New study challenges forest restoration and fire management in western dry forests

(Below is a press release from the researchers. A copy of the study is available here. – mk)

New research shows that western dry forests were not uniform, open forests, as commonly thought, before widespread logging and grazing, but included both dense and open forests, as well as large high-intensity fires previously considered rare in these forests. The study used detailed analysis of records from land surveys, conducted in the late-1800s, to reconstruct forest structure over very large dry-forest landscapes, often dominated by ponderosa pine forests. The area analyzed included about 4.1 million acres on the Mogollon Plateau and Black Mesa in northern Arizona, in the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon, and in the Colorado Front Range.

The reconstructions, which are based on about 13,000 first-hand descriptions of forests from early land surveyors along section-lines, supplemented by data for about 28,000 trees, do not support the common idea that dry forests historically consisted of uniform park-like stands of large, old trees. Previous studies that found this were hampered by the limitations inherent in tree-ring reconstructions from small, isolated field plots that may be unrepresentative of larger landscapes.

“The land surveys provide us with an unprecedented spatially extensive and detailed view of these dry-forest landscapes before widespread alteration” said Dr. William Baker, a co-author of the study and a professor in the Program in Ecology at the University of Wyoming. “And, what we see from this is that these forests were highly variable, with dense areas, open areas, recently burned areas, young forests, and areas of old-growth forests, often in a complex mosaic.”

The study also does not support the idea that frequent low-intensity fires historically prevented high-intensity fires in dry forests.

“Moderate- and high-severity fires were much more common in ponderosa pine and other dry forests than previously believed ” said Mark Williams, senior author of the study and recent PhD graduate of the University of Wyoming’s Program in Ecology.

“While higher-severity fires have been documented in at least parts of the Front Range of Colorado, they were not believed to play a major role in the historical dynamics of southwestern dry forests .”

Some large modern wildfires, such as Arizona’s Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002 and the Wallow fire of 2011 that have been commonly perceived as unnatural or catastrophic fires actually were similar to fires that occurred historically in these dry forests.

The findings suggest that national programs that seek to uniformly reduce the density of these forests and lower the intensity of fires will not restore these forests, but instead alter them further, with negative consequences for wildlife. Special-concern species whose habitat includes dense forest patches, such as spotted owls, or whose habitat includes recently burned forests, such as black-backed woodpeckers, are likely to be adversely affected by current fuel-reduction programs.

The findings of the study suggest that if the goal is to perpetuate native fish and wildlife in western dry forests, it is appropriate to restore and manage for variability in forest density and fire intensity, including areas of dense forests and high-intensity fire.

Key findings:

•  Only 23-40% of the study areas fit the common idea that dry forests were open, park-like and composed of large trees.

•  Frequent low-intensity fires did not prevent high-intensity fires, as 38-97% of the study landscapes had evidence of intense fires that killed trees over large areas of dry forests.

•  The rate of higher-severity fires in dry forests over the past few decades is lower than that which occurred historically, regardless of fire suppression impacts.

The study was published online last week in the international scientific journal, Global Ecology and Biogeography. The published article can be accessed online here. The title is: Spatially extensive reconstructions show variable-severity fire and heterogeneous structure in historical western United States dry forests.

The authors are Dr. Mark A. Williams and Dr. William L. Baker, who are scientists in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography at the University of Wyoming.  Dr. Mark A. Williams is a 2010 PhD graduate, and Dr. William L. Baker is a professor, both in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography. In Dr. Williams’s PhD, he developed and applied new scientific methods for reconstructing historical structure and fire across large land areas in dry western forests. Dr. Baker teaches and researches fire ecology and landscape ecology at the University of Wyoming and is author of a 2009 book on “Fire Ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes.”

Contact Information:
Dr. Mark A. Williams, Program in Ecology and Department of Geography, Dept. 3371, 1000 E. University Ave., University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071. Email: [email protected].

