9th Circuit Appeal Decision on Forest Service Five Buttes Project

Reading this opinion makes me want to give a shout-out to the Deschutes for doing some excellent comprehensive NEPA work on their project.

No matter the height of the bar, with sufficient documentation the FS can leap it. The question is whether investment in documentation at that level is the best use of taxpayers funds.

See this story here and this one.

Here’s an AP story.
What was interesting to me about this one is the mention of the judges’ origin

The majority opinion was written by Justice Milan Smith, the brother of former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and an appointee of President George W. Bush, whose administration tried and failed to scrap the Northwest Forest Plan in order to allow more logging…
Smith had harsh words for the dissent written by Judge Richard Paez, a President Bill Clinton appointee, calling his position “extreme,” and noting that the entire court had decided in 2008 to give deference to the Forest Service on science matters.

Interestingly, the third judge Richard Tallman was also appointed by Clinton (albeit he was an R). I just think that it is interesting that the author of the article chose to bring up the political affiliations of the judges, but only two of three.
And the decision here.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes. But the whole opinion is worth a read. I was impressed by the fact that despite the the NW Forest Plan explicitly allowed this treatment, it required this level of judgment to see the allowed activity come to pass.

Our highest deference is owed to the Forest Service’s technical
analyses and judgments within its area of expertise,
Lands Council, 537 F.3d at 993; nonetheless, our dissenting
colleague would have us halt the Forest Service’s Project
because he does not like the Forest Service’s approach to
solving the problems addressed. We went en banc to foreclose
precisely this type of second-guessing of the Forest Service.
See id. at 988 (noting that “in recent years, our environmental
jurisprudence has, at times, shifted away from the appropriate
standard of review and could be read to suggest that this court
should” “act as a panel of scientists that instructs the Forest
Service” how to perform its expert duties). The Forest Service
thoroughly considered various reasonable approaches to “protect
and enhance conditions” of the LRSs, NWFP S. & G. at
C-11, and offered a plan that does not “run[ ] counter to the
evidence before the agency or is so implausible that it could
be not ascribed to a difference in view or the product of
agency expertise,” Earth Island Inst. v. U.S. Forest Serv., 442
F.3d 1147, 1156 (9th Cir. 2006), abrogated on other grounds
by Winter v. Natural Re. Def. Council, Inc, 129 S. Ct. 365
(2008). Far from conflicting with the protection of LSRs,
carefully controlled logging is a tool expressly authorized by
the NWFP for long-term LSR maintenance.

On the other hand, here is what the Sierra Club website says about the same project:

Five Buttes Timber Sale

Five Buttes Logging SurveyFive Buttes Logging Survey, Oct 07
Photo by Marilyn Miller Our initial September 2008 legal victory stopping this large old growth timber sale is being contested during 2009 by a USFS appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court, so we are again in court to protect this area from severe logging harms. Our legal victory has been essential in helping protect Deschutes National Forest spotted owl Late Successional Reserve (LSR) habitat. The timber sale is currently under court-injunction stopping the sale and logging of the remaining five timber sales. For more pictures of destruction caused by logging the first Bass Sale tract of this timber sale, see the Five Buttes Photos page. Visit the Forest Service Five Buttes Project page for the FS documents related to this project.

Volunteer efforts achieving this legal victory have thus far protected old growth ponderosa pine as well as spotted owl mixed conifer old growth forests. Volunteer efforts in 2009 are needed to ensure our legal victory is not overturned and the area logged. Before our legal win, logging devastated one-sixth of the area forests, with the felling and removal of 200 to 400 year old ponderosa pine trees – that had survived centuries of recurrent fires – under the shameful pretense of “fire risk reduction”. The case has set important precedents that help our ongoing efforts to prevent harmful logging in several other area timber sales also.

Many many thanks to our wonderful team of attorneys, and to all the volunteers, staff, and allies who have helped achieve the initial victory – for the wildlife and natural forests. May we again prevail during this 2009 agency legal appeal! See the joint conservation organizations Five Buttes Press Release for a summary of this victory. The Court’s Summary Judgment Opinion provides the details of the decision. The Five Buttes legal appeal is available on the Comments and Appeals page. (3-09-09)

It’s not really about the documentation, is it?

