Unprecedented Change vs. Inferring From History: Bark Beetles and Fire

Thanks to Matthew Koehler for sending this piece on one of our favorite topics, beetles and fire by Kulakowski and Jarvis. This is a great article to discuss, to talk about why different people might think this is or isn’t relevant to current policy issues (and which ones and why). Also bbs and fire is one of our favorite things to discuss on this blog.

Here’s the abstract with my comments in italics.

“Outbreaks of bark beetles and drought both lead to concerns about increased fire risk, but the relative importance of these two factors is the subject of much debate.

I would argue, not really in practice, only in academia. In reality, drought beetles and age of trees are hopelessly intertwined. And not to be pedantic but it’s not about risk of fires, it’s about “different fire behavior (due to dry trees) with more possible negative impacts to people and soil.”

We examined how mountain pine beetle (MPB) outbreaks and drought have contributed to the fire regime of lodgepole pine forests in northwestern Colorado and adjacent areas of southern Wyoming over the past century. We used dendroecological methods to reconstruct the pre-fire history of MPB outbreaks in twenty lodgepole pine stands that had burned between 1939 and 2006 and in 20 nearby lodgepole pine stands that were otherwise similar but that had not burned. Our data represent c. 80% of all large fires that had occurred in lodgepole pine forests in this study area over the past century. We also compared Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI)
and actual evapotranspiration (AET) values between fire years and non-fire years.

To me, you gotta pick a lane here. Either we are saying that current and future climate conditions are “unprecedented” and are affecting things (which I believe, whether caused by GHG’s or other factors), OR information from 1939 to 2006 can be used to make claims about what is true in nature today.

Burned stands were no more likely to have been affected by outbreak prior to fires than were nearby unburned stands. However, PDSI and AET values were both lower during fire years than during non-fire years. This work indicates that climate has been more important than outbreaks to the fire regime of lodgepole pine forests in this
region over the past century.

I will leave to the climate scientists if a particular drought is really “climate”- I always find that confusing. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to know that more fires occur under drought conditions, if that’s what this is saying.

Indeed, we found no detectable increase in the occurrence of high-severity fires following MPB outbreaks. Dry conditions, rather than changes in fuels associated with outbreaks,appear to be most limiting to the occurrence of severe fires in these forests.

But like I said, it’s not really about “occurrence in the past”. We can go out on the ground and see dried forests due to pine beetles or other reasons, and see that they have different fire behavior, and we can see impacts of high intensity fires with or without bark beetles. I just don’t get the link between this study and any policy issue today, and maybe the authors are not claiming that.

10 thoughts on “Unprecedented Change vs. Inferring From History: Bark Beetles and Fire”

  1. “I just don’t get the link between this study and any policy issue today, and maybe the authors are not claiming that.”

    It would seem the link is how we understand fire behavior as we discuss these issues in order that our stated reasoning for developing policy is on track.

    5.2. Conclusion
    “The present research indicates that over the past century the occurrence of severe fires in lodgepole pine forests in this region has been primarily influenced by climatic conditions

    rather than changes in fuels caused by bark beetle outbreaks. (my emphasis)

    We suggest that the concern for an increase in fire risk due to changes in fuels following outbreaks has been misplaced relative to the increased fire risk associated with climatic conditions.”
    ———————————–

    Their point being simply to get straight the role of fire behavior as it relates to MPB outbreaks, no?

    It seems pertinent to (and contrary to) statements and inferences made here in the recent past reflexively attributing MPB outbreaks to fire intensity.

    Reply
  2. But there are experts in fire behavior who model and test their models with real current fire behavior. If we want to understand fire behavior, wouldn’t we ask the question of fire behavior folks, not historic vegetation?

    I don’t see how we can link policy questions about dealing with fires today to studies of past vegetation. I would like to see the policy question clearly articulated (which we can try to do here) and then select the most relevant disciplines to do the research. So what is the policy question?

    Reply
  3. I think the observations that “current and past climate conditions are ‘unprecedented'” and “rather than changes in fuel caused by bark beetle outbreaks” both miss the mark.

    From my own observations here in the Pacific Northwest (which may or may not apply to Colorado and Wyoming), the principal problem is caused by unprecedented increases in numbers, spread, and mass of lodgepole from historical time to the present. Bark beetles simply exacerbate the risk of wildfire by creating fine fuels during periods of seasonal or prolonged drought and — if wildfires do not occur during those times — increased intensity of wildfires following breakage of lodgepole from snags to large woody debris along the forest floor.