Dr. William L. Baker, Program in Ecology and Department of Geography, Dept. 3371, 1000 E. University Ave., University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071. Phone: 307-766- 2925, Email: [email protected].

38 thoughts on “New study challenges forest restoration and fire management in western dry forests”

  1. An interesting study. I for one have been uncomfortable with the broad acceptance of “facts” about the pre-European forests of the west. How accurate and honest and complete this study is…I don’t know. All researchers are human and usually begin a “study” with some pre-conceived notion about the end results. A bias, so to speak. So I am not judging these results, only feeling better that someone with some credentials is looking further into this complex issue.

    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. Too much of the comment and political pressure associated with this issue is polluted by special interest needs and wants.

    The bottom line is that as long as the national forests are managed by Congres and administrations without thought to the forests and the future, it doesn’t make much difference what the researchers say or discover. Science is now secondary to politics. Funding soldiers in the Middle East is more important than properly managing our forests. Keeping General Electric happy is more important than satisfying the needs of a recreation-based small community. We need good science, but our ability to apply that science is just about dead

  2. A reminder that Arizona forests are remarkably different than other pine forests across the west. My visit to the north rim of the Grand Canyon showed me that those forests are “upsidedown”, with the wetter mixed-conifer forests, including firs, lodgepoles and aspen, at lower elevations than the iconic dry ponderosa pine forests. This fact does partially support the study but, this only increases the importance of site-specific science, and “desired future condition”. It seems that the mixed-conifer zones are the ones that are at highest risk, especially with fire suppression and “un-management”. These mixed conifer zones are growing in size, due to a lack of thinning and prescribed fires. Here in the Sierra Nevada, there are far more firs and cedar than ever existed in history. Old growth pines, very little understory, and ample bear clover made it easy for the former residents to maintain their lands. People live in these areas now, and we just can’t throw them/us under the bus.

  3. Sharon, here’s a story the Arizona Daily Sun did yesterday about Baker’s study and pre-eminent forest scientist Wally Covington’s response to it. Wally impatiently called called it “fringe research.” His response is the jmost effective counter to Baker’s study I can think of. I also find it peculiar that Baker’s research pops up in Arizona about the time the 4FRI is about to be released. Baker’s been pedeling this stuff for the last 10 years. I was going to email it too you-but I’m at work.

  4. “Here in the Sierra Nevada there are far more firs and cedar than ever existed in history”.

    True or false? I don’t know. It all hinges on how you define “history”. Most comments on this subject view history in a rather short term…100 to 300 yrs or so. These forests may be subject to a much longer time period between episodes of fire or eathquake or volcanic eruption. But I have problems with pat comments such as that quoted above.

    In the northern latitudes the only known time period we can pin down with any accuracy is the post glacial resurgence of plants and animals. And we know the climate changes from that date to today were huge.

    To get a good discussion on this issue we should agree on some definition of what we want to mangage for. Is it the forest ecosysem of 100 yrs ago? Or 200? Or pre-European inhabitants? Or pre-Indian? Lets define the issue better. Some researchers claim the tropical forests of South America were radically different 1000 years back due to human “management”. So, where do we want to go? Pick a date.

    • Well, since the California Indians, mainly Maidu, Mi-Wok and Paiute tribes, followed the receding glaciers in the Sierra Nevada, we won’t be going with the “man-less” option. *smirk* The sheer existence of 400 year old pines is testament to their knowledge and wisdom. Of course, they noticed when springs were recharged, after their burning practices. Of course, they noticed a boost in their hunting success when the deer came in to eat more of the grass grown since their fires.

      Since wildlife and other ecosystem services also have a baseline of Indian-managed forests, that is also a good reason to use those conditions as a part of the “future desired condition”. Adding modern man into the equation doesn’t have to significantly impact the restoration of those forests, since man has lived in those pine forests for many thousands of years. What is really missing is the large trees, and what has taken the place of those giants are thickets of moisture-sapping fir and cedar, both quite flammable and excellent ladder fuels.

