Academic tiff over wildfires rekindled- from Arizona Daily Sun

Colorado State University researchers examine a stand of dead and dying aspen trees in southwestern Colorado in 2006.

Note from Sharon.. I wasn’t around to post this earlier today. To restate what I’ve said before,
it’s not what used to happen that matters (vegetation fire histories). It can’t matter if climate change is really “unprecedented” as per climate scientists. Assuming that they are correct, we can’t go back- we need to move forward carefully and respectfully of the people and the land.

That’s why I think fire ecologists can debate what used to happen till the cows come home (or their permits have been bought out by conservation organizations;)) but we should be more concerned about managing for the future. Vegetation ecologists think that past vegetation ecology should drive the future (after careful study of past vegetation ecology). Other people might frame the question differently.

Should we, in the interior west, manage tree vegetation outside the WUI for defensible space?
Framed that way, many more disciplines might have something to say. Plus of course “should” is a normative (value), and not a science (empirical) question.

Academic tiff over wildfires rekindled

CYNDY COLE Sun Staff Reporter | Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 6:00 am | (0) Comments

An academic tiff over whether catastrophic wildfires can be prevented has broken out anew just as a broad-based northern Arizona coalition is getting set to try to do just that.

Two researchers at the University of Wyoming contend that stand-replacing crown fires on the order of 2002’s Rodeo-Chediski fire and last year’s Wallow fire were once the norm on the Mogollon Rim.

“It’s probably not going to be the case that you can prevent these high-severity fires,” said Bill Baker, a researcher in ecology and geography there.

Local researchers wasted no time in terming the paper “fringe” research far outside the mainstream.

“The overwhelming evidence from decades of research by scores of scientists is that ponderosa pine forests over evolutionary time have been shaped by frequent, low-intensity fires, not stand-replacing fires,” wrote Wally Covington, director of Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, in an e-mail. “Further, fires on the scale of the Rodeo-Chediski and the Wallow Fire are an unprecedented threat not only to plant and animal communities, but also to watershed stability and to the human communities that depend on frequent fire forests for natural resource values and jobs.”

BIG PUSH TO THIN

Covington and other local researchers contend that wildfires are bigger than normal now, and it’s due to unhealthy forests that have grown abnormally dense because of factors like fire suppression, logging and grazing.

The University of Wyoming researchers find otherwise, saying that thick forests and big fires are a norm here.

This is significant because the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests are now on the brink of a major push — the largest in the country — to get commercial outfits to thin about 30,000 acres per year of smaller-diameter trees as a proposal to make the forest healthier.

A decade-long contract will likely be granted in a few months with support of loggers and conservationists to begin some of this work near Flagstaff and Williams.

EVIDENCE FOR THINNING INCOMPLETE

Baker and a second researcher used data from early surveyors working in the 1880s to determine that the forest here, along the Mogollon Rim, was once a mix of wide-open parks and about two-thirds dense stands of trees.

“They actually have a little booklet that they carried with them. And they wrote as they walked along the lines … they described how dense the forests were, and they recorded information at the corners about the trees that were there,” Baker said.

The researchers appear to oppose some of the planned forest thinning.

“These efforts are expensive and have some negative ecological impacts, and evidence to support them is spatially and temporally incomplete,” Baker and researcher Mark Williams wrote in their research. “…Common management practices today include extensive, rather uniform reduction in tree density, removal of understory shrubs and small trees, and other fuel modifications to lower fire severity. Our reconstructions show that these common practices, if widespread, will move most dry forests outside their historical range of variability, rather than restore them, probably with negative consequences for biological diversity.”

APPLES VS. ORANGES

But Pete Fule, a professor and expert in fire ecology at Northern Arizona University, said the research out of Wyoming could be problematic because it groups together forests that have different fire regimes and is “not consistent with the findings of literally hundreds of other researchers.”

What used to be considered a “severe” fire is measured much differently today, he said, so to compare the two is to weigh apples against oranges.

“It is almost certainly not a straight comparison,” Fule said.