    If these observations can be generalized, then the historical data is more important in regards to the spread and growth of lodgepole than in regards to weather, climate (typically, 30-year averages of weather), and bark beetle outbreaks.

    What is the fuel load per acre, what is its current condition (green, dry, ladder fines, or forest floor fuels), and how do these compare with landscape history (including fire events)? Those seem to be the principal questions missed in this study.

    Reply
  4. I guess my point was “we have a situation here that can be described by current conditions, as Bob says, what kind of fuels where. The policy questions seems to be “what should we be doing?”

    Then I would ask how “comparing with landscape history” is relevant. If we determine that we should have fire or human-caused vegetation mosaics, and encourage species diversity, to promote resilience to climate change now and in the future (not have so many darn lodgepoles of the same age laid end to end), then how relevant is the past at all?

    Now, this is not related to Bob’s comment but I don’t think we have clearly thought through the deeper implications of climate change on some of the fundamental paradigms that people operate from, such as a lingering attachment (albeit not always articulated) to the idea of getting back to HRV. For example I read yesterday from someone that going back to HRV would be ipso facto resilience. I don’t think we have really begun, let alone finished, the journey to incorporating climate into our work in terms of honestly confronting “our usual way of working and thinking” and seeing how it should change.

    One of our forest supervisors, a brilliant guy and deep thinker, whom we call “the professor,” suggested sitting around a campfire and just talking about what it means if what has gone before has lost its formerly powerful relationship with what comes next. He says we need to sit with that and let it soak into our bones before we can move forward in dealing with climate (not word for word, but you get the idea).

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  5. Policy based on past conditions should be guided by range, extent within that range, and diversity and abundance of past native plant and animals species. These attributes can be correlated to some degree with past climate changes by using pollen analysis, tree ring analysis of old-growth, and other fossil evidence.

    Historic conditions can guide forest restoration actions by providing models of desired future conditions, including resilience to catastrophic-scale wildfires and undesired effects of wildfire intensity.

    Restoration means to return to a past condition or conditions, which require a knowledge of those conditions and an understanding of desired future conditions. Fewer, older trees? More wildflowers? Greater protein production? More game animals? Greater numbers of specific listed species? Historical research provides insights into these possibilities under a wide variety of ever-changing climate conditions (which parameters can be readily observed currently by simple changes in elevation, aspect, topography, and geographic location).

    When we do historical research in western US forests we discover that people, more than bugs or climate change, are the key drivers. And, typically, people using fire and fuels on a regular basis in consistent patterns.

    I like to define “restoration” as restoring people to the environment. From that perspective, Wilderness is an entirely racist doctrine, as are “let it burn” fires and allowing large swathes of dead trees to rot or burn in place. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and landscape historians can say why that is. Most forest ecologists and wildlife biologists seem clueless.

    Question one, therefore, is: What was the extent, structure, and general species composition of past forests? Two: “Which of those conditions would we prefer to have today? Three: Who were the people that created and/or maintained those desired conditions and how did they do it? Four: Can we obtain desired future conditions by replicating past actions?

    Planning for the future without an understanding of the past is almost always a sure path toward unintended — and usually undesired — consequences.

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  6. “So what is the policy question?”

    The policy question seems to be about the validity of assumptions of MPB outbreaks and the appropriate management response — calling into question, the highly questionable premises and ultimate objectives advanced under the rubric of “collaboration”, “stewardship” and “restoration”.

    Demonstrating this question of validity, the “Lawsuit over Seeley Timber Sale reveals split among environmental groups”, also reveals the split among wildlife biologists around MPB effects, and foresters making claims of “restoration” which are in conflict with NFMA and NEPA (providing valuable insights into why the deregulation and re-regulation of bedrock environmental legislation is featured so prominently in your posts, as well as Martin Nie’s parallel denouncements while cheerleading “collaboration”, “stewardship” and “restoration”. In one case, Nie went so far as to metaphorically refer to the citizen defense of environmental law on the Tongass National Forest as “pathological”.)

    In the post, “Lawsuit over Seeley Timber Sale…”, the following quote reveals serious division even within the ranks of (current and former) USFS biologists:

    “Sara Jane Johnson was a Forest Service wildlife biologist before she became director of the Native Ecosystem Council. In a statement, she argued that removing beetle-killed trees hurt habitat more than helped it, because it took away nesting areas and cover used by everything from woodpeckers to lynx and grizzly.”

