a link to the project site. It has a 367 page EA, an 84 page Decision Notice, and the Decision Notice was signed on 9/09/21. To me, the timing of half-way through the completion of the project seems odd.  I wonder why the plaintiffs chose that timeframe.

The story says plaintiffs “challenged the project based on a remapping of lynx habitat by the Forest Service in 2020, which reduced habitat without a NEPA analysis.” Not to sound too Ohio Forestry-esque, but mapping without specific projects doesn’t actually reduce habitat.  And that was done in 2020 before the decision was made, so they could have commented or objected.  There must be more here than meets the eye. Plus the trees involved are dead or dying.   Guess who the plaintiffs are?  AWR, Native Ecosystems Council and a group called Yellowstone to Uintas. Y to U advocates for a wildlife corridor, from Yellowstone to the Uinta Mountains in Utah. Now I’m not the greatest at Montana geography, but the site of the Pinteler project doesn’t seem anywhere near the corridor that Y to U’s are proposing.

Anyway, back to the discussion we had here.  There is something different about Montana (or R-1) and I think it’s due to the presence of certain litigation-oriented groups.  And I don’t think the FS or BLM proposing only projects supported by AWR is a good solution.

CASPO Benefits From Rx Fire

Yet another interesting link from Nick Smith…. This is from Audubon. This has been said many times here on TSW: Yes, Rx fire burns up accumulated fuels, but you can’t have an Rx fire with high fuel loads — see below. Trigger warning <grin>: mentions managed wildfire.

Fire Is a Major Threat to California Spotted Owls—but Could it Also Help Save Them?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could soon give the subspecies protection under the Endangered Species Act, and is calling for more beneficial fire to help the birds rebound.

Excerpt:

Wildfire is nothing new in California. In recent years, though, the blazes have taken on increased severity and reshaped the landscape. As more of their home turf transforms, California Spotted Owls—dark-eyed, mottled-brown raptors living in the state’s central and southern forests—have been feeling that heat: Destructive megafires burned more of their habitat in 2020 and 2021 alone than in the previous 35 years. Experts say these growing disasters represent the most urgent threat to the birds.

Recognizing this mounting menace—along with other, intertwined hazards such as climate change and drought—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last year announced plans to give the birds Endangered Species Act protections.

Yet the California Spotted Owl’s best hope, counterintuitively, may also lie in fire. Research increasingly suggests that lower-severity burning—which burns up accumulated fuels but can leave many larger trees intact—not only inoculates many drier forests against destructive megafires, but also creates the mosaic of habitat types that the birds gravitate toward. “It really depends on how it burns,” says Gavin Jones, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife ecologist. “In general, these owls like fire.”

….

The USFWS listing decision “recommends more thinning of the owl’s forests. Though critics contend thinning sometimes offers timber companies a pretext for cutting big trees, research shows that clearing dense brush and selectively logging, when combined with intentional fire, can create the patchwork structure that benefits owls while also reducing fire severity.” [emphasis mine]