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.

Do NFMA Timber Analysis Requirements and Terminology Get In the Way of Public Understanding and Support?

FS planning photo 1989.

Jon linked to this news article that mentioned the Commissioners’ letter about the GMUG plan revision.  As Andy Stahl has pointed out, NFMA was very timber focused (1976 is almost 50 years ago?) and to follow the law, perhaps the FS is stuck with out-of-date terms that are fairly arcane to most of us on a daily basis. But what if you’re a stakeholder who only interacts with these terms every thirty years during the NFMA planning cycle?  I wonder if there would be a way to simplify all this within the law.  Because if we are trying to change the pace and scale of restoration/fuel treatments and commercial harvest is nested within that,  the old ways and talk and the new ways may not fit -and indeed lead to more confusion and perhaps unnecessary bad feelings.

For example,  here’s what the Commissioners had to say about timber in the draft plan :

3. “A significant increase in suitable timber, which is a designation that interferes with consideration of responsible management of the forests that allow uses other than timber production” (my bold) .

I’m thinking here that the Commissioners simply don’t understand the suitable timber designation. Most of us can’t tell, when we’re recreating on the National Forests, or doing an APD, or applying for an easement, whether the map shows we’re in the suitable timber base or not.  It’s hard to imagine in practice how that could be.  In fact, we might be influenced in our uses by an actual timber sale (that is, staying out while equipment is working; looking out for log trucks on the road) but not by land being in a suitable timber base.

Conveniently, the GMUG clarified what the “timber-y” terms meant in this FAQ document .

Why does timber have a suitability decision?
No other resources seem to have this.
• The 2012 planning rule implements the National Forest Management Act and is used to write a forest plan. Both require the identification of lands suitable for timber production and the 2012
planning rule directs this process.
• Aside from coal suitability decisions required for forests with coal production, timber suitability is the only required suitability decision.
• Other resources are mapped and allocated, such as recreation and scenery, even though they are not specifically allocated as “suitable”.

Does the increase in lands suitable for timber production mean that other resources “lose” those corresponding acres?
• Lands suitable for timber production do not exclude other uses or resources. It does not mean that the area’s primary purpose is timber production. Production areas remain valuable wildlife habitat, popular recreation destinations, healthy watersheds and more.

Why do the acres of lands suitable for timber production increase between the former plan (1991) and the draft alternatives?
• The primary reason for the increase in acreage is the current policy does not require the exclusion of areas that may be uneconomical to harvest. (I asked the Forest and they said the new policy was the 2012 Planning Rule directives).
• Some of the area proposed as suitable for timber production likely will not be viable for commercial harvest, whether due to distance from existing roads, steep slopes, smaller diameter trees or dead stands. The economics and site particulars need to come together to make a viable and sustainable commercial timber sale. But we are unable to project where those will and won’t align, so the current approach is inclusive.
• Each future timber sale is analyzed in subsequent NEPA, and subject to public review.
• Commercial timber harvest is also allowed outside of lands suitable for timber production. Timber harvest in these cases may be for fuel reduction risk, wildlife habitat improvement, safety, salvage, disease or insect sanitation, or other reasons.

*******************************

So what happens is:

(1) NFMA requires timber analysis perhaps currently of dubious value.

Forests do it.  Then they’re accused of focusing excessively on timber, despite all the other analysis that’s done.

and/or

(2) Forests will be asked to do more landscape scale restoration/fuel treatments.  But they don’t know how much of that will be commercial, either what we currently call commercial or what might be commercial in the future. I think the point of the analysis, and others more knowledgeable about the history can help me out, was to keep the forest from cutting too much .. so there were concepts like sustained yield and non-declining even flow and so on.  How relevant are these concepts and calculations today?

Since these future projects are wholly dependent on a) unknown future budgets and b) unknown economic factors, as well as c) unknown opportunities to/desire to salvage, what should a forest put under “timber volume” ? Here’s the GMUG explanation for the numbers in their plan.