      Now, I’m not saying we need monoculture tree farms. The best tree in the best spot should be encouraged to become our future old growth. Species isn’t a dealbreaker. It has been hotter in previous centuries, and we should be learning from analysis of that era, if “global warming” is to be heeded. The boom and bust cycles of California weather would seem to require a buffer zone of forest groundwater, achieved by a better balance of drought-resistant forests and tree densities.

  5. Derek, yeah, Covington should know a thing or two about “fringe research.” And really? Now a few quotes in a newspaper article is all that’s needed to “effectively counter Baker’s study?”

    Here’s some interesting snips from the Baker/Williams study:

    p. 8: “All the modern fires examined that were previously considered anomalously severe (Graham, 2003; Strom, 2005) appear to be within the range of historical variability based on the historical reconstructions of severity (Table 2). Indeed, even if these fires occurred repeatedly, they likely could not produce the level of higher-severity fire found in historical landscapes.”

    p. 9: “Common management practices today include extensive, rather uniform reduction in tree density, removal of understorey 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 (Keane et al., 2009).”

  6. .Strange how a researcher from Wyoming ends up in Arizona. Who paid for this research? Who funded it? Can someone tell me that? I’m sure he hasn’t been talking on the phone with anyone from the CBD or WEG-that would taint any research. I’m sure he’ll be quoted widely by them when they “appeal” the 4FRI EIS.

    AS far as fringe-I was reading an EIS from Montana last night regarding the low elevation ponderosa forests-and Baker’s name popped up as a “dissenting study” from the mainstream.

    His research is based on studys done in Ponerosa forets around Boulder Colorado and the Black Hills. 40% of the Black Hills pre-settlement ponderosa forests were burned off in high intensity stand replacing fires-this was verified by early foresters. However, Mr. Baker concluded that “high density old growth” was a major component of the BH’s, while early foresters found only 5% was high density old growth.

    I’ll read his study tonight, and see if he quotes some of the early foresters like Woolsey and Leiberg which are the basis for pre-settlement opinions. If he doesn’t, I wonder why he dismisses them?

  7. Derek wrote: “Strange how a researcher from Wyoming ends up in Arizona. Who paid for this research? Who funded it? Can someone tell me that?”

    Seriously, Derek. Is this all you got? We live in 2012. The U of Wyoming is about 650 highway miles from the North Rim, Arizona. Sure, that was a long journey back in 1870 in a covered wagon, but it’s a pleasant day’s drive in these modern times.

    RE: “Who paid for this research? Who funded it? Can someone tell me that?”

    Derek, if you bothered to consult the actual study, you would have been able to answer your own, somewhat paranoid, questions.

    This study is based upon work supported by the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, US Department of Agriculture, under agreement no. 2007-3501-18307 by the National Science Foundation under grants no. BCS- 0715070 and EPS-0447681.

  8. I think Ed hit it right on…

    “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 variability is the word. Geographically and from decade to decade, from century to century.”

    Not really any ground breaking science here, simply a paper supporting the notion that variability is inherent in natural systems. All the folks I have spoken with on this issue agree that low intensity, high frequency fire in dry forest types was common and a dominant factor, but also that if conditions are right, stand replacement fires can happen is most all forest types…thus creating the variability.

    The real challenge is to mimic this process in restoration treatments and until we are socially ready to put fire on the ground, it might be hard to do.

    An interesting side note…”And, what we see from this is that these forests were highly variable, with dense areas, open areas, recently burned areas, young forests, and areas of old-growth forests, often in a complex mosaic.” Sounds like a managed forest landscape without the roads. I’d be curious as to their guess of what percentage of “old growth” forest occupied the landscape in these dry forests? 5%? 10%? That would be my guess…

  9. You’re absolutely right Mathew, I was out of line. I do feel sheepish alluding to any conspiracy theories between Mr. Baker and the WEG.
    However, I still feel Sharon should publish Mr. covington’s response so the rest of us can get the “other side of the story” regarding this study. Mr. Covington is pretty highly regarded in Southwest circles.

