Sac Bee Editorial: “Rogue environmentalists put Californians in harm’s way by blocking forest thinning projects”

Excerpt from an editorial by The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board:

Century-old forest management practices by the Forest Service, Cal Fire and the logging industry have led to intense standoffs in recent decades among environmentalists, scientists and fire experts who believe we have managed our forests under a profit motive, not resiliency.

They are not necessarily wrong. As The Bee’s Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler noted in a recent story about this conflict, “much of the sturdy old-growth was cut down, and what grew back in its place were dense stands of small trees and brush,” they wrote. “The stage was set for an era of catastrophic fires like the sorts California is experiencing every summer.”

In addition to fighting fires instead of controlling them, the Forest Service allowed logging companies to decimate California forests for much of the 20th century, with little concern about the ecological harm they were causing. This gave environmentalists all the ammunition they needed to question the motives of an agency that oversees millions of acres of California forestland.

But now is the time for the environmental left to stand down. California’s forests are in terrible shape after decades of unchecked commercial logging and aggressive fire suppression. Conditions have only gotten worse as climate change dries our forests and reduces rainfall, aiding recent record-breaking megafires that threaten populated areas and wipe out entire habitats.

By weaponizing federal protections — such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act — to obstruct or outright kill various wildfire prevention projects, environmentalists imperil the very ecosystems they wish to protect.

Organizations like the John Muir Project, Conservation Congress and other allied groups have been accused by leading experts of spreading “agenda-driven science” that promotes specific unsupported narratives and avoids data to back up their litigious claims. At least 111 scientists have co-authored at least 41 scientific papers to rebut their dubious methods, The Bee reported, an extraordinary sign of how problematic these groups have become. Some of their disputed claims have caused the courts to delay important fire prevention projects.

 

The Western Housing Crisis and WUI Development

A small community of campers outside on Cortez, Colorado in October, 2021. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

 

 

 

Populations in many western states are increasing dramatically, putting pressure on communities to develop housing. What kind and where? And will it be in the WUI? What I like about this issue is that there are no predetermined good guys and bad guys and not much in the way of partisan vitriol (if any). Shout out to the Colorado Sun for their coverage.

Here’s an example from Billings, MT.

Here’s one from  Silverton, CO in the Colorado Sun:

Local officials are developing an attainable housing project, but for now workers have been pushed toward RVs, cars and other more desperate living situations, as a housing crunch that began years ago snowballed when urban dwellers moved to more remote locations during the pandemic.

DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, is candid about how some residents are living.

“It’s glorified homelessness, let’s be honest,” she said.

Clark Anderson, executive director of Community Builders, a nonprofit helping Silverton develop a master plan, said the town and other parts of Colorado have a workforce housing market competing directly with that for high-end luxury homes. Prices overall have shot up in part due to short-term rentals, like through VRBO. Developers tend to cater to the affluent because they have investors or are trying to make a profit, he said.

“You don’t find that many developers that are going to say, ‘You know, I know that houses are selling for $1 million here but I want to really focus on building $400,000 homes,’” Anderson said.

The trend has been building for years, as communities across the West have failed to keep pace with housing demand, after overbuilding in the past.

Harper, whose family owns the Grand Imperial Hotel and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, understands why there’s so much demand for housing.

“We live and work in a postcard and we’re blessed — those select few of us that get to live here,” he said.

This Colorado Sun piece focuses on some policy solutions to the short-term rental market in mountain towns in Colorado.

And another Colorado Sun piece that focuses on Durango, Colorado.

Another 50 miles to the west, Reece Blincoe holed up in an RV with his 60-pound bernedoodle, Bernie, for three weeks because he couldn’t find housing before he started work as superintendent of schools in Dolores. He shuttled back and forth to a storage trailer where he kept clothes that wouldn’t fit in the RV.

“When your superintendent comes to town and has to live in an RV for three weeks, that kind of shows you what we’re dealing with here,” said Blincoe, who eventually found housing with the help of a school board member.

Lack of housing has reached a crisis point in parts of southwest Colorado, where a shortage of places to buy or rent affordably is keeping critical businesses and organizations from hiring and retaining workers. Some residents have resorted to living in cars or on campgrounds, and local officials fear middle-income earners will be priced out of the housing market.

Now the idea that people move from somewhere else, and boost prices so that residents can no longer afford to rent, and are priced out of buying, is nothing new to many places in the West. In fact, here’s a 2018 story about Californians moving to the NW and arousing local ire.  Remember,  in 1971, Governor Tom McCall invited tourists to visit Oregon, but then added “but for heaven’s sake don’t stay. ” And here we are, fifty years later.

