The Montana Conundrum II- Joint Fact Finding

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.

13 thoughts on “The Montana Conundrum II- Joint Fact Finding”

  1. Please define impact. Soils? Water quality/quantity? Wildlife? Fisheries? Or are you assuming that there is impact simply because there is vegetation removal? And if so, are you assuming impact on 100% of thoes acres?

  2. Yes, the question is if we were to have an index of vegetation management to compare forests we would compare acres treated. The question would be where we draw the line – most analyses I have seen are concerned about the impacts of mechanical treatment with removal of trees. I was thinking that that might be a good basis for an index. How many acres per year does forest x treat (whether for fuels reduction or timber) with tree removal compared to the total acreage of the forest?

    I am not saying that brushcrushing or prescribed burning has the same impacts as “cutting and removal with roads. ” If some reports they treated x acres, I am assuming that there is impact on the acres treated.

  3. Wow. Not to be rude, but this seems like a classic Forest Service analysis….Confussing. To obtain your “index” I would imagine you would want volume/acre removed so as your index increased so would your risk and potential impacts. But then this would throw out your prescribed burns.

    If you’re simply wanting to get acres treated compared to total forested acres, obviously thats a pretty straight forward deal. But when you get into talking about impacts, not all activites are the same and an index would be very hard to get at.

  4. AND, like it or not, Let-Burn fires are also often very destructive “fuels treatments” that trump all other “lines on the map”. There is a whole spectrum of activities which would need to be considered. Why associate new roadbuilding with every timber project? So many automatically assume that every timber project will build brand new roads. Roads are a non-issue, here in California (other than when they will be maintained…. “Yeah, I think we can squeeze in a nice blading, with new waterbars in about, uh, 12 years….call me then!”)

  5. Hmm. maybe we are not communicating clearly. I was trying to get something simple but potentially meaningful.
    1. we all agree that if there are no veg mgt tmts there are no impacts
    2. we know that there is a continuum of impacts based on the kind and intensity of veg treatment on a per acres basis
    3. nevertheless to compare forests it might be handy to compare levels of veg tmt that have impacts with a relatively simple index.
    4. so instead of acknowledging the continuum we would pick a point on the continuum to say “we will count all treatments that have these characteristics” (this is where an slternative would be to weight different treatments by perceived impacts, say a prescribed burn is a 2, mastication is a 5, but this became too complicated.)

    Based on recently reading an exhaustive (and exhausting) environmental document and reading about all possible effects of vegetation treatments, I was suggesting that point to be all vegetation treatments that include tree removal, roads or not.

  6. There certainly ARE impacts to doing nothing! I still think we should be doing very indepth analysis of the “No Treatment Alternatives”, to show what those impacts could be, or will be. I truly think that such studies would give judges and the public a MUCH clearer choice through NEPA documentation. We are squandering an important source of “the big picture”.

  7. Hello: New science and research from NASA and the University of Wisconsin (Go Bucky!) shows that large fires are not more frequent or severe in beetle killed forests.

    NASA Satellites Reveal Surprising Connection Between Beetle Attacks, Wildfire

    [A very educational 5 minute NASA Earth Science video is also available at the link above]


    “Their preliminary analysis indicates that large fires do not appear to occur more often or with greater severity in forest tracts with beetle damage. In fact, in some cases, beetle-killed forest swaths may actually be less likely to burn. What they’re discovering is in line with previous research on the subject.”

    “Disturbances like insect outbreaks and fire are recognized to be integral to the health of the forests and it has taken ecologists most of this century to realize as much. Yet when these disturbances occur, our emotional psyche leads us to say the forests are ‘unhealthy.'”
    – Roy Renkin, Yellowstone National Park Vegetation Management Specialist

    “It’s easy to think, ‘It’s more damaged so more likely to burn.’ That’s why it’s important to ask questions and not take everything as gospel truth, but go out and see if what we think is happening in our mind is really happening on the ground.”
    -Phil Townsend, University of Wisconsin forest ecologist

  8. Once again, scientists base their studies on forests where no humans live. Yes, welcome wildfires where humans never visit but, ignore all the effects on people. The study says wildfires MAY not be more intense or numerous than “normal” wildfires. However, when the wind is blowing, EVERYTHING burns. Also, I’d say that dried snags certainly burn better than the woody material in live trees.

    Again, I also have to say that non-lodgepole forests with high mortality burn quite well. My photographic evidence from Yosemite shows that giant old growth snags burn completely, within 20 years. Basing National forest policy on a very narrow study in a tiny region of our country doesn’t benefit the millions of acres of dead and dying forests. The study doesn’t say that dead trees don’t burn. The predicted annual burned acreage is still around 10 million acres per year, and that is extreme by any measure.