20 thoughts on “9th Circuit Appeal Decision on Forest Service Five Buttes Project”

  1. Funny thing about this case, is that the court gave the FS deference NOT on a question of forestry, but on a question of probabilistic risk assessment, an area in which they do not have special expertise.

    The dissent actually saw the logical flaw in the risk assessment. That is, the FS assumed (and the majority bought this assumption) a 100% chance of fire in the period after logging, while in reality the risk of fire is far less than 100%, while the risk that logging will downgrade spotted owl habitat for 20-50 years is virtually certain. The FS never weighed these effects in any logical risk framework. When logging will reduce the quality of habitat, the NEPA analysis must include some evaluation of the probability that fuel reduction treatments will interact favorably with fire, which requires an estimate of the probability of future wildfire. To assume a 100% chance of fire is to vastly over-estimate the ecological value of fuel treatments and under-estimate the ecological effects of logging on habitat. See Heiken, D. 2010. Log it to save it? The search for an ecological rationale for fuel reduction logging in Spotted Owl habitat. Oregon Wild. v 1.0. May 2010. http://dl.dropbox.com/u/47741/Heiken%2C%20Log%20it%20to%20save%20it%20v.1.0.doc

    The dissent said:

    “To pick Alternative C because it
    is 40 percent less likely to result in a crown fire when there
    is a fire without a determination that includes the actual number
    of ignitions per year in the forest or some actual evaluation
    of the risk of fire unjustifiably weighs fire prevention
    above-and-beyond all other factors. The NWFP’s Standards
    and Guidelines specifically require a “greater assurance” of
    long-term maintenance. NWFP S & Gs at C-13. Greater is a
    relative term that requires comparison. Without quantifying
    actual risk a comparison is not possible. The Forest Service’s
    conflicting statements of fire risk, in my view, are arbitrary,
    and its failure to comply with the NWFP Standards and
    Guidelines’ requirement that it compare costs and benefits is

    Without providing a basis for the level of assumed fire risk,
    it is impossible to say that a 40 percent reduction in risk justifies
    the guaranteed risk of commercial logging: the destruction
    of 618 acres of owl habitat for 20-50 years. Logging
    within late-successional forests inside a LSR is permitted only
    where the proposed logging is not just needed, but rather
    clearly needed to reduce risks. The NWFP’s Standards and
    Guidelines squarely place the burden on the Forest Service to
    establish that an exception to the general prohibition on logging

  2. I read most of the decision, including the preservationists dissent, and found it to be a remarkable story of potential change in the 9th Circuit Court. Some judges are FINALLY deferring to the scientifically-sound plans and expertise of the Forest Service. Also, some elements of the Forest Service seem to want to do more supporting work that isn’t required under NEPA, to help defend against the usual claims that they aren’t taking “hard looks” and “catering to the timber industry”.

    The picture of a landing slash pile doesn’t convince me that “old growth destruction” is happening. I’m also noticing the many snags in the background.

  3. Doug, Thank you for your contribution!

    I haven’t worked in Central Oregon for many years, but living in Colorado I always wonder when you say something like “the guaranteed risk of commercial logging: the destruction of 618 acres of owl habitat for 20-50 years.” I wonder about the use of the word “commercial” in your sentence because in Colorado it is an elusive and mirage-like concept – nothing concrete like (greater than 12 inches and a ponderosa) or whatever it currently means in Central Oregon.

    So if could you explain.. I think by 20-50 you must be saying that if you remove all the large trees that owls like to live in, it will take them 20-50 years to grow back? Could you give a bit more explanation for the folks on the blog with a background in vegetation. but not knowledge of this particular project?

    Another way to look at it is a) would you design the project differently or b) you don’t think any intervention is necessary?

  4. “the guaranteed risk of commercial logging: the destruction of 618 acres of owl habitat for 20-50 years.” This is from the dissent.