Added Covington:

“The weight of the scientific evidence coupled with the current outlook for increasingly severe fire seasons are a call to action. These facts coupled with the historic increases in size and severity of crown-fires throughout the West, but especially in Arizona and New Mexico, point to the need for redoubling our efforts to restore landscapes on the scale of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. We have already wasted too much time with bickering over fringe ideas,” he wrote.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at ccole@azdailysun.com.

Read more: http://azdailysun.com/news/local/state-and-regional/academic-tiff-over-wildfires-rekindled/article_56b19873-4dfc-530c-a3d8-a99844c6d290.html#ixzz1nGxQVYwR

16 thoughts on “Academic tiff over wildfires rekindled- from Arizona Daily Sun”

  1. Sharon, I interviewed Mark Williams today to learn more about this. In every field and every human endeavor, we strive to apply the lessons of the past to try and make the future better, and that goes for forest ecology and public land management, as well. To ignore new science just because it doesn’t fit the current paradigm of “forest restoration” would be folly. I agree that the future may be uncertain because of climate change (and potentially other factors that we haven’t identified yet) but we can surely use new information about past fire ecology to help shape forest management for the future. It might help answer the question whether we can, or should, manage outside the WUI for defensible space or any other purpose.

    Reply
    • Bob- I absolutely agree with you on the general concept of learning from history. But the application of those lessons is not a question for scientists alone, but to be debated by the public.

      Let’s take an example. Suppose we look at history and say that the Los Angeles basin was populated by 2000 (I am just making this up) Native Americans in 1500. What does that tell us about what we should do today? Return to 2000? Yes, information of how species used to interact may be valuable (although perhaps not as valuable as people applying for grants may claim ;)) but needs to be placed in context of other information and values.

      Why I pointed this out in these papers is that I agree with Covington in that:

      Further, fires on the scale of the Rodeo-Chediski and the Wallow Fire are an unprecedented threat not only to plant and animal communities, but also to watershed stability and to the human communities that depend on frequent fire forests for natural resource values and jobs.”

      To me it doesn’t really matter if they are precedented or unprecedented (are the populations and structures in Arizona precedented or unprecedented?). We have empirical evidence that shows that fires can be destructive. We can use information from the past but cautiously in projecting the future. I hope the quotes below are accurate, I didn’t double check.

      These efforts are expensive and have some negative ecological impacts, and evidence to support them is spatially and temporally incomplete,” Baker and researcher Mark Williams wrote in their research. “…Common management practices today include extensive, rather uniform reduction in tree density, removal of understory shrubs and small trees, and other fuel modifications to lower fire severity. Our reconstructions show that these common practices, if widespread, will move most dry forests outside their historical range of variability, rather than restore them, probably with negative consequences for biological diversity.”

      Let’s look at the linkage between facts found and conclusions drawn.
      “evidence to support them is spatially and temporally incomplete” I don’t even understand what that means. Do we have some kind of commonly agreed upon “completeness” factor before scientific research counts?

      “Our reconstructions show….. if widespread” of course, how widespread can they be, given that they are “expensive”?
      Aren’t dry forests in the Interior West already outside their HRV due to fire suppression?
      “Probably” is a concept always of interest in scientific publications- interventions are designed to protect biological diversity, so a helpful example of “if you did this much, we think you would see a reduction in this aspect of biological diversity” would be helpful. Except that’s not what the study studies, so you couldn’t really say that based on this study.

      I would also argue that characterizing the spatial distribution of fuel treatments as “extensive” is inaccurate for Colorado and Wyoming, at least.

      You have to assume that HRV was right and other things would be less good. But that is a value and not necessarily science. Plus the likelihood of us getting back there, either by doing something or by doing nothing, given the changes we have experienced, is infinitesimally small.

      The idea of “restoration” when you’re talking about vegetation, is fraught with difficulties. That’s probably worthy of another post.

      Reply
  2. (hooboy…here we go again)

    Sharon Says:
    “it’s not what used to happen that matters (vegetation fire histories). It can’t matter if climate change is really “unprecedented” as per climate scientists.”

    Sharon, it CAN matter, and likely will, “matter” Sharon, and you know it.