Now, however, there seems to be a tension between “people shouldn’t be moving there because it’s a fire-prone landscape” and the fact that people are moving to the west because.. it’s a nice place to live, and amenity migrants particularly like being near federal lands (who wouldn’t?). The solution proposed by some is to densify western cities.

Building more dense housing units in the core of Billings, for example, could provide numerous opportunities for the community, she said, bringing more people into the heart of downtown, revitalizing the area and driving economic growth while appealing to younger workers seeking a more livable and walkable community. One focus for BSED is looking into the expansion of mixed-use properties with small businesses or retail at street level and apartments above.

“I wouldn’t say there’s any area that wouldn’t be ideal for developments,” Lehm said. “I would think we’re going to see more housing choices for downtown.”

Lehm also pointed to more innovative ways of addressing housing shortages than single-family home expansion in the suburbs. Land trusts, housing co-ops and redevelopment of downtown could all be parts of the solution. Several of those methods are being explored through small-scale programs in other Montana cities. Both Kalispell and Red Lodge have begun land trust programs to develop affordable housing.

It seems to me that there are several things about single-family homes that have made them attractive to people, ownership (not dealing with landlord-related issues; not worrying about rent going up and having to move, and so on) and space (for children, dogs, gardens, etc.). Home ownership, as Jennifer Hernandez pointed out in her piece Green Jim Crow about California, has also been the major source of wealth accumulation for people at the lower end of the economic ladder.

“about 54 percent of all renters in California, housing costs exceed 30 percent of household income, the traditional definition of housing affordability.[9]Nearly 70 percent of all state households with unaffordable housing costs consist of people of color.

Racial inequality is exponentially magnified by housing. Housing equity makes up nearly 60 percent of the total net worth of minority homeowners compared with 43 percent of White homeowner wealth.[10]Black, Latino, and other historically disadvantaged groups rely on mortgage payments to build wealth through homeownership while also paying for necessary housing; there is little to no excess cash available to buy stocks, bonds, and other assets.

So I think that having affordable single family homes is important in terms of social justice, even if the development of such housing occurs on formerly wild or agricultural land.  I don’t think people think about “WUI development” necessarily in terms of affordable home ownership, but in many places it is.

$10 Billion in Which WUI?: Reading Comprehension Check

This is the 2010 map (published in 2015) of the area around Crestone, CO from the website posted yesterday.

Speaking with folks in DC last week, it sounds as if we don’t know a) if forest provisions will end up in the bill or b) which ones those are. But given that context, I’d still like to understand what they intend (ed?). But I don’t know that for sure.. perhaps someone out there has more updated information?

A simple reading of the bill as posted here takes this paragraph:

“$10,000,000,000 for hazardous fuels reduction projects within the wildland-urban interface;”

and this definition of WUI

(10) WILDLAND-URBAN INTERFACE.—The term ‘‘wildland-urban interface’’— 22 (A) in the case of the lower 48 States,
23 means the areas mapped as the wildland-urban 24 interface in the document entitled ‘‘The Wildland-Urban Interface of the Conterminous
United States’’, and published by the Department of Agriculture in 2015; and
3 (B) in the case of the States of Alaska and
4 Hawaii, has the meaning given the term in section 101 of the Healthy Forests Restoration 6 Act of 2003 (16 U.S.C. 6511).

So given the maps and the definitions from the 2010 mapping (published in 2015 with 2010 data) that we looked at yesterday that shows, and defines WUI, as already having houses… I wonder whether there is any NFS land in the 2010 mapped WUI to be treated?

If you’re in Alaska or Hawaii, though, apparently you get to use the HFRA definition, with which many of us are familiar (and may be the first thing that comes to mind when someone says WUI, especially related to fire).

A community gets to designate it via a CWPP (community wildfire protection plan) or otherwise it’s this default:

HFRA has a default definition of WUI (Section 101(16)(B (ii)). It is an area:

Extending 1/2 mile from the boundary of an at-risk community.
OR

Extending 1 1/2 miles from the boundary when other criteria are met—for example, a sustained steep slope, a geographic feature that could help when creating an effective firebreak, or Condition Class 3 land.
OR

Adjacent to an evacuation route. There is no distance limitation for evacuation routes.