Why does timber volume seem to be increasing in the draft forest plan?
• Current production is 60,000 CCF annually. The draft plan proposes as much as 55,000 CCF annually, so the plan would not increase production.
• Timber production on the GMUG has been higher the last few years, reaching over 90,000 CCF per year in 2018 and 2019. We’ve salvage-harvested more due to the spruce-beetle epidemic and lodgepole pine mortality. Timber production in 2020 was 75,000 CCF, and is anticipated to be 60,000 CCF in 2021.
• Harvest is expected to drop over time to approximately 30,000 CCF to 55,000 CCF due to the decline in salvage harvest.
• Because of the emphasis in alternatives B and C to do active vegetation management and more fuels reduction, those alternatives used the higher projection of 55,000 CCF. The other alternatives suggest approximately 30,000 CCF to showcase the lower end of the range in what we might produce.

********************************

USGS NSO Studies

The USGS has a page describing 3 studies of the northern spotted owl. Excerpts:

Study #1: Franklin and his colleagues found that northern spotted owl populations have experienced significant yearly declines, translating to a 65-85% population decrease on many of the study areas between 1995 and 2017. Barred owl presence on northern spotted owl territories was the primary factor negatively affecting apparent survival, recruitment, and ultimately, rates of population change. Without removal or reduction of barred owl populations, it’s likely northern spotted owls will become locally extinct from portions of their range. The species would possibly linger on as small populations in other areas until those populations are eliminated by catastrophic events, such as wildfire, resulting in its extinction.

Study #2: Using data collected from 4,118 northern spotted owls in Oregon and Washington from 1990 to 2017, the researchers found the percent of northern spotted owls dispersing from their territories each year has increased by more than 17% in recent times. The increases coincided with a rapid increase in numbers of invasive barred owls as they quickly colonized Pacific Northwest forests and displaced northern spotted owls from their preferred breeding sites.

Study #3: Removal of barred owls had a strong, positive effect on the survival of northern spotted owls, stopping their long-term population declines. After removals, northern spotted owl population declines stabilized in areas with removals but continued to decrease sharply in areas without removals. “The results of the study showed that long-term survival of northern spotted owls will depend heavily on reducing the negative impacts of barred owls while simultaneously addressing other threats such as habitat loss,” added Wiens.

Nothing all that surprising here. I’d like to see a region-wide study of the effects of wildfire on NSO and barred owls. One might surmise that, with millions of acres of post-fire habitat, barred owls will be at a further advantage.

 

Promoting Unity in Biden Administration Policies: Alternatives to Monument Proclamations

President Biden said in his inauguration speech:

History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity.

We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors.

We can treat each other with dignity and respect.

We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.

For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.

No progress, only exhausting outrage.

No nation, only a state of chaos.

This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.

OF course, the more cynical among us will say “beautiful words but the President has no choice but to hire people he owes- political operatives- to carry out his policies, and they have made no such pledge.” In fact, I’m not sure that those operatives have the skills or patience that even the humblest member of a humble forest collaborative might have.

Still, folks are always talking about “holding people accountable” and I don’t see anyone else attempting to hold the Biden Admin accountable, except possibly R’s- but it’s hard for me to see any truths through the murk of partisan mud-slinging. So I think I’ll rate Biden Admin efforts on a 10 point scale, where 10 is unifying and 0 is pointedly not “lowering the temperature..” that being what I have previously called “a sharp stick in the eye.”

I would give the Bears Ears decision a zero. Here’s what I would have done instead.

First of all I’d make an announcement.

This back and forth over Monuments has gone on too long. We need to establish a solution that takes into account the views of all parties and that all parties can live with over the long-term, that will stand the test of time. These decisions should not be made by strokes of the pen in DC nor by the federal courts, but by the people- including all the people who are affected. That’s the only way we can understand and incorporate social and environmental concerns as well as justice and equity, in an open and transparent way. My goal is to provide support for a long-term solution, considering all previous efforts, and building on the agreements that we already have. These lands are important to all of us, and deserve the best we can give them through formal and public deliberation on an array of ideas and approaches. I want the success of my Administration to be measured by the relationships we have improved, and the trust we have built, as well as the end-product of an agreement. I want to honor the role of peacemaking inside our country as we honor it in the international realm.

Process-wise, I’d try to take down the temperature and deal with on-the ground questions with a wide range of alternative and collaborative approaches:

* Sit down with political leaders in Utah, all Tribes, as well as other stakeholders, and design a collaborative process with the help of professional environmental conflict resolution folks. The FS does this for humble regulations, so why not a massive land use decision?