    Historical events can provide insights into choosing efficacious actions. Unprecedented causation agents acting within a given system can effect similar results to historical events.
    These history lessons can and will provide clues based upon current events within that same system. To disregard causation leading to global warming because human agents are to blame for increased GHG instead of “natural” causes, is to suggest humans are separate from nature — which is itself at the origins of our most urgent dilemma.

    Besides, Sharon, what if history is all we have to reference in order to move forward with efficacious action on the single most critical problem of history? Are you (cynically) suggesting since anthropogenic factors are unprecedented, we should ignore historically similar climatological events, and further, hamstring an appropriate response by ignoring precautionary principles — and instead subject the decision making to the very same corrupted political process which created the problem in the first place, through (slyly) advocating to “move forward carefully and respectfully of the people and the land.”?

    Sharon you’ve missed your calling. That’s best known as marketing, not science.

    If you actually believe the sales pitch, I am left thoroughly stunned and chagrined, that you can be a handmaiden to the prevailing political forces profiteering off “adaptation’ versus urgently applied direct intervention(putting at risk the investment portfolios of the 1 percentile). With so much at risk — as we approach the final closing moments for an opportunity of applied, efficacious problem solving, you seem to advocate ignoring history.

    Not a good idea Sharon.

    Whew. Talk about opportunity costs.

    Reply
    • David, as usual you agree with me in some things and come to different conclusions. Of course, I don’t think humans are separate from nature.

      1. I do think that history can provide lessons. But we have to do it carefully. For example, there used to be mammoths. Now there aren’t. Does that mean we should “restore” mammoths?

      2. I don’t know what you would mean by “similar” climatological events to what is occurring. If there were a warming period in the past like the one today, starting with the same assemblages of organisms and changing over time, that we could peruse, that might be useful information.

      3. I think it’s interesting to compare watershed and veg people. If you ask a water person about restoration activities, they can tell you why those activities are “good” for the hydrologic processes, and/or water quality. If you ask a veg person, they can tell you that “this is the way that they used to be, and so we assume they are good”. A very different approach, to my mind.

      4. I am not a very good marketing person. You can ask anyone. We all have different gifts.

      5. Fundamentally, I don’t believe that we are on the verge of disaster. In terms of climate change, what we need is cheap low-carbon energy and I agree with you, not cap’n’trade. I’ll post something I read recently that is optimistic about it.

      Reply
      • “David, as usual you agree with me in some things…”

        Sharon, try not to mistake “agree” (consistent with, consent, or concur,) with a coincidental acceptance of certain irrefutable facts.
        And try to imagine, the utter refutability and absurdity of your arguments.

        You state:
        1. I do think that history can provide lessons. But we have to do it carefully. For example, there used to be mammoths. Now there aren’t. Does that mean we should “restore” mammoths?

        Sharon, your penchant for absurdity never ceases to amaze me. No, it doesn’t mean we should restore mammoths. I think mammoths as an extinct species and genus, provide an important history lesson though. Of course, they are un-restorable to begin with. No one is arguing to restore the unrestorable — only to learn from the example and correct for those actions under our control.
        The history lesson of the extinction of the mammoth genus and all its species is regarded as having two likely causes:
        Climate change, and anthropogenic extirpation. This should be regarded as an important history lesson. For some, it is.

        You state:
        2. I don’t know what you would mean by “similar” climatological events to what is occurring.

        I mean when temperatures rise, ice melts, sea levels rise, massive extinction events occur, chaos ensues. Try to refrain from extolling the bright side of “irreversible, catastrophic, climate change”, or that it is inevitable, Sharon. Try to refrain from bolstering the notion we can both profit from and “manage” this course of events into our collective oblivion.

        You state:
        3. I think it’s interesting to compare watershed and veg people.

        I try to go there Sharon, but I don’t find your comparisons useful. It just leaves me with a sense of how such constrained mindsets demonstrate devolution of the species, not evolution. Fortunately, you are representing an outlier position on climate change which equivocates the outcome of charting Titanic’s course through miles of icebergs. (I know, you’re thinking of the disaster management opportunities, but there’s just no future in it Sharon.)

        Unfortunately, there’s a useful purpose for people like you within the agency and the ‘oil’igarchy driving these events and charting these courses.