Fortunately it appears that the at-risk community definition is the same.
“AT-RISK COMMUNITY.—The term ‘‘at-risk 6 community’’ has the meaning given the term in section 101 of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of
8 2003 (16 U.S.C. 6511).”

So for the lower 48, clearly it was intentional to use the 2010 maps instead, but the maps may not (are likely not to?) have any FS land on them. Was this intentional, or am I misunderstanding it?

WUI Definitions and Maps From the Forest Service Northern Research Station

WUI map from Silvis Lab at U W Madison.. you can check out your own area. This is west of Denver.
When we explore new ideas and abstractions, it’s best to start with a definition. The first and currently ongoing (updating with 2020 data as we speak) is this group at the Northern Research Station and cooperators. It should be noted that residential and other development has a host of other impacts, but this mapping is specifically designed to inform fire policy. As we noted last week, at one time the Reconciliation Bill had this map as the delineation for FS funding (that is, the 2010 mapping published in 2015) 10 billion-wise and the Sec would have to say they’d completed all those projects before the FS could use the $4 bill outside those boundaries.

The Wildland-Urban Interface Defined
Although the idea of a wildland-urban interface is easily understood and the term widely used, a specific definition is needed to determine where it occurs and map its location. The definition we use here, as in earlier map projects, is designed to inform fire policy and management. It is based on a report prepared for the Council of Western State Foresters on WUI fire risk (Teie and Weatherford 2000) and was later published in the Federal Register. The WUI is composed of both interface and intermix communities. The distinction between these is based on the characteristics and distribution of houses and wildland vegetation across the landscape. Intermix WUI refers to areas where housing and wildland vegetation intermingle, while interface WUI refers to areas where housing is in the vicinity of a large area of dense wildland vegetation.
For more detail, see Box 1.

Box 1.—Definition of WUI and non-WUI land-use classes.
WUI Definition
Intermix Areas with ≥6.18 houses per km2 and ≥50 percent cover of wildland vegetation
Interface Areas with ≥6.18 houses per km2 and <50 percent cover of vegetation located <2.4 km of an area ≥5 km2 in size that is ≥75 percent vegetated Non-WUI, Vegetated No housing Areas with ≥50 percent cover of wildland vegetation and no houses (e.g., protected areas, steep slopes, mountain tops) Very low housing density Areas with ≥50 percent cover of wildland vegetation and <6.18 houses per km2 (e.g., dispersed rural housing outside neighborhoods) Non-Vegetated or Agriculture Low and very low housing Areas with <50 percent cover of wildland vegetation and density <49.42 houses per km2 (e.g., agricultural lands and pasturelands) Medium and high housing Areas with <50 percent cover of wildland vegetation and ≥49.42 houses density per km2 (e.g., urban and suburban areas, which may have vegetation, but not dense vegetation)

What you might notice is that WUI on these maps can be adjacent to grazing lands or agricultural lands. Which doesn’t seem to fit the definition above, so this is more complicated than it might appear. Certainly acres of WUI next to corn fields or a grassy pasture have different fire characteristics than, say, a ponderosa forest.

This 2007 paper by Stewart et al. has a literature review and some history on the WUI concept.

Throughout its evolution, the WUI definition always includes three components: human presence, wildland vegetation, and a distance that represents the potential for effects (e.g., wildland fire and human activity) to extend beyond boundaries and impact neighboring lands. Beyond these three components, most WUI discussions are imprecise regarding what is or is not included. For example, human presence has been defined by housing density, population density, number of houses, or configuration of housing developments and neighborhood characteristics. Wildland vegetation is always mentioned, but the density, extent, and type of vegetation that makes some vegetation “wildland vegetation” is not well defined. The distance that the WUI extends into wildlands or into a housing development has been described in many different ways, including the distance a golf ball will fly off the porch or the distance from which flames or firebrands can reach a structure (Summerfelt 2003), but specific distances are rarely given.

It’s interesting to look at your neighborhood and compare the 1990 and 2010 maps. Observations?

Managing Forests for the Broadest Community of Nature and People: Toner Mitchell op-ed on the Santa Fe

Toner Mitchell of Trout Unlimited wrote this op-ed about the Santa Fe issues…he posted it as a comment but I thought it deserved its own thread because it represents the fish perspective (we don’t seem to hear from those folks as often as vegetation and wildlife folks) as well as a broader vision.

It also troubles me that the cutthroat’s life cycle overlaps significantly with the owl’s, their young being born and reared in the late spring and early summer. Historically, that’s when fires spawn as well, only these once-normal fires are now turbocharged by the combination of climate change and past mistakes.