    I read Baker’s study, and I couldn’t help but notice that in his analysis of the “burn severity” on the Wallow fire, which supposedly supports his contention that “current fires are no bigger than past fires,” he uses Wallow “soil burn severity” percentages and not “vegetation burn severity.” When you go to the BAER website quoted in the short bibliography on page 8 it is the “soil” burn severity map and not vegetation. AS I pointed out several months ago when the WildEarth Gaurdians published a similar story, without CLEARLY telling the reader you’re using soil severity, the reader naturally “assumes” the author is talking about vegetation. Of course, “soil” severity is much lower, and therefore gives the impression that not much was burned. Baker claims that only 15% of the Wallow suffered High severity fire, while the “BAER vegetation severity” shows that 40% suffered high severity. I’m sure it was just an oversight even though the BAER sight clearly states it’s “soil burn severity” you’re looking at.

    Using GLO survey notes is intriguing. I’ve looked at hundreds of old notes in my day. Great for telling you where the surveyors “entered timber” and “left timber” on the section lines. If I recall, if there were no suitable trees within 100′, you didn’t have to blaze a bearing tree? Otherwise, a BT was to be blazed in every section (4) at section corners. It stands to reason you picked the closest trees(I did), so one would get an idea of “density.” At the end of every one mile section line run, the surveyor would note “scattered timber” or “good timber”, but that was it.

    Anyway, I think I’ll rely on early foresters, who actually mapped and measured some plots, for pre-settlement conditions. Some of these early forester maps are pretty detailed with catagories such as “scattered timber’ or “under 2000 board foot”, 2000-5000 Bd. Ft., over 10,000 bd. ft. ect. ect. Or perhaps their work should be dismissed because they were just lackeys of the timber baron establishment.

    All I know about Mr. Baker, is in my opinion and in my experience he sometimes finds “old growth” where the early foresters didn’t.

    • Of course, the Wallow Fire impacts are far, far, FAR from over with. Let’s watch the drama unfold, before we make any snap decisions about the severity of the Wallow Fire. You can bet people are designing studies right now to discount the massive cumulative impacts that haven’t happened yet. But, happen, they will.

    • Derek: I have used GLO survey notes in my forest history research for more than 40 years. For example, two years ago I did a study where we created a GIS layer of 3900+ bearing trees (every single one entered) for a 230,000-acre forested area that was surveyed from 1855 until 1934. Last year I examined, with help, all of the maps hundreds of maps and thousands (maybe 10,000) of pages of GLO notes for a 1,400,000-acre area of the Oregon Coast, mapping early historical roads and trails (1826-1875). We also use Osborne photos, GPS-receivers, historical forestry maps, aerial photos, texts, digital cameras, etc., in this type of research — but the GLO notes are most critical for actual documentation purposes.

      The data is incredible — highly accurate gridded locations of individual bearing trees by species, diameter, general health, and day measured. Most of the major understory vegetation, too, mile by mile. Roads, creeks, trails, swamps, ponds, peaks, burned timber, young reprod, etc., etc. — often in exacting detail, unless the surveyor was lazy or running on a tight budget.

      Baker’s problem seems to be getting far afield, trying to make his data fit his preconceptions. Just a guess, based on this post and discussion and on Covington’s actual knowledge of fire and local forests. I’m interested in reading the paper just to see his methods of using and interpreting the survey data.

      • I’m aware of your work Bob. Your “Alsea(??)” valley research was a real eye opener for me years ago- turned me onto the whole “pre-settlement” forest thing. I read a lot of EIS’s around the inland west (I skip right to the vegatation section), and the one common thread in all of them when comparing todays forest to the HRV or “desired condition” is there’s a lot more “older forests” today and the biggest missing ecosystem component is “early seral.”