        You state:
        4. I am not a very good marketing person. You can ask anyone. We all have different gifts.

        Sharon, I completely agree, I never claimed you were a good marketeer. “Move forward carefully and respectfully of the people and the land” is the mark of a bad Marketeer. The line is cliche’, transparently self-serving, and given the agency record, utterly refutable.

        You state:
        “5. Fundamentally, I don’t believe that we are on the verge of disaster.”

        Sharon, again, fortunately you occupy an outlier position on this matter. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter whether you “believe” this constitutes being on the verge of disaster or not– the climate disasters are already occurring — worldwide. Positive feedbacks too — such as snow/ice-albedo feedbacks, melting permafrost is releasing methane, droughts causing wildfires, etc.

        There will always be money to be made defending outlier positions. Denying impending disaster and equivocating outcomes of irreversible catastrophic climate change in the midst of unfolding disasters is not only bad science, but bad karma.

        Good luck with the latter.

        Reply
        • David, I’m not sure, are you accusing me of not saying what I really feel? However bad a marketer I am, I am not known for telling things the way I see them.

          Let me be clear: I think we should do something about GHG’s.
          I think we should develop, and give to poor people, a cheap low carbon source of energy.

          I also believe that we don’t know how bad the course we have already set will be, and we will probably never know exactly what percentage of the change is caused by AGW compared to natural. Our only hope is to work together to deal with the changes.

          Reply
      • Sharon says:
        5. Fundamentally, I don’t believe that we are on the verge of disaster.

        http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2012/02/disinformation-social-stability-and-moral-outrage.html

        Disinformation, Social Stability and Moral Outrage

        By DONALD A BROWN on February 25, 2012

        (excerpts)

        “Those who deny the reality, importance, or magnitude of climate change warrant our collective outrage. Whether by action or inaction, their denial blinds us to the risks, vulnerabilities, and threats to our well-being posed by climate change. Insofar as claims of ignorance are becoming increasingly implausible, those who support or propagate the disinformation campaign about climate change are guilty of more than deception. They are guilty of exacerbating risks to our collective well-being and of undermining society.”

        (snip)
        “The recent IPCC SREX report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters To Advance Climate Adaptation, (IPCC, 2012), paints a vivid picture of the risks and vulnerabilities presented by climate change, both now, and in the future. Similar warnings have been expressed in the United States National Academy of Science’s recent report America’s Climate Choices (US Academy, 2011) and in a wide range of other sources. What should we say about those who in the face of overwhelming evidence that we are at risk of significant harms encourage us not to act in the face of those risks? What would we say of those who convince us that an impending flood is not real, and hamper our efforts to prepare for, or minimize the effects of that flood?

        This question should frame the way we think about the current effort to deny the clear and overwhelming scientific consensus that we are facing a changing climate, with the risks and concerns noted by those best able to assess them. After all, these vulnerabilities pose a risk to our well-being; they have great moral significance.”

        Reply
        • I never said that we shouldn’t do anything about climate change.
          Also, I believe that all the people on this blog, and even people whose tactics I don’t support, share the intention of making this world a better place. We just choose different ways of doing it.

          I find accusing other people of “undermining society” if they don’t share your views (as in the excerpt you quoted) exactly the kind of rhetoric that drives people apart and keeps them from working together to develop solutions.

          Reply
          • Correct, you did not say we shouldn’t do anything about climate change. What you did say was “Fundamentally, I don’t believe that we are on the verge of disaster.” I’d like to see this position explained because it runs contrary to all indications that we are already experiencing positive feedbacks and climate forcings. I say this because it is also “exactly the kind of rhetoric that drives people apart”, from meaningful appreciation of the urgency of the moment.

            Sharon, there are many indications we are long past the “verge” ( “an extreme limit beyond which something specified will happen”) and are instead in the midst of an unfolding climate disaster that is already happening.

            Obviously, Colorado has yet to feel the full force of climate impacts experienced in Alaska, Australia, Africa or Bangladesh, but that doesn’t mean you have presented the grounds to deny these unfolding disasters of increasing magnitude and frequency aren’t exacerbated by global warming. Given the inertia of the oceanic, atmospheric and meterological systems involved, it is clear we are well behind the curve of timely climate and energy policy corrections.