*As part of that, starting from a ground based process.. what do you want to protect the area from? Mining, oil and gas, OHV’s, vandalism?

*Have an opportunity for public comment on specific issues.

*Intentionally find people to serve that both “sides” respect as well as folks from both “sides”, including Tribes who hold different views. Have them analyze the current protections. Which ones are working well and which ones aren’t working? Where and why? Does the solution (say, to vandalism or illegal ATVs) require something that drawing lines on maps won’t provide? If so, what are mechanisms to make that happen?

* The BLM and the FS have a variety of other land designations of various protections. What are the advantages of a Monument over other designations? Is it marketing tourism or something more concrete?

* Have Tribes look at different options of “advisory committees” and “co-management” and design a process for being involved, what kind of decisions, what level, what kind of authority?

Overall, the point would be to take the issue from a partisan political football to an atmosphere of place-based joint problem-solving, which… we have a long history of doing. Colorado and Idaho Roadless were examples of such processes. They took the symbology of Roadless Protection and crunched through the details- specific concerns in specific places- with people who are affected. And at the end, even with partisan politics and litigation in various forms, did deals that everyone can live with.

For those interested, Stacy Young wrote an interesting article in the Canyon Country Zephyr on the legalities and some legal history.

I tend to think of the Antiquities Act as perhaps a red herring. The legal case seems to follow from the idea that “having a Monument is the Right Thing” and using this tool we can override other views. Pragmatically, though we all could save ourselves a lot of legal and communication work and vast amounts of NGO money (and spend it on law enforcement around Bears Ears instead?) by the Administration instead simply saying.. “we believe we can work through this together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. That is our passion and our promise.”

We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.

For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.

No progress, only exhausting outrage.

No nation, only a state of chaos.

This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.

Those are powerful words, Mr. President and if you need help translating them into action (in our humble area of federal lands and forests), I and others are right here.

On the Bizarre Side: the Forest Section of the Reconciliation Bill

From the AFRC newsletter:

The reconciliation package would also provide the Forest Service with $14 billion for forest restoration and hazardous fuels reduction projects over ten years. $10 billion would be restricted to activities inside a narrowly defined Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and $4 billion could be used outside this area. Unfortunately, the funding includes other nonsensical policy restrictions that would make the activities unimplementable.

For example, the legislation would require that every acre of WUI be “effectively treated to prevent the spread of wildfire” before the $4 billon in non-WUI funding could be spent. The Forest Service would likely face litigation based on this impossible standard. Meanwhile, if the agency miraculously treated every acre of WUI, the legislation restricts the $4 billion that can be spent outside the WUI to projects that are “non-commercial” in nature and comply with additional restrictions for old growth and “ecological integrity.”

Here is the text of the bill.. sounds like a wish list developed by (some but not other) ENGO’s. Based on my previous work, rounding up different ENGO’s points of view on hazardous fuel treatments, this sounds like the writers of the legislation listened to some and ignored others. I wonder why the ones who did were so predominant, and why the D’s from affected areas didn’t express concerns (or weren’t they listened to, or is this bill so big and moving so fast they didn’t have a chance?). Whichever it is, it is of concern that so much money would go for things that are designed to satisfy a relatively small contingent of interests.

The problem is that the science is leaning toward strategic fuel treatments designed to support suppression activities and help them protect key ecological attributes and watersheds, along with communities. So these legislators aren’t keeping up with current thinking.

) $10,000,000,000 for hazardous fuels reduction projects within the wildland-urban interface;
3 (2) $4,000,000,000 for, on a determination by
4 the Secretary that hazardous fuels within the
5 wildland-urban interface have been effectively treated to prevent the spread of wildfire to at-risk communities, hazardous fuels reduction projects outside
8 the wildland-urban interface that are—
9 (A) noncommercial in nature, except on a determination by the Secretary, in accordance 11 with the best available science, that the harvest 12 of merchantable materials is ecologically necessary for restoration and to enhance ecological integrity, subject to the requirement that the 15 sale of merchantable materials shall be limited
16 to small diameter trees or biomass that are a
17 byproduct of projects under this paragraph;
18 (B) collaboratively developed; and
19 (C) carried out in a manner that—
20 (i) enhances the ecological integrity and achieves the restoration of a forest ecosystem;
23 (ii) maximizes the retention of old growth and large trees, as appropriate for the forest type; and

I got a chuckle out of “Secretary’s determination” that the “harvest of merchantable materials is ecologically necessary for “restoration” plus the sale of merchantable materials shall be limited to “small” diameter trees.. It seems to me that harvest will never be necessary, when you can always take the material offsite and burn it in piles instead.