Anyone who’s observed the aftermath of Las Conchas and Whitewater Baldy knows how high-severity fire cripples trout streams. Even without fire, streams are warming quickly. With fire, we see denuded riparian zones, springs gouged out by floods, aquatic insects buried by silt and ash. In many cases, these impacts are for keeps, rendering streams incapable of supporting the organisms that once lived there.

 

These problems on our landscape are becoming too profound to be laid solely at the feet of our scapegoats, be they “vindictive,” “cynical” or otherwise. We all bear responsibility for how these problems came to be. We are equally on task for how they should be fixed. Our forests aren’t as resilient as they once were. We must manage our forests for the broadest community of nature and people, for owls and trout, for grass to be grazed and firewood to heat our homes.

Precision and proper scaling must govern all of our forest management practices, not only our actions toward the land but toward each other. And no, we shouldn’t let high-severity fire just happen. It may have its ecological place, but so does the judicious application of thinning and prescribed fire.

He also said in a comment:

Left out of this discussion is the active forest treatment being conducted by New Mexico tribes. The Pueblo of Tesuque is a participating stakeholder in the Santa Fe project. Indeed they collaborated with USFS on the Pacheco Canyon treatment that contributed positively to bringing last summer’s Rio En Medio fire to the ground. It was a beautiful treatment, leaving plenty of logs on the ground, standing snags, lots of horizontal and vertical heterogeneity. Just this past weekend, I saw smoke from a burn on Picuris Pueblo land. Taos Pueblo is doing it too, and all of the pueblos are working in partnership with land management agencies. The Santa Clara Pueblo is still cleaning up after the Las Conchas fire devastated their watershed, previously a significant source of tribal revenue from recreational fishing. It’s notable that cooperation from tribes never enters the conversation. Acknowledging tribal support could raise the issue that in spite of our very public claims that we respect tribal sovereignty (and historic use of fire as a tool to promote land health), we might actually dishonor it if we choose the wrong path.

 

It would be interesting to have the conversation directly about what are the characteristics of judiciousness that different folks in Santa Fe support?  We did try that a while back and you can see a good discussion among many of us with Sarah Hayden here.

 

Santa Fe Mountains Project: Opposing Views

There is an interesting tussle over the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project, on the Santa Fe National Forest. Over the next 10-15 years, the forest says “The project will use prescribed fire as the main tool to restore resiliency to these frequent-fire forests, with small-tree thinning as needed to allow fire to play its natural role in the ecosystem.”

Recently, a group called The Forest Advocate distributed an 8-page flier to the residents of Santa Fe. The group is opposed to the project — “Thinning projects such as the two large-scale projects proposed for the Santa Fe National Forest are highly impactful and damaging to the forest ecosystem.” The other project is the Encino Vista Landscape Restoration Project. The group calls on the forest to produce an EIS for the Santa Fe Mountains project, rather than the EA it recently published.

On Oct. 16, in a letter in a Santa Fe newspaper, two at the University of Arizona professors, Matthew Hurteau and Thomas W. Swetnam, disagreed with the group’s position, writing that “Restoring frequent, low-severity fire, like those accomplished with prescribed burning, is supported by the extensive body of scientific research on this topic.”

FWIW, the Forest Advocate invited Dominick DellaSala to speak via a webinar on the project. DellaSala stated that the Santa Fe NF is “going down a path that could lead to ecological crisis.” The video is very long — almost 2 hours — and I didn’t listen to it all. DellaSala mentioned his latest book, “Conservation Science and Advocacy for a Planet in Peril: Speaking Truth to Power.” Chapter 1 is entitled “The Nuts and Bolts of Science-based Advocacy.” Perhaps this book would make for an interesting discussion here on Smokey Wire.

Rethinking the WUI: Burned Homes: Are Dwellers Victims of Climate Change or Locational Sinners?

Animated gif of the Waldo Canyon Fire Perimeter Growing

I find the abstraction of WUI enormously unhelpful to many of our discussions. Especially as sometimes conveyed not that long ago.. “the wildfire problem is due to people building in the WUI.”  Then you see fires potentially coming very close to cities; Denver for the Hayman, Colorado Springs for Waldo Canyon, and then South Lake Tahoe, and actually in to Santa Rosa. Clearly people already live in the WUI. While new requirements for development would be helpful, we have to work with what we already have.