            This cannot be a good thing, and it concerns me greatly to hear a Forest Service scientist make such statements.

            Reply
            • David, there is no doubt that the climate is changing. Yet as I read the climate literature, attributing specific bad weather events occurring today to climate change is more difficult and controversial within the scientific community. But it will always be difficult to attribute short term things to a specific (AGW) long term change. We have to do models with and without it, etc.

              Here’s something from Roger Pielke, Jrs’s blog about one piece of it-extreme events. Note the role of the reinsurance industry and academics who want federal funding for more climate change research. There is certainly some conflict of interest in many of the sources of information.

              So it is difficult to know at this point. “Tipping points” are a concept hypothesized by scientists. Remember, as Haldane said, the “universe is queerer than we think, queerer than we can think.”
              So to me the question is if you believe that things are really really really serious and I believe that things are serious, can we agree on policy interventions to reduce GHGs and adapt to the changes already underway?
              Neither you nor I like carbon markets, so what interventions are you thinking about? And in the context of this blog, how does that relate to forests?

              Reply
  3. Covington is right and the fire ecologists are wrong. The end.

    Sharon, as an historical ecologist and as a long-time reforestation contractor (2 mostly separate careers), I couldn’t agree with you more regarding all the tree ring analysis, fire return interval, natural fire regime hocus-pocus that passes as “fire history” these days. I think that the miniscule amount of data used by these types of research — and the broad, sweeping conclusions that that are derived from these samplings — is almost completely unnecessary for forest planning purposes. Mostly because the data doesn’t match the actual past and is mostly irrelevant in regards to most desired futures.

    However, I believe that actual landscape-scale fire histories of an area (e.g., Pyne; Covington, Bonnicksen; Kay; Anderson) provide highly valuable insights and a wide range of desirable alternatives that have proven successful in the past. Also, the standard litany of “don’t do this” experiences. Palynalysis tells us that trees have hardly migrated at all during all of the climate changes since the last ice age. Archaeology tells us people have been here the entire time since then, too. Douglas-fir and white oak, and almost all of their associates, tell us they can co-exist very well with people over long periods of time, in all kinds of weather, and over a broad range of elevations; from Mexico to Canada, and from the Pacific Ocean to the Rockies.

    What was here 100 and 200 years ago that people found so attractive? Was it mostly the same things both times? Or do values change over time — particularly during times of massive cultural and technological change — thereby directly affecting the numbers and locations of plants and animals across the landscape? And where does fire fit into this?

    I think those types of information — based on eyewitness accounts, maps, photos, measurements (including tree rings), and other documentation, combined with the values and desires of local residents — are critical to forest planning. Especially “restoration” planning. I think that it is extremely important to know what informed people want from their local forests at the very beginning stages of the planning process. Then check in with the city folks, politicians, and the university theorists. Let them know what you have in mind and why, and how you expect to get there.

    Reply
  4. “Covington is right and the fire ecologists are wrong. The end.”

    Not so quick there Bob. Are you really suggesting that the only type of fire that ever occurred in dry western forests was low-intensity ground fire? And that never before in history has a moderate- and high-severity fire made it into the canopy of ponderosa pine trees? Not even during a 95 degree day with 40 mph winds and dry-lightening strikes back in 1776?

    And are you also suggesting that western dry forests were uniformly open and park-like and that none of these forests included any variations over space and time that included both some dense and open forests. Not even in that slightly wetter draw on a north-facing aspect?

    Honestly, I’m not the science-head that some people are, but having walked around different types of forests since I was a child I really fail to understand what’s so ground-breaking, or evil, about the Baker-Williams study. The study seems pretty matter-of-fact to me.

    Ed made a great comment on the original post of the study:

    “The fact is that our western forests are (and were) very complex ecosystems that vary greatly from one drainage to another, from one aspect to another, from west of a high ridge to east of a high ridge, from creek bottom to crag. So variabllity is the word. Geographically and from decade to decade, from century to century.”