        A great paradox is the HRV is supposedly the basis for “ecosystem management”, but the USFS doesn’t have the guts to move in that direction. But then, wildfire will take us there and all is OK. Six generations of foresters put out fires and nurtured the young trees so our generation could have abundant timber resources, and now we want it all to burn.

        I can think of no one more qualified to “peer revue” Baker’s work than you.

        • Thank you, Derek: Your comments are much appreciated — it’s always nice to hear when one’s research is being used, and for the purposes intended.

          Peer review is a two-edged sword. The pal-review process that has developed over the past 60 years has resulted in much of what I feel to be wrong with science and science-based resource management these days. Junk gets printed by groups of like-minded people trying to justify their paychecks, tenure applications or whatever, by friends and colleagues — and anything that disagrees with this “consensus” is rejected. The resulting “peer reviewed” work is then held to be a portion of the “best available science.” Political science, maybe.

          There is a reason that I am not asked to review work by most agency scientists (although I do a fair amount of formal and informal peer review for others on a regular basis), particularly work such as Baker’s. It’s apparently the same reason that Baker likely did not cite my own work in this field, which is far more extensive than his. I’m not exactly sure what the actual “reason” is for this, but I call it the “Norm n’ Jerry” effect, based on when I first encountered it, about 30 years ago. No cite, no peer.

          I just did a radio interview on this very topic a few weeks ago, and it is a key reason I have been donating time as a Board Member of a new organization the past few years that is dedicated toward challenging government “science” on environmental issues by using legitimate peer review strategies:

        • Derek: You say “there’s a lot more “older forests” today and the biggest missing ecosystem component is “early seral.”

          Um, you’re not looking at the whole landscape. In the Pacific Northwest, late successional forest ranged around a mid-point of about 65% of the forest landscape, while younger forests made up the other 1/3. Today, the proportions are reversed. With older forests not only more rare but also highly fragmented by past logging and relatively less functional than indicated by their absolute abundance.

          You might be aware of the very high abundance of early seral forests on private forest lands. While it may be true that the habitat value of those early seral forests is quite lacking, the sheer quantity of early seral forests probably makes up for the lack of quality.

          Also, if we want more structurally complex early seral there are many options to enhancing early seral habitat without diminishing the already rare late successional forest, such as by: (a) improving retention requirements on private lands, (b) relaxing the conifer replanting requirements on private lands, (c) reforming our fire suppression and salvage logging policies, and (d) by prescribing small structure-rich “gaps” when we inevitably thin those young forests.

          • We have ALREADY “radically” reformed our salvage logging practices! No longer do we leave one or two snags per UNIT, in favor of leaving multiple sizes of snags per acre. Also, we take more of the smaller trees, if the “eco-footdragging” doesn’t cause those to become unmerchantable. Modern salvage projects lead to better “desired future conditions”.

            AND, of course, there will be no lack of gaps in thinning projects. The snail’s pace that such a process follows in today’s litigious world will see to that.

          • Good question “Tree”. My biggest fear is when someone “introduces” private property into the Forest Service debate, much like Martin Nie’s “checkerboard” railroad section scenario. My short answer to your “Northwest old growth” question is : I don’t care about old growth. There’s your “aha” moment-now I am worse than hitler(I don’t capitalize hitler) for not loving old growth. I don’t have a problem with it, I like to see it in scenic corridors, I think it should be managed for, but I don’t think it should “run the show.” Alabama has no old growth and yet the ecosystem hasn’t collapsed. MPB and Spruce beetle just extirpirated it from Colorado, and no one cries.

            The trouble with “deep ecology”, and ecosystem management for that matter, is it pretends we can have our cake and eat it too. The idea that we “could” have had both a primeval forest and our baby boomer houses is at cross purposes. Now I shall pull from the scabbard the “you live in a wood house too” line. If I must face the reality of “private lands are a part of the whole ecosystem,” then you must face that reality. The biggest reality is that environmentalism has failed dismally to “reduce public demand for natural resources.” I guess all the baby boomers grew up to be Republicans because they built houses with twice the square feet and use twice the electricity per capita as their fathers generation. We were going to change the establishment when all we really did was double the establishments carbon footprint. If I was a global warming alarmist-I would would be incredibly weighed down with depression over China.