When someone write “WUI” some people are thinking (say, Colorado) McMansions in Aspen, and others mountain development with commuters to Denver, others a summer cabin near Gunnison, and others a trailer park near Florence. In no way are all those the same kind of thing, and yet, we talk about the WUI often as if it is.

These distinctions were brought to a head in my thinking by two pieces, one in High Country News and one in Harper’s.

This High Country News story’s tagline is “wildfires often hit low-income, minority communities the hardest. ”  This makes sense in the narrative “climate change hurts minorities and underserved communities the worst; wildfires are due to climate change: ergo wildfires must hurt minorities and underserved the most.”

However, there is a competing narrative “WUI people deserve what they get.” This was a view before the climate change narrative took hold. I think the underlying assumption here is that WUI landowners are not poor or minorities, and that they could choose to live somewhere else, and if they did wildfires wouldn’t be as much of a problem. Of course, in many WUI communities we can look around and see that many don’t look all that well-off. Many are in subdivisions that are cheaper due to being farther out. WUI is not equal to well-off, in many cases rather the opposite. This Brookings study talks about poverty in red and blue districts, which doesn’t tease out the WUI, but it fairly interesting.

This Harpers piece is pretty hyperbolic, and perhaps an extreme example of this view.

In other words, we as a nation pay ever-mounting bills to save a comparative handful of houses owned by people who against all sane advice choose to build in the path of catastrophe. Between 1990 and 2010, a period when we should have already known better, 2 million new homes were built in the interface. These homes don’t always appear to be on the edge of the wilderness. The entirety of Seeley Lake, a town with more than 1,700 permanent residents, is located in the WUI: the main drag with its tourist trade, the sawmill at the edge of town with its 130 workers, the cabins, trailers, frame houses, the high school, Cory’s Market, the American Legion hall, and Pop’s café.

In Manning’s view, entire towns can actually be “in” the WUI. See how confusing this is?

Such policies, however, are toxic in the current political climate of the West. One can identify a conservative here simply by mentioning wildfire and waiting for the inevitable argument: “The Forest Service needs to put these fires out.” And the Forest Service does just that, as it has done for decades. (The agency, along with other federal entities and state and local crews, extinguishes about 90 percent of the many thousands of fires that occur each year on what is called initial attack, an all-out lights-and-sirens response the moment a fire is reported.) The conservatives who populate the canyons, gulches, and dead-end roads at the fringes of Western valleys are quick to put aside their customary laments about government overreach when it comes to spending billions to protect their own redoubts.

This seems kind of silly (living in the WUI=conservative) in “the West”. It’s… Montana. If that.

This might seem harsh in light of the example of California. Last year, nine thousand structures burned in the fires around Santa Rosa, and more than a thousand around Los Angeles. These were unprecedented numbers, and most of the victims committed no sin to merit this level of punishment. Nevertheless, a video clip from Santa Rosa makes a case for severe action. A reporter for NBC is doing a stand-up in front of a charred foundation that was once a home. The scene looks as you might expect, as long as you don’t look at the backdrop: a fringe of still-green trees. This image is common enough if you know what you’re looking for. Fire scientists have collections of such images, the aftermaths of fires that level entire subdivisions but leave the trees standing and green—the flames are hot enough to ignite building materials but not the surrounding flora. These aren’t forest fires; they’re subdivision fires, running house to house, fueled by bad choices in shingles.

About 30 percent of the houses that burned in one of the Santa Rosa fires, the Tubbs fire, were outside the WUI. Not in the woods. In cities. Urban. They were set alight by the burning of houses that were in the interface. Fire scientists speak of “ladder fuels,” which carry fire from one level to the next. In this case, thousands of irresponsibly built homes were the ladder fuel that destroyed houses situated in otherwise safe areas. There’s a rude and satisfying justice in burning down the house of someone who builds in the forest, but allowing his willful ignorance to destroy those of hundreds of more responsible neighbors is a travesty.

Steady on, there Mr. Manning! Sin and punishment.. isn’t that the realm of “conservatives” and their religious allies?
Perhaps we could expand it out of the West to “there’s a rude and satisfying justice in flooding the house of someone who builds along the coast.” But I don’t think that the editors of Harper’s might be as enthusiastic about that observation. Manning’s “justice” concept raised a few eyebrows when his wife, Tracy Stone-Manning, retweeted it last year and said it was a “clarion call.” To what, I am not all that clear.