    Reply
    • Hi Matt: Good to hear from you. The reason I was being so “quick” is I was trying to be a little humorous. The words “the end” appearing as a second sentence IS kind of quick, and I thought a fun way to make a point. The point was NOT, however that the “only type of fire that ever occurred in dry western forests was low intensity ground fire,” as you suggest. Campfires are another type of fire I know “occurred,” as an example.

      Again, a little “quick” humor to make a point, but it is an important point. Think of all the snags and dead wood you could find within a mile of a major campground or townsite with a history of using firewood. Or three miles (brisk one-hour walk). The answer is no snags, and tons of dead wood — all gathered together into stacks of firewood waiting to be used for cooking, heating, lighting, and campfire sing-along purposes. Also, tools, structural materials, planks, carvings, canoes, and skirts.

      Try a crown fire in that scenario! Add landscape-scale broadcast burning practices to the mix (which you know as “frequent low intensity ground fires”), and it soon becomes impossible to create the types of fuel loads and configurations necessary to have the types of catastrophic-scale wildfires we have been having the past 25 years. Not near enough fuel, limited stands, belts, and patches with contiguous flammable (conifers, not hardwoods) canopies capable of hosting such a a stand-replacement event in the first place, and not enough contiguity among such stands and patches to spread very far (relatively speaking).

      I liked Ed’s characterization, too. He just left people out. The only animal capable of starting a fire. Variabilities include population numbers, land use patterns, local politics, and fire use.

      Reply
  5. All this simply underscores the need for site-specific analysis and appropriate action. Does this study imply a blanket restriction on all the thinning projects, like the ones they describe? The study, if valid, should support more varied treatments but, does it imply that we need much less of them?

    However, in the world of economics, public safety and forest health, projects cannot strictly follow every scientific proposal. Just because there were catastrophic wildfires in the past doesn’t mean we should embrace them in today’s reality. One COULD say that cholera is “natural and beneficial”. and that it was very common in the past, so we should allow cholera to thrive, “as an integral part of our natural ecosystems”.

    Reply
  6. What I love about the Southwest forests is the fact that the “best available science” demands that you log the hell out of it to restore it to pre-settlement conditions. The reality is there was “an average” of 15-25 trees per acre. That’s a tree every 50 feet. Covington restored a patch of forest to that density and enviros called it a clearcut. We’ll see if those who claim to be committed to defending the sanctity of science can handle the truth of this pre-settlement forest. You gotta take the bad with the good fellas. We only lie to ourselves.

    A good part of the 30 page CBD appeal of the Hart Prarie Project on the Coconino NF, which was quietly dropped a week after the Schultz fire debacle, was spent denying the “science.” Their idea of science is thinning to create a monoculture of 75-100 evenly spaced trees (I won’t bother asking what you guys think of the CBD’s endorsing logging on 50,000 acres/year-a part of me admires either their pragmatism or PR savvy.) The 16” DBH diameter limit they demand is an attempt to create an old growth ecosystem that never existed. Anyone who has seen the “growth release” after a commercial thinning knows a 12” tree can surge to become a 16” tree in 20 years. Are we then gonna follow the best available science law and cut 75 of the 16”ers to restore it to pre-settlement conditions? If we don’t, then I guess it’s now the CBD that wants to play God and “improve” on nature.

    It will be interesting to see their reaction when the 4FRI EIS is released. Of course they’ll appeal it to give them standing, but we’ll have to wait and see how many “concessions” their threat of litigation will extort. I hope the USFS sticks to the “best available science”. Wouldn’t it be illegal if they ignored the BAS?

    Of course, some will say “let’s ignore the BAS in order to get a “social license” to log something. The paradox is that it will be many of the very same enviros who claim we need to ignore the social license to log elsewhere in favor of defending the best available science. In ten years, after more of the public see’s the “green islands” of thinned forest on the edge of black and wonder why we didn’t do more of them, there will be no shortage of social license. When Lake Tahoe burns off after many frustrating and failed years of restoration thinning, even Harry Reed will introduce legislation to reform NEPA and the ESA. If I was a radical enviro, I think I too would be paranoid that WUI thinnings are a slippery slope that will lead to massive return of logging.

    Reply

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