    The NEPA analysis showed that logging of 618 acres of suitable nesting, roosting, foraging habitat for the spotted owl would render that habitat unsuitable for 20-50 years (due to loss of canopy cover and removal of the complex forest structure that owls and their prey depend on), but the FS concluded that this logging was justified, even though located in a in a spotted ow reserve, because the logging would reduce fire hazard by 40%.

    But this conclusion is based on an assumed 100% chance of fire, instead of making a more accurate estimate of the probability of fire. And they never weighed and compared the effects of wildfire (which are uncertain) with the adverse effects of logging (which are certain).

    Another way to think of it is to realize that we cannot predict the location and timing of fire, so our fuel treatments are haphazard and must be extensive if we want to affect the behavior of fire. Some of our treatment will encounter fire and others will not.In areas with intermediate to long fire return intervals we end up treating many acres unnecessarily, so the owl habitat is degraded by logging but no benefits are realized in terms of changed fire behavior. The FS does not account for this in the NEPA analysis.

    The white paper explains it better: Heiken, D. 2010. Log it to save it? The search for an ecological rationale for fuel reduction logging in Spotted Owl habitat. Oregon Wild. v 1.0. May 2010. http://dl.dropbox.com/u/47741/Heiken%2C%20Log%20it%20to%20save%20it%20v.1.0.doc

  5. If the plan really means “destruction of 618 acres of suitable…” it surely wouldn’t have made it by the 9th Circuit Court. “Destruction” is a word used by preservationists to describe man’s activities within our public forests. In actuality, owls LIKE the varied vegetation in their foraging habitats to assure them a varied diet and successful hunting. Saying that the plan destroys habitat is clearly reactionary and not based in fact. Just because a LSR exists, that doesn’t mean there are active nests where the units are. It’s the nesting habitat that is crucial to the birds success.

    Just HOW MANY known nest trees were lost in the Biscuit Fire?!?! Also, Doug, you aren’t recognizing the forest health benefits that were laid out for the judges to see. Owl habitat CAN be improved with proper thinning.

    It seems that the court and the Forest Service have some agreement, and hopefully, many multi-use and multi-goal projects will be implemented for the greater good.

  6. In the shameless plug category, Former Crescent district ranger and FSEEE board member Chris Frisbee led the Five Buttes EIS process. Siskiyou forester and former FSEEE board member Rich Fairbanks led the Biscuit Fire EIS planning team (challenged and upheld in two lawsuits). If you want the job done right, hire the FSEEE member.

  7. Thanks, Doug, I took a look at the white paper. It sounds like it’s mostly about Western Oregon, including SW Oregon. Crescent District is not like that, soils or vegetation-wise at all (based on personal experience).

    So in an attempt to bring the legal issues down to a project level, is this the reason you didn’t agree with the project- that some big trees would be taken?
    From the ROD (p 17) here:

    “Commercial thinning, as planned in this project, would not only contribute to risk reduction on the landscape, but would improve the overall health and resilience of the trees that are retained in activity units. Although, in some areas, trees over 21 inches in diameter would need to be removed to meet project objectives, commercial harvest activities would retain the largest available trees (see the Project Design Features, page 21 in the FEIS). After thinning, the trees that are retained on the landscape are expected to increase in health and vigor due to reduced competition for resources. ”

    Here’s another way of asking the question, “if this had been a HFRA project, what would you have objected to in project design?” I am trying to take the focus off the analysis disagreements (including various forms of science-slinging) and focus on the conditions or activities you don’t agree with. Not arguing about your values, but just trying to understand them from an on-the-ground perspective. I think some of the disagreements across the lawyer- practitioner divide is that sometimes we talk past each other (and we don’t have many opportunities as we should to simply talk to each other).

    Here’s a link to the Sierra Club photos of the sale..

  8. The Ninth Circuit and the Forest Service. Not sure why this couple reminds me of Sam Malone and Diane Chambers of Cheers fame. Some common traits perhaps, overconfidence in one actor, some neurotic tendencies in the other (I won’t say who is who). Or maybe a better comparison is Lucy and Ricky Ricardo…USFS, “you’ve got some splaining to do.”