But what struck me as oddest and most unusual was not that idea. We hear less hype-y (not sin and punishment) versions of that often. It was the concept that WUI people are responsible for fires moving into town. Seems like in some cases that I have noticed, a fire is coming from the forest towards town and is fought in the WUI, decreasing the chance it will get into the city. Thinking Waldo Canyon here (see photo). Maybe others have other experiences?

If we put these two articles together, we get that some people whose houses burn in the WUI are victims of climate change. Others deserve their fate. We’re using the same word to talk about vastly different people in terms of social class, race and ethnicity, cultures, history, and their physical and biological environment. Our first step in Rethinking the WUI will be to parse out some of these differences.

Practice of Science Friday: How Local Politicians May or May Not Influence Number of Projects and Level of Analysis

In the  comments from yesterday, Forrest Fleischmann mentioned this study, and I think it’s worth looking at the study a bit more.

What Forrest said in the comments was:

By contrast, local people living near federal lands in the US have very substantial political rights to express their opinions and participate in decision-making both through formalized processes (e.g. through NEPA and NFMA and associated public comment processes) and a wide variety of informal political processes at multiple levels (e.g. our recent research suggests that local politics has a fairly direct influence on agency decision-making beyond notice and comment procedures – https://academic.oup.com/jpart/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/jopart/muab037/6364117). And local people in the US often exert leadership over decision making on forest lands because unlike in India, in the US individuals, tribes, and local governments own forest land, and also have various opportunities to exert leadership over the management of public land.

 

First, I’ll say that local decisions are not what I was originally talking about. I’m thinking more of national rules like Roadless or Planning. From the discussions in DC around the 2012 Planning Rule, I think local officials didn’t have much of a bite at the apple (although it was too complex for most to follow, probably). Bur originally I was speaking of things like Monument declarations and legislation (such as the potential Reconciliation bill or Wilderness bills) that do not take public comments and do not have EIS’s. These larger scale decisions (like not funding fuel treatments outside WUI) or keeping OHV’s out of newly Monumented areas, may have little local involvement (a trip by the Secretary of the Interior?). Projects can only occur within those larger decisions which seem to be made elsewhere. Like Washington D.C. for example, where issues tend to get scrunched into a partisan framing and often lack local or even regional context.  George Hoberg at University of British Columbia tracked that back to the intentional nationalizing of issues by major ENGO’s around the time of the spotted owl intentionally to counter what was seen to be “pro-timber localism”.

Still, given that the study looks at more local kinds of decisions, let’s look at the abstract:

Research on political control over government bureaucracy has primarily focused on direct exercises of power such as appointments, funding, agency design, and procedural rules. In this analysis, we extend this literature to consider politicians who leverage their institutional standing to influence the decisions of local field officials over whom they have no explicit authority. Using the case of the US Forest Service (USFS), we investigate whether field-level decisions are associated with the political preferences of individual congressional representatives. Our sample encompasses 7,681 resource extraction actions initiated and analyzed by 107 USFS field offices between 2005 and 2018. Using hierarchical Bayesian regression, we show that under periods of economic growth and stability, field offices situated in the districts of congressional representatives who oppose environmental regulation initiate more extractive actions (timber harvest, oil and gas drilling, grazing) and conduct less rigorous environmental reviews than field offices in the districts of representatives who favor environmental regulation. By extending existing theories about interactions between politicians and bureaucrats to consider informal means of influence, this work speaks to (1) the role of local political interests in shaping agency-wide policy outcomes and (2) the importance of considering informal and implicit means of influence that operate in concert with explicit control mechanisms to shape bureaucratic behavior.

I think that this study may suffer from a current trend I’ve noticed in many other studies. The ability to use large datasets leads to conclusions that seem based on correlation without delving into any mechanisms for why the correlation might occur, nor testing different hypotheses about those proposed mechanisms. There’s also the question for such datasets, why is a given scale chosen? Some have argued that academic journals like worldwide conclusions best. Yet mechanisms may be different at different scales, as well as correlations. My old example is an economic one. If you close a mill in Forks, Washington, then that economy is impacted, but the economy of the State is not. So the answer you get depends on the scale you pick.

But let’s take it from the other end. Why do FS workers initiate “extractive” actions (are cattle and sheep really “extractive”?)

Oil and gas leasing and permitting is run by BLM and is leased by them based on a complicated process that we have discussed here, or you can read about on their website. Given that, we’d have to go back to BLM and see whether oil and gas leasing decisions are affected by local representatives. They can be, but that works both ways, to not lease or to lease; and which restrictions go where. This is something that would require further analysis to make a conclusion in my mind, because the BLM and FS can be quite different.