    Will we continue to ignore the human populations when letting catastrophic wildfires burn? Pretending that burned homes, vaporized endangered species habitat, sediment-choked streams and dead old growth are “natural and beneficial” is just ignorant of forest science. Why don’t they do a study on how the 1988 wildfires directly impacted the Yellowstone wildlife??

  9. Larry/Fotoware: I simply have forwarded a new scientific study from researchers at the U of Wisconsin and NASA to this blog. I have not, as you inferred in your comment about, suggested that we “base National Forest policy on a very narrow study in a tiny region of our country.”

    However, there are a few facts here that you all should consider.

    This new study shows that large fires are NOT more frequent or severe in beetle killed forests. This new scientific finding, which the researchers have said “is in line with previous research on the subject,” is the exact opposite of what we’re heard most of the summer on this blog from the likes of you and Derek. Why do you suppose that is?

    Also, this new study was conducted here in the northern Rockies. The title to Derek’s posts have been the “Montana Conundrum” (whatever that means is anyone’s guess) and complaints about beetle killed trees supposedly resulting in massive wildfires have been a common theme in most of Derek’s posts.

    Finally, Larry/Foto, you ask “Why don’t they do a study on how the 1988 wildfires directly impacted the Yellowstone wildlife??”

    Ahhhh…Numerous and extensive studies have been conducted over the past twenty years looking at the ’88 wildfires impact on Yellowstone wildlife. Heck, in 2008, the Billings Gazette did a huge serious looking back at the 20 year anniversary of the fires. You know what nearly every study has found? Overall, the fires were good for the forests, wildlife and ecosystem as a whole. Are you seriously suggesting that the ’88 Yellowstone fires were bad ecologically or bad for wildlife? If so, I think you guys are really showing your true colors here. Thanks.

  10. The study ignores the fact that fires in the unnaturally overstocked forests are unnaturally-high. Simply saying that dead forests aren’t higher than the already high fire danger might be true but, it implies that there is no danger and no problem.

    There is a significant portion of our western forests which have changed species composition, in favor of lodgepole pines. Any remaining ponderosa pine component is at severe risk of loss. I have no argument with the idea that high elevation pure lodgepole stands are SUPPOSED to burn, in various intensities, in different locales. Where lodgepoles have invaded, due to fire suppression, we have to intervene and restore resiliency.

    I was simply curious about listed species within Yellowstone. I’ve never been there, and only have secondhand information about before and after conditions. A friend of mine was a Field Observer, back in the ’88 fires. Just this last summer, he returned, describing what is probably “normal” lodgepole wildfire devastation. I guess if it is pure lodgepole forest, listed species don’t live there (much). Surely parts of Yellowstone burned at higher intensities, due to NPS fire suppression for many, many years.

  11. In the spirit of “joint fact finding” here are some new facts to pass along.

    This week the Western Wood Products Association reported that the Western lumber industry in 2009 posted its worst year for production in modern history, and that the outlook for this year is even more dismal.

    The WWPA’s report and statistics are available in a report titled, “Historic downturn in lumber markets shows in 2009 Western lumber production totals” available at:

    Key Findings

    * Overall, U.S. demand for lumber in 2009 was less than half of what was consumed in 2005.

    * The amount of lumber used for residential construction is down 76% compared to 2005.

    * The lack of home building in the U.S. contributed to the historic decline. Just 554,000 houses were built in 2009, a 39 percent decline from the previous year and a staggering 75% decline from 2005.

    * Low demand translated into even lower prices for Western lumber products. The estimated wholesale value of the 2009 production was $2.69 billion, down 26 percent from 2008. Five years ago, Western mills produced 19.3 billion board feet of lumber valued at $7.7 billion.

    * Since 2005, output from Western lumber mills has fallen by some 46 percent.

    Given the fact that overall lumber demand in the U.S. is down 50% since 2005 and housing starts are down 75% since 2005 one really has to question the motivation and economic rationale of those who are calling for Congress to step in and mandate more public lands logging.

  12. The demand for timber products in China have ramped up wildly. China’s imports from Canada have almost doubled over last year’s figures. I could see the Forest Service issuing waivers for the export of raw logs in areas where there is no timber industry left.

    The last lumber mill in the southern half of California can take logs from 6 National Forests but, they teeter on the brink of economic survival, getting most of their volume from fire salvage sales.

    Why not also ban the import of plastic products which could be made out of American wood? Or is it better to ship oil to China, then have the product shipped to Walmarts here?? Those kinds of items would be made from the smaller diameter trees which need to be thinned.


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