            My favorite example of this “hubris” is the Southwest forests of Arizona. The party line repeated ad nausea is that “100 years of fire suppression and old growth logging” is what caused the Wallow fire (notice they never mention15 years of no logging that would have thinned a third of the forest-which is another story). This line carries with it the naive implication that we could have had an alternative historic ending if only we would have let the fires burn and not cut down the old growth. If you want to make that utopian fantasy a reality you better exchange your warm house for a loin clothe. Where would the wood have come from? It’s likely that most of Flagstaff’s historic district is built out of old growth. Let the fires burn? The pre-settlement fire return interval was 10-20 years, which means that 300,000 acres of Arizona would now be burning every year – and the EPA is worried about particulates and haze from the Four Corners Power Plant?

            No, the reality is society really doesn’t live it’s enviro idealism does it?

          • Tree: That “late successional” figure of 65% you give has been disproven with simple arithmetic time and again over the past 20 years, but won’t seem to die. It is a product of mythology, ignorance, semantics, incompetence, or outright deception — but it is not a condition ever actually measured on a regional basis.

            Assuming “late successional” (I don’t believe succession actually exists in nature in the way Clements and Norm n’ Jerry says it does, but that’s another conversation) is somewhere near “old-growth” in the age-classification system, then the figure is much, much closer to 5% to 25%, depending on your boundaries, your age-based definition of old-growth/late successional, and the year and month you select for a measurement.

            I like old-growth and think it should be intensely managed in order to pass as much of it forward into future generations as possible. I don’t swallow the “critical habitat” (except for professional wildlife ecologists, of course) aspect of old-growth, or the biodiversity silliness, but do think it is extremely valuable and irreplaceable on a cultural and historical basis (a living link between established and conquering societies), and has aesthetic and awe inspiring characteristics worth preserving and cherishing as well.

            But through active management, not the failed passive approaches taken by the environmental movement and their legal advisers over the past 30 years.
            management anti-logging “deep ecology” stuff we’re still being fed.

  10. My “area of study” doesn’t really focus on the PNW, but I’d love to read more about the 5%- 25% “old growth.” Fascinated with the pre-settlement forest ya know.

    Here’s another idea. Because of the evil fire suppresion, across the West there’s a “slug” of second growth forest that will begin “approaching” old growth status in another 30 years or so. When I spoke above about “EIS’s say the vast majority of forests are mature” this is what I mean (I also meant in the inland West of Mont, AZ, NM, COLO ect.). If a person were to thin these stands to “save” them from MPB and wildfire and give them that burst of growth to acheive larger diameter-we might just end up being able to pick and choose from a “pulse” of plentifull future old growth. The USFS is trying to do this now-and it is your “out” for finding “zones of agreement” Mr. Tree. If it doesn’t all burn up, we might just have more old growth than we know what to do with in 30-50 years.

    I was looking at a Montana state timber sale a couple weeks ago. The “average” diameter of the doug fir was 16″, which is “above average” for Montana sales. What was striking is that it’s 10 miles northwest of Whitefish Montana between the highway and the “Burlington Northern” railroad, which means it was probably logged 120 years ago. Some of the biggest trees today are in places that were the first to be logged. Some of the biggest second growth I’ve seen is in Lubrecht State Forest in Montana, which was a Anaconda Copper clearcut 100 years ago.

  11. Thanks Matthew and all those commenting for a great discussion on an important sustainable land management subject. I agree that a key aspect in this debate is the reality of “variability” when it comes to analyzing large areas over long periods of time in order to develop sustainable best practices moving forward.