Many grazing leases are in the interior west. The interior west is full of Republicans. Ergo, Republicans want to extract and that’s the reason there are grazing leases. I would say not. Historically, the Interior West (not coastal here, I think that would require further analysis) has been an area with grazing (due to lack of water for food crops) and mining, including, as our minerals friends would say “fluid minerals.” Therefore, there are grazing leases, oil and gas leasing decisions, and mining decisions to be had. For some reasons, which only historians and political scientists can tell us, many local officials are Republicans (perhaps that’s what the authors meant by the coyly worded “congressional representatives who oppose environmental regulation.”) But there are not more grazing leases because there are Republicans.

Timber harvest is a different kettle of fish.  As we can see here at TSW, the dynamics are very different in coastal states than in the Interior west. They’re probably even different in different parts of, say, California. It’s also super confusing as so many projects with timber harvest have a variety of purpose and needs, and the existence of mills and so on. If we just look at the handy Headwaters chart for states and volume of timber produced, we see that two heavily Democratic states have the highest volumes (328K cut California, 402K Oregon). It’s actually pretty interesting to take your State where you might know the Congressfolk involved and look at the forest volume sold. Of course, if we looked at the number of projects with a timber component, it might be different. let’s take fuels treatment projects with a timber component.  For example, there were many bucks (and their own CE) associated with getting fuel treatment done around Lake Tahoe. Did all those bucks come due to Congressman McClintock? I think not.  Indeed,  the number of fuel treatment projects in each Congressional District is likely to be associated with how much money that unit gets passed down to them via the DC-Regional-Forest-District budgeting process.

As to “rigor of analysis” I’d say that all O&G  decisions are likely to get litigated, so they’d all be pretty rigorous. Most grazing decisions are not (where I worked) so that would be a function of the local unit’s NEPA culture. As to vegetation treatments, it might be that the presence of environmental groups who might litigate and local officials of the “support environmental regulation” persuasion are correlated due to the presence of people in the community with those views. But would the FS “depth” of analysis be related to the likelihood of being litigated, or the presence of local officials of a given philosophical persuasion? I don’t know but it could be teased out via experimental design. Or I guess we could ask the people currently working how they decide.

My point is that correlation is not causation. To understand causation, we’d have to talk about specific mechanisms for “informal and implicit” means of influencing decisions. It seems like this is an increasingly common way to do research- take big data, on as large a scale as possible, and correlate. We’ll look at more of these studies in the future.

“Distorting science to further a cause”

This op-ed by Mitch Daniels on the book “Unsettled,” by Steven E. Koonin, is an interesting viewpoint, though not directly related to forest management or planning: “This climate change contrarian gives us an important reminder about science in general.”

We have never expected much truthfulness or integrity from our politicians, whose self-interest in publicity and campaign dollars too often outweighs any scruples about scientific precision. Nonprofit “public interest” groups raise fortunes on forecasts of doom, often on the flimsiest evidence. The modern news media, chasing the dollars that titillating, click-catching headlines bring, have been, if anything, worse than the political class in discussing climate change. [emphasis added] Koonin serves up multiple examples, with descriptions such as “deliberately misleading” and “blatantly misrepresenting.”

The truth’s last line of defense should be the scientific community, but here Koonin indicts those of his fellows who have discarded a commitment to the truth — the whole truth, and nothing but — in favor of their own view of wise policy. “Distorting science to further a cause is inexcusable,” he says, a violation of scientists’ “overriding ethical obligation.”

A few minutes after reading the essay, I came across a Sacramento Been article with a provocative headline, “‘Self-serving garbage.’ Wildfire experts escalate fight over saving California forests.” It’s essentially Chad Hanson vs. scientists who disagree with his messages and methods. I wouldn’t post this if Hanson didn’t get such an unusually large amount of news coverage (such as “As California burns, some ecologists say it’s time to rethink forest management,” in the LA Times on August 21, $).

An excerpt from the Bee article:

In an extraordinary series of articles published in scientific journals, fire scientists are attacking Hanson’s and his allies’ claims that the woods need to be left alone. These scientists say the activists are misleading the public and bogging down vital work needed to protect wildlife, communities and make California’s forests more resilient to wildfire.