    That’s but one example of the policy question and the political opportunism couched in the marketing of “collaboration”, “stewardship” and “restoration”.

    Reply
    • Then there’s that annoying assumption of preservationists that the pure lodgepole model fits for all public forests, proclaiming that ALL wildfires and firestorms have their “benefits”. Talk about “political opportunism”!! All along, I have been explaining that, to some, “collaboration”, “consensus” and “compromise” are evil “C-words”. Especially when, in their minds, consensus and compromise will never happen, if they have a say in it. Going into “collaboration” without any intent to reach consensus and compromise, makes a sham of the whole process. All projects, as well as the “No Treatment” alternatives, include benefits and impacts. I truly believe that we need to more intensely analyze those “No Treatment” alternatives, to document what will probably happen if we do nothing. I tend to think Judges might see thing differently when presented with such a scenario.

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    • David, I am not clear on what you are saying.

      Probably because I am a more concrete thinker, but many are, so I think it is helpful for us to work on a translation. You said

      “The policy question seems to be about the validity of assumptions of MPB outbreaks and the appropriate management response”.

      I don’t think that there’s a lot of disagreement about fuels treatments around communities with lots of dead lodgepole
      1) to change fire behavior to make it more treatable and
      2) to protect firefighter safety in falling or jackstrawed trees.

      Outside the WUI, there might be other values people want to protect, or people might want to develop places that are good to change fire behavior, including along roads. If I understood more specifically what kinds of management responses you are talking about, it would be helpful.

      Honestly I still don’t see that what happened in the past in the vegetation with fire and bugs is relevant to the question above. Please help me see that, or whatever other “management responses” you are talking about.

      You also said “foresters making claims of “restoration” which are in conflict with NFMA and NEPA (providing valuable insights into why the deregulation and re-regulation of bedrock environmental legislation is featured so prominently in your posts,”

      Now everyone knows that I am not a fan of using the word “restoration” because it implies that people can go back in time and leaves unclear investment choices, that should be openly examined, about which things we want to go back to, why, and the costs associated and likelihood of needing additional costs in the future to keep up the “restoration.” There are truly easy to agree to and implement restoration efforts like longleaf restoration, then there is the idea of restoring the West to Native American-managed fire regimes with people everywhere, Clean Air regulations, and with climate change. They are clearly different kinds of things although both could be called “restoration.”

      But I still don’t see why a fuzzy concept, as used currently, like restoration would, in and of itself, be in conflict with NEPA and NFMA. The “deregulation” assertion sounds kind of ad hominem (or ad feminam?). Everyone knows I love NEPA and NFMA as they are the source of my income and allow me to take wonderful vacations and feed my family. I would say, though, that in this economic climate, I think we need to consider more effective and efficient ways of producing environmentally desirable outcomes (without our intentions being questioned).

      Actually that seems to be a stock-in-trade of current US political discourse (questioning people’s motives instead of discussing the issues) but in our little world of this blog we don’t have to do it. I hope we can walk into this little virtual room and be safe from the swirling undertow of vitriol.

      You also said “Sara Jane Johnson was a Forest Service wildlife biologist before she became director of the Native Ecosystem Council. In a statement, she argued that removing beetle-killed trees hurt habitat more than helped it, because it took away nesting areas and cover used by everything from woodpeckers to lynx and grizzly.

      OK, so I’m not a wildlife biologist, but where I come from dead trees fall down. When they’re down birds can’t nest in them anyway, and I think they are too low to provide hiding cover. I must be missing something here. Can anyone help me out?

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  7. (btw I’m not getting any notice of your response despite having checked “notify me of followup comments… and posts”)

    You state:
    “I am not clear on what you are saying.

    Probably because I am a more concrete thinker, but many are, so I think it is helpful for us to work on a translation.”

    (Whew, Sharon. There’s a great angle)

    Okay, if concrete is going to be your qualifier for “thinking”, (and its own not-so-subtle form of ad hominem aspersions which infer that the newspaper account I (and you) quote is not “concrete” enough to serve as an example of questionable policy claims because you “…just don’t get the link between this study and any policy issue today”, even though you quote the policy issue yourself.)