Which doesn’t seem to fit any type of climate-related at all. Removing material can be good, selling them is bad, so burning them in the air exuding carbon and particulates is better. And as I’ve said before, it doesn’t seem like this country has so much money that we can afford to legislate out selling material. Some would say, particularly so if this bill passes.

There are a variety of other odd and chuckle-worthy bits in this bill- even just in the forest section. And it’s highly casual with large sums of money. If I had a D rep, I’d be reaching out.

Science is clear: Catastrophic wildfire requires forest management

Science is clear: Catastrophic wildfire requires forest management” was written by Steve Ellis, Chair of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees (NAFSR), who is a former U.S. Forest Service Forest Supervisor and retired Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director for Operations—the senior career position in that agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

I have extracted a few snippets (Emphasis added) from the above article published by the NAFSR:

1) Last year was a historically destructive wildfire season. While we haven’t yet seen the end of 2021, nationally 64 large fires have burned over 3 million acres. The economic damage caused by wildfire in 2020 is estimated at $150 billion. The loss of communities, loss of life, impacts on health, and untold environmental damage to our watersheds—not to mention the pumping of climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere—are devastating. This continuing disaster needs to be addressed like the catastrophe it is.

2) We are the National Association of Forest Service Retirees (NAFSR), an organization of dedicated natural resource professionals—field practitioners, firefighters, and scientists—with thousands of years of on the ground experience. Our membership lives in every state of the nation. We are dedicated to sustaining healthy National Forests and National Grasslands, the lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, to provide clean water, quality outdoor recreation, wildlife and fish habitat, and carbon sequestration, and to be more resilient to catastrophic wildfire as our climate changes.

3) As some of us here on the Smokey Wire have been explaining for years, the NAFSR very clearly and succinctly states:
Small treatment areas, scattered “random acts of restoration” across the landscape, are not large enough to make a meaningful difference. Decades of field observations and peer reviewed research both document the effectiveness of strategic landscape fuel treatments and support the pressing need to do more. The cost of necessary treatments is a fraction of the wildfire damage such treatments can prevent. Today’s wildfires in overstocked forests burn so hot and on such vast acreages that reforestation becomes difficult or next to impossible in some areas. Soil damage and erosion become extreme. Watersheds which supply vital domestic, industrial, and agricultural water are damaged or destroyed.

4) This summer, America watched with great apprehension as the Caldor Fire approached South Lake Tahoe. In a community briefing, wildfire incident commander Rocky Oplinger described how active management of forestlands assisted firefighters. “When the fire spotted above Meyers, it reached a fuels treatment that helped reduce flame lengths from 150 feet to 15 feet, enabling firefighters to mount a direct attack and protect homes,” The Los Angeles Times quoted him.

5) And in a Sacramento Bee interview in which fire researcher Scott Stephens was asked how much consensus there is among fire scientists that fuels treatments do help, he answered “I’d say at least 99%. I’ll be honest with you, it’s that strong; it’s that strong. There’s at least 99% certainty that treated areas do moderate fire behavior. You will always have the ignition potential, but the fires will be much easier to manage.” I (Steve Ellis) don’t know if it’s 99% or not, but a wildfire commander with decades of experience recently told me this figure would be at least 90%. What is important here is that there is broad agreement among professionals that properly treated landscapes do moderate fire behavior.

6) During my career (Steve Ellis), I have personally witnessed fire dropping from tree crowns to the ground when it hit a thinned forest. So have many NAFSR members. This is an issue where scientist and practitioners agree. More strategic landscape treatments are necessary to help avoid increasingly disastrous wildfires. So, the next time you read or hear someone say that thinning and prescribed fire in the forest does not work, remember that nothing can be further from the truth.