    Maybe its time for a 9th Circuit cage match? We could stream it on the blog, make it a per-per-view event, and use the proceeds to buy Sharon a nice gift for her tireless work on the blog.

    This is an interesting decision though. My question, for those who know more about the case than I do, is this: has the USFS done anything to reduce the amount of uncertainty about its proposed actions in the late successional reserve? Has it set up its decision and framework in a way that will maximize learning in the future—a way to reduce the uncertainties inherent in its actions?

    So many of these cases, like Ecology Center and Mission Brush, revolve around the scientific uncertainty about various proposed actions. Plaintiffs argue that the agency is full of beans, its models-predictions-assessments or whatever are all wrong. Some on the bench agree, but others feel quite uncomfortable with so much scrutinizing from the bench.

    But what’s not being asked, or so it seems, is what actions are being taken by the agency to lessen the uncertainty inherent in forest management decisions like this. Where is the true adaptive management framework in these cases? Why not structure a decision like this one is such a way that we can learn as much as possible from its implementation—or its non-implementation?

    This seems all the more relevant in this case because of the importance given to the risk assessment computerized simulations used in the EIS.

    I don’t know the facts and history of this case, so maybe such a learning framework will be used here. But if not, then the most relevant question for me is why not?

  9. My take on it is that the case teetered on the brink but, one by one, the procedural documentation and NEPA compliance showed these judges that all the bases had been covered. It also seemed like the Forest Service took great care to show the Court that forest management is complex and the harms versus the benefits were adequately weighed.

    I wonder when they will start questioning the Forest Service’s ability to implement such winning plans. Could it be that the Forest Service may have to prove their workforce is qualified to do the work? (So much of the boots-on-the-ground work is still done by “temporary employees”.)

  10. The fancy modeling done by the FS showed …
    * IF there IS a wildfire,
    * THEN treatment will reduce the damage to owl habitat.

    We also know from the analysis in the EIS which showed a 20-50 year loss of owl habitat as a result of logging, that …
    * IF there IS NOT a fire
    * THEN the habitat is better off left unlogged for the owl

    It is highly unlikely that every acre of treatment will encounter fire during the next 20 years, so one cannot conclude that logging is beneficial working from the first proposition alone. To assume 100% chance of fire is clearly unreasonable and over-values the benefits of fuel treatments.

    To accurately evaluate the problem one has to estimate the probability that any given treatment area will be affected by wildfire during the period that the treatment is presumed to be effective. Then the benefits of the treatment can be discounted by the less-than-100% probability that treatments will encounter fire. This is largely dependent upon the fire return interval, not the historic interval, but the real future interval including the effects fire suppression.

    The FS did not do this analysis, so I do not know whether the proposed treatments are wise or unwise. I do think it is unwise to act on incomplete information when better information is available to the agency and they just refused to ask and answer the right questions.

  11. Martin- you crack me up :). I need to spend more time in pop culture to understand your references, as I had to look up what a “cage match” is. I do appreciate your honoring my age class with the Lucy reference.


    I’m still trying to get a picture of what the plaintiffs wanted to have happen on those particular 618 acres.. wanted enough to invest the time, lawyer bucks and reams of paper to appeal, litigate and take to appeals court. No treatment of understory? No trees removed over 12 inches? Once I understand that in my pragmatic brain, I can better answer your points, which I think are based on a different framing of the issue than I would have, as are Martin’s.

    • Sharon,

      I can’t speak for the plaintiffs, but I assume they might not appreciate the destruction of habitat for the spotted owl, a Threatened species, when the FS failed to show a real benefit to the spotted owl. The LSR standards & guidelines require that the FS show that treatments in reserves are clearly needed and will clearly benefit late successional habitat. The FS failed to make that showing.

      There might be ways of treating habitat that reduce fuels and retain more spotted owl habitat values. But “No action” is an option that the spotted owl might well prefer.