    I am not a professional forester, however, as a sustainable land developer I will be using this evolving science and I would like to see more discussion on distant past human influence on forest ecosystems. Specifically, I have questions about the time between ancient Native American management and European settlement. The research above mentions surveyor records. If this coincided with settlement, would earlier European exploration and spread of disease and subsequent widespread indigenous population die off have led to extensive forest re-growth that then was perhaps misinterpreted by early surveyors and later scientists? This is a conclusion by “1491” author Charles Mann which has ramifications for the debate over what the ecosystem looked like before Columbus arrived and how we sustainably manage the landscape of the future. –

    Also, what about sustainable forest management during rapid climate change?

    Your comments and participation are welcome.

    Sustainable Land Development Initiative (SLDI)

    • As mentioned previously, the question that goes unanswered so far, is what previous condition does a manager manage for. That is a tought question that seems to be avoided.
      Has anyone seen a specific era, or century or condition mentioned in a forest plan or EA or EIS that points towards a goal? Waiting for an answer.

      • There are many examples. Take a look here at what the Ouachita National Forest is doing to restore open stand conditions in the shortleaf pine/bluestem ecosystem.

        • In FY 2011, the Quachita “cut” 90 million board foot of timber(MMBF). That made it #2 in the country for timber harvest. All “nine” national forests in Montana logged 134 MMBF. Out of the 90 MMBF on the Quachita, 63 MMBF was “sawtimber.” Out of the 134 MMBF on all “nine” forests in Montana, 70 MMBF was “sawtimber”(the rest being firewood and non-sawtimber). With pre-conceived ideas that all eastern forests were scrubby wastelands bought up for taxes in the 30’s, I was pleasantly suprised when I drove through the Quachita five years ago.

          • Some of the Ouachita was purchased (like most Eastern forests). Most was Public Domain land (like most Western forests). When I was a wildlife biologist there in the 80’s, the Ouachita cut 150 million board feet (not much at the time compared to some Western forests). Then there was a time when lawsuits brought all timber harvest there to a halt. I’m glad that happened. Some forward-thinking folks worked hard to understand what the forest there used to look like and to obtain consensus around what future conditions there should be. Getting the forest to that future state requires cutting trees and burning, two things that the Ouachita now does a lot of. While the ecosystem may be different from “western dry forests”, the principles for obtaining consensus around management should be the same: strive to understand the history and ecology, strive to understand the values of stakeholders, seek agreement on what is desired for the future, figure out what it will take to get there and what is possible/pratical, start doing it!

      • Sadly, some people wish for a humanless forest, with no human impacts, for better or for worse. While they pretend that “nature is taking its course”, nature has very little to do with what our forests are today. The preservationists will never answer that question for you, Ed.

        What IS clear is that tree densities and species compositions must change, as the annual precipitation cannot support the current unnatural and unhealthy conditions of overstocking they currently are in. Wildfires cannot be counted on to thin just the trees we don’t want. Prescribed fires cannot be accomplished in an amount that will make a difference.

  12. Ed said: “As mentioned previously, the question that goes unanswered so far, is what previous condition does a manager manage for.”

    Great question Ed. This is one of the reasons why so many of us have issues with Wally Covington’s “pre-settlement” model of forest restoration. Given climate change and so many other indications that the earth’s ecosystems are in serious decline does it make sense, or is it even possible, to try and turn back the clock to 1825? or 1492? or back to 476 as Rome was falling?

    The key that we’ve tried to explain is that we shouldn’t be looking at a point in time, but we should be active in removing impediments to naturally functioning ecosystems. Removing things like roads, damns, invasive weeds, etc. Such an approach helps get nature back on the right track without attempting to take the natural world back to a point in time which is just might be impossible to recreate.

  13. OMG, I think Matthew and I agree (!) with the “let’s not manage to the past conditions without understanding why a specific action would be a good idea into the future.”

    I also agree that generally “good management” (focusing on environmental problems and reducing