    You are decidedly incorrect in characterizing those quotes:
    ‘You also said “Sara Jane Johnson was a Forest Service wildlife biologist…”

    No Sharon, I am quoting an article which is quoting a biologist. I can’t have “said” that.

    I would request that you untwist your (humor?) from ad hominem’s generally accepted (non)-gender specific meaning. Your tongue-in-cheek claim of “ad feminem” is off the mark. Besides, we sure don’t need to have these waters of discussion any muddier with anti-feminist aspersions. I’ve been a solid supporter and self-proclaimed feminist for years now.

    Your ad hominem charge overlooks the fact that I included Martin Nie’s policy advocacy for the same “concrete” policy outcomes (under the agency/instituitional (UM) rubric of “collaboration, restoration and stewardship” while Martin decried “pathologic” citizen defense of environmental laws governing public lands). These concrete references mirror your own demonstrated biases of reregulation and deregulation. Your claim as professional beneficiary of NEPA are cliche’ and ring hollow, especially considering the legal record for the agency infractions of NEPA, the well-documented institutional antipathy, and the end runs around NEPA being attempted by roundtables convened by the National Forest Foundation and USFS touting “collaboration, stewardship and restoration” as documented in the referenced article.

    Also, to be clear, in the qualification of Ad hominem circumstantial:
    To quote Wikipedia,
    “Where the source seeks to convince the audience of the truth of a premise by a claim of authority or by personal observation, observation of their circumstances may reduce the evidentiary weight of the claims, sometimes to zero.”

    and,

    “where a source seeks to make a claim of authority or by personal observation, identification of conflicts of interest are not ad hominem.”

    I have in the past, outlined an appearance of conflict of interest, if not quid pro quo grants coming from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation which is funding the Tongass Futures Roundtable, AND granting several million dollars to the UM Flathead Lake Biological Station in the wake of Martin Nie’s (as professor of UM) published arguments in support of “collaboration stewardship and restoration” on the Tongass, while attacking the citizen defense of NEPA and NFMA there.

    The lawsuit over Seeley Timber Sale replicates much of the same issues on the Tongass brought about by the roundtable “collaboration” agenda pushing free market environmentalism without ever naming it as such. These same concrete policy dynamics which would opportunistically use MPB effects to justify further timber harvest, convince sold-out enviros to suspend citizen defense of NEPA, and NFMA, and otherwise “collaborate” as salaried, outsourced functionaries of stewardship and restoration based timber sales.

    It is clear you are unfamiliar with the role of large woody debris in small mammal populations in relation to supporting healthy predator populations and species diversity,as well as the importance of understory, and the value of snags (standing or down) in maintaining habitat and nesting requirements, sequestering carbon, and rebuilding soils.

    Reply
    • David, I will check with WordPress on the “notify me” question. They are usually pretty good about things, so that is odd.
      You said:

      “Your claim as professional beneficiary of NEPA are cliche’ and ring hollow, especially considering the legal record for the agency infractions of NEPA, the well-documented institutional antipathy, and the end runs around NEPA being attempted by roundtables convened by the National Forest Foundation and USFS touting “collaboration, stewardship and restoration” as documented in the referenced article.”

      I think you are conflating “the Forest Service” and me personally. I am a late-comer to the NEPA world, having spent most of my career as a forest biologist. So I don’t feel that I am related to any institutional infractions or antipathy. I just go to work every morning and try to do the best I can to “tell the truth and obey the law” (thank you Jack Ward Thomas!). As to the NFF, my only dealings with them are lunches with nice people who work there- I don’t actually have any work-related connections.

      After spending some time (this beautiful Saturday afternoon) looking at the documents related to this project, I just can’t draw a line between the project and “free market environmentalism.” You’ll have to help me with that.

      I think that you are impugning the motives of folks who disagree with you. Terms such as “sold-out” environmentalists does not show a respect for the fact that people with environmental leanings can legitimately have different viewpoints.

      Finally, I do understand the utility of snags, but I don’t believe that there is a Correct Number of Snags which just happens to be All Snags Currently There Plus All Trees That Might Turn Into Snags.

      What gets lost here also is that there are very smart, well-educated professionals who have actually looked at the site, understand the creatures in the area, and made judgements that they have defended in public documents. This discussion would be more meaningful to me if we could really understand more specifically what the concerns are, where you think these people went wrong and why.

      Reply

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