      In my white paper I explain:

      “We’re essentially asking spotted owls and other wildlife to buy fire insurance at an exorbitant price that no rational person would pay. Consider this — if the annual cost of fire insurance for your house was equal to 15% of the value of your house, and the chance of fire was 2%, or once every 50 years, a rational person would not buy fire insurance. However, if the price of insurance was 15% of the value of the house and the probability of fire was 100%, then a rational person would of course buy fire insurance. This latter scenario (where fire is a virtual certainty) is the one that many advocates of fuel reduction logging are asking us to accept, but fire of course is not so certain to occur.” So a rational decision-maker might well forgo insurance if the price of too high and the likelihood of fire is low, as is often the case with fire control within the range of the spotted owl.

  12. Doug, you need to make the distinction between foraging habitat and nesting habitat. You cannot simply consider it all to be one kind of “habitat”. Federal policy still establishes approxomately 5000 acres of protection around an existing nest. Foraging habitat is different, including many forest types that the owls will “patrol”. No one is “destroying” owl habitat, Doug.

    There ARE other benefits to forest restoration than “fire safety”. By doing nothing, we are basically asking the owls to not buy “health insurance”, despite their dwindling numbers.

  13. I was hoping that someone who was familiar with this project would chip in.. but I guess I must go ahead and give my own logic path. People feel free to correct where I am missing something.

    So we have heard that spotted owls need/like big trees. That’s why they were a species that were selected to mean old growth protection. In this area, empirical evidence suggests that there is a big risk to big trees and hence owl habitat from wildfire.

    The Davis fire was mentioned in the ROD. Here are some photos. Note, in many areas where the fires burned, there are no big living trees.

    While it is true that ponderosas are adapted to wildfire, past fire suppression has led to ingrowth of true firs which both suck water away from big old pines (do they still call them “yellowbellies?”) and form ladder fuels. So to make sure we have as many big healthy trees as we can get for the owl, we need to remove competitors like smaller dense true firs, and where the overstory is too crowded, other ponderosas and species in the overstory.

    Here is what it says in the ROD:

    After the Davis Fire of 2003 and other recent large wildfires in and around the Deschutes National Forest moved thousands of acres of forest from late- and old-structured habitat to early-seral stage, the Forest Service determined that the remaining late- and old-structured habitat in the Five Buttes Project area is elevated in its importance to dependent species. It is especially important to reduce risk to these areas, as well as ensure fuel loadings and arrangements are maintained so that the role of fire can successfully be integrated back into appropriate plant associations. In addition, reduction of all sizes of fuels can elevate the chance of a successful initial attack on a wildfire adjacent to residential communities in the La Pine basin and the Crescent/Gilchrist area.

    So, back to Doug. You said “So a rational decision-maker might well forgo insurance if the price of too high and the likelihood of fire is low, as is often the case with fire control within the range of the spotted owl.” But we are not talking about “the range of the spotted owl.” We are not talking the Olympic here, we are talking Crescent Ranger District. We are talking about a place where fire is the major natural disturbance in the ecosystem.

    When we discuss risk, we consider the likelihood of the event and the undesirability of the effects, and the cost of protection. But it’s not the cost of fire protection and fuels treatments everywhere, it is on this specific site for these specific reasons with this specific fire uncertainty.

    So we could get into a complex scientific argument about fire frequencies, then debate the impacts of global warming (fires more frequent and more severe or not, uncertainties associated with that). But really at the end of the day, we will have had fascinating discussions but only know for sure that fire is likely, but not certain.

    I think the better way is to look at that piece of ground and look at what has happened in neighboring areas with the same kind of vegetation and soil. That’s the kind of learning I hope Martin is talking about in his post. Do we have a “framework for learning”? Yes, it is working with stakeholders trying projects out on the landscape, looking at what happens, and using that to inform the next project. EMS was intended to be a structured, transparent, documented “framework for learning” as it was proposed in the 2005 Rule, but this did not succeed for a variety of reasons, and the concepts of learning objectives and structured adaptive management do not yet seem to be picked up in the 2011 Rule.