“I and my colleagues are getting really tired of the type of activism that pretends to be science and in fact is just self-serving garbage,” said Crystal Kolden, a professor of wildfire science at UC Merced and co-author of a journal article that rebutted Hanson’s arguments. “If a lot of these environmental groups continue to stand by these antiquated and really counterproductive viewpoints, all we’re going to see is more catastrophic wildfire that destroys the very forests that they pretend to love.”

Hanson’s “counterproductive viewpoints” also have been presented in testimony in Congress, before the House Agriculture Committee last year in September, in a hearing on “The 2020 Wildfire Year: Response And Recovery Efforts.” In written testimony, Hanson and a colleague wrote that:

Vegetation is not driving wildfires: our forests aren’t overstocked. Contrary to the statements made at the hearing, a century of fire suppression has not exacerbated fire risk or intensity in our forests. Our forests are not ‘‘overgrown’’.

Our forests aren’t overstocked? Well, all of our forests, but certainly far too many are overstocked. I reckon few foresters, wildfire managers, or scientists would agree with Hanson.

So why does Hanson continue to be a media darling? Daniels’ line serves here: “The modern news media, chasing the dollars that titillating, click-catching headlines….

Conservation works better when local communities lead it, new evidence shows

I received a link to this article just about the same time I was hearing about the re-Monumentization effort and the language of the Reconciliation bill.  Another Biden Administration claim, for example,  here “promise that they would summon “science and truth” to combat the coronavirus pandemic, climate crisis and other challenges.” And that raises the question of course “what specific scientific studies support this claim?” and “who determines what is truth?” What’s the role of “science” compared to other views and interests?

Here’s a link to a Conversation article.

And here’s the abstract.

Debate about what proportion of the Earth to protect often overshadows the question of how nature should be conserved and by whom. We present a systematic review and narrative synthesis of 169 publications investigating how different forms of governance influence conservation outcomes, paying particular attention to the role played by Indigenous peoples and local communities. We find a stark contrast between the outcomes produced by externally controlled conservation, and those produced by locally controlled efforts. Crucially, most studies presenting positive outcomes for both well-being and conservation come from cases where Indigenous peoples and local communities play a central role, such as when they have substantial influence over decision making or when local institutions regulating tenure form a recognized part of governance. In contrast, when interventions are controlled by external organizations and involve strategies to change local practices and supersede customary institutions, they tend to result in relatively ineffective conservation at the same time as producing negative social outcomes. Our findings suggest that equitable conservation, which empowers and supports the environmental stewardship of Indigenous peoples and local communities represents the primary pathway to effective long-term conservation of biodiversity, particularly when upheld in wider law and policy. Whether for protected areas in biodiversity hotspots or restoration of highly modified ecosystems, whether involving highly traditional or diverse and dynamic local communities, conservation can become more effective through an increased focus on governance type and quality, and fostering solutions that reinforce the role, capacity, and rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities. We detail how to enact progressive governance transitions through recommendations for conservation policy, with immediate relevance for how to achieve the next decade’s conservation targets under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Now there’s at least two interesting things about this paper. It uses “Indigenous and local communities” as a unit. Here within the US, there seems to be great interest in empowering Indigenous communities (at least as long as they agree with certain interests) but perhaps, not so much, local communities. If a community doesn’t want, say, wind turbines, they may be called NIMBY’s. If they do want to produce wood products, they are not in the pockets of extractive interests. And I know that people in local communities disagree among themselves, as do Native Americans. And who wins is ultimately a political/privilege question. Still, I think this would argue for some kind of process that involves all these affected parties directly and transparently.

In the paper, conservation is a bigger idea than what we might think of conservation.. it’s kind of “everything good.”

This review builds on the idea that beyond its environmental objectives, conservation serves to support the rights and well-being of IPLCs. We wish to explore not only the social outcomes of conservation, but also the social inputs, including values, practices, and actions (specifically of IPLCs) that may shape the social and ecological outcomes of conservation. In so doing, we adopt a definition of well-being that is holistic and adaptable to different contexts, encompassing not only material livelihood resources such as income and assets but also health and security as well as subjective social, cultural, psychological, political, and institutional factors (Gough and McGregor 2007). All of the latter elements are increasingly considered as potential social impacts of conservation (Breslow et al. 2016).

(my bold)

It strikes me in focusing on local-led efforts, the Biden Admin 30×30 is following along with these concepts (perhaps “the science”). On the other hand, there appear to be political forces at work to assuage interests who feel quite differently about local processes and involvement (not sure what degree of Tribes), as per re-Monumentization and the Reconciliation bill. It will be interesting to watch how the Administration navigates these tensions through time.