Matthew Koehler had a very thoughtful response to the original post here.
In continuing the dialogue, there are two main topics, what we might call developing an index of vegetation treatment intensity for each forest, and a discussion of why litigation rates are relatively high in Montana (or probably, more specifically Region 1 of the Forest Service). This first post is about developing the index.
How the need for an index originally came up was my question about why some might think we need more costly and time-consuming prospective environmental analysis, if we are simply doing less of what we used to do a lot of. In other words, we have plenty of timber sales and fuels treatment projects over the past years and should have some idea of the real environmental impacts (not projected, but observed). And conceivably, some impacts should be a function of the size of the acreage treated and proximity of those treatments.
The other opportunity that we might have from these data would be to compare forests with the same levels of activity and ask the question “do their levels of appeals and litigation differ, and if so, why?”
So I think it would be enlightening to do some joint fact- finding about what the actual treatment acres are relative to the total forested acres by forest across the country.. or at least for forests in the Rocky Mountain west.
If we could agree on some key data, I would be willing to try to extract it from the relevant databases. There seem to be three main questions:
What should we use as a baseline? It would have to be total forested acres because we are using these numbers in the context of understanding the environmental impacts. Take forest X with 1 million acres and 200 K acres of suitable timber, compared to forest y with the same total number of acres and 900 K suitable acres. If we are talking about the environmental impacts of cutting, say, 10K acres on a million acre forest, the impacts should be the same. Suitability is merely a human construct and does not tell us anything about impacts.
During the development of the 2005 Rule, Chris Iverson used to call this the Chugach/Tongass difference- you don’t need to analyze as much when you don’t do as much. The concept seems pretty straightforward. I was just trying to quantify “not doing as much” by looking at acres.
What counts as a vegetation treatment?
Here’s a possible list: prescribed burns, mastication, felling without removal (precommercial thinning might fall in here), felling with removal, felling with removal using temporary roads (commercial thinning would fall in here). As a person who has spent recent weeks reviewing a roadless EIS, I can tell you they all have different impacts. I would tend to stick to counting felling with removal and using temporary roads. Another topic is whether the treatment “counts” if the trees are dead. It seems like sedimentation effects of temporary roads would be more or less the same, but dead trees will fall anyway. Then, often, more trees die while people are planning projects. So to make counting easier, I would argue that a good estimate for our purposes (how much are our treatments impacting the land?) would be the acreage of all projects that have felling with removal, either live or dead trees.
What length of time should be analyzed? Probably the last 10 years would give us a good estimate of what we are currently doing, although some might argue for five. If we go too far back, we get to a time when the world was different. If we take too few years, we could allow unusual years to unduly influence the total.