    That’s why I come back to the HFRA objection question. If the thought is “on these thirty acres I don’t see as much intermediate true fir, could we take fewer big trees out here?” That would be the conversation I would prefer to have.

    One thing I’ve noticed about HFRA and 05 Planning Rule objections is it changes the framing from “what we think you have done wrong in your analysis and why” to “what do we disagree with in terms of this project or plan and why.” In my opinion, the latter discussions are more real and more productive, especially if carried out with people standing there in the woods talking about the project.

    • Just a few clarfications:

      The Five Buttes Project is in the “range of the owl.” The NWFP does not apply anywhere except the range of the spotted owl. This is a “Late Successional Reserve” set aside to provide habitat for spotted owls and other old growth wildlife.

      This is not a low elevation ponderosa pine ecosystem with a frequent fire return interval. It is a mixed conifer ecosystem with some ponderosa pine) and a intermediate fire return interval which is made even longer due to fire suppression.

      The NWFP also recognizes that because owl habitat is in such short supply and because the Threatened spotted owl has moved into some “dry” forests, we may need to tolerate more tree density than they might have been maintained under historic fire return intervals.

      You say “at the end of the day, we will have had fascinating discussions but only know for sure that fire is likely, but not certain.” I think we have the risk assessment tools to do more than throw up our hands. For an example see the carbon studies being done to compare the carbon consequences of fire with and within fuel reduction logging. e.g., Mitchell, Harmon, O’Connell. 2009. Forest fuel reduction alters fire severity and long-term carbon storage in three Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Ecological Applications. 19(3), 2009, pp. 643–655 http://ecoinformatics.oregonstate.edu/new/FuelRedux_FS_CStorage_Revision2.pdf Although thinning can affect fire, the agencies are likely to remove more carbon by logging than will be saved by avoiding fire. There is a direct analogy to trying to save spotted owl habitat from fire. See my post #18 below.

  14. Other relevant spotted owl facts.
    They are territorial birds who use a system of nests, on a rotating basis. It is not really the largeness of the trees that make them necessary. They prefer a closed canopy and a sheltered nest tree, often being a broken-topped or forked tree. Spotted owls also compete with northern goshawks for the use of those nests, as they have the same nesting habitat preferences. Their foraging habitat is only limited to how far the bird can fly and still feel safe.

    There should be few concerns about their foraging habitat, as long as it is managed consistent with the ESA. Owls may prefer large, thicks stands for nesting but, they also prefer thinned stands with open understories for their foraging habitat.

    Yes, Sharon, they do still call em “yellabellies”. At least the ex-loggers who are still alive. Some also called those smaller “repro” pines by the generic name of “bull pine”. There are also some areas where lodgepoles have invaded into the understory of the P. pine stands. There’s a long strip of marginal habitat along the eastern base of the Cascades, sometimes “slopping out” away, east from the range.

    • Thee is no published studies showing that spotted owls prefer thinned stands for foraging. In fact, thinning probably adverse to owl foraging in two ways. First by making the owls more vulnerable to predators, and second by reducing the recruitment of complex dead and down woody structure which many owl prey species depend on. This second effect is significant and long-lasting. Modeling has shown that in thinned stands desired levels of snags are delayed by 6 decades or more compared to unthinned stands.

  15. Thanks for the help, Foto. I left the area in 88, post pine beetle but pre-owl.

    A couple of reflections: here is a quote about what the owl litigation was about from the DOJ website here:

    The Conditions for Controversy

    The National Forests of the Pacific Northwest contain, albeit a small remnant of what they originally held, the last remaining pre-settlement �old growth� forests in the lower 48. Old growth is home to habitat specialists among species, and one of these species, the northern spotted owl, was designated by the Forest Service as a management indicator species for this habitat. The area�s streams are utilized by imperiled salmon runs. Preserving the old growth forests became the focal effort of environmental and recreational interests.

    On the other side, the percentage of timber harvested from federal as opposed to state and private lands is comparatively large in this region, creating historic dependency in the local economy on its availability. Old growth timber is particularly suitable for the manufacture of veneers, and many mills were machined up for this product. The stage was set for major conflict.

    So here we are, many years later, talking about 618 acres in Central Oregon and the probabilities of fire occurrence.

    The pattern I see is the same, actually, as when I worked in south Central Oregon- the issues are framed by the more populated, and politically dominant, West side. In the 80’s we were supposed to do intensive timber management even though it didn’t make sense economically in Central Oregon (because trees grow slower so investments wouldn’t pay off- even then); now they are interpreting something designed for the West side to the E side. If most of the lawyers and scientists are on the W side, then the law and science could have an unintentional W side filter. It’s a question we should ask, at least.

  16. Here is an interesting new bit of evidence… Now there is support for Mitchell and Harmon (2009) from the WESTCARB Project:

    === begin snip==

    … [A] team of researchers tried to quantify how removing smaller fuels from forests and conducting prescribed burns helps stave off intense wildfires and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. …

    “The take-home message is we could not find a greenhouse gas benefit from treating forests to reduce the risk of fire,” said John Kadyszewski, the principal investigator for the terrestrial sequestration projects of the West Coast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership. WESTCARB, …

    As part of Kadyszewski’s work, his team directly compared the carbon stocks in about 6,000 acres of forests in Shasta County, Calif., and Lake County, Ore., before and after applying forest management treatments to reduce the risk of severe wildfires, such as prescribed burns and thinning. Then, based on modeled projections, they found that if a wildfire ignited on treated lands rather than untreated lands, there would generally be lower emissions. That was the good news.

    But there was a catch: knowing where fires might happen.

    Since there is a relatively low risk of fire at any one site, large areas need to be treated — which release their own emissions in the treatment process. The researchers have concluded that the expected emissions from treatments to reduce fire risk exceed the projected emissions benefits of treatment for individual projects.
    === end snip ===
    Dina Fine Maron 2010. FORESTS: Researchers find carbon offsets aren’t justified for removing understory (E&E Report 08/19/2010)

    And we can reliably replace the word “carbon” with virtually any other forest value that depends on dense forests with relatively high accumulations of dead wood, e.g. spotted owls, flying squirrels, goshawk, marten, pileated woodpecker, etc. and we get the same result. To wit …

    “Since there is a relatively low risk of fire at any one site, large areas need to be treated — which [degrades habitat values for dense forests and dead wood] in the treatment process. The researchers have concluded that the expected [habitat loss] from treatments to reduce fire risk exceed the projected [habitat] benefits of treatment for individual projects.”

  17. One of the key ways of interpreting science is to carefully look at the scale that is examined. One of my favorite examples was from the timber wars, where economists said that Washington State as a whole would not have negative impacts from reducing employment in the timber industry. Another study might have examined, say, Forks, Washington and asked the same question. The answer is simply a function of how you frame the question, and at what scale. I think that’s why many folks question some scientific studies- because the people who are trying to use the results of the research are not involved in the framing of the question (let alone a lack of trust in the scientific process to be objective.)

    Anyway, there are two framings of the Five Buttes fuel reduction question. One is that it is about this specific 618 acres, and one is that it is an example of a generalized situation. Academics like to generalize- they are rewarded for doing that- but we don’t have to believe that any individual situation matches that generalization, especially when it comes to “what is the best thing to do to protect many different values in this specific combination of circumstances?”

    In Five Buttes it sounds like they were treating 618 acres to increase the probability that they could keep unwanted fire from burning up a specific desirable habitat that had increased in rarity on that landscape due to other fires. The question is about habitat loss and habitat benefits within this analysis area – not some generic question.

    In my experience with ethics, people tend to agree more on specific cases than on general philosophical ideas. Individuals have a choice to frame this as about being about the 618 acres or about the general principle of fuel treatment vs.dense forest habitat. I generally prefer to frame issues about projects on the specifics because it empowers the people who can go out and look at the trees and owls onsite and those who must live with the results. It is both more real, and often leads to more agreement based on joint fact finding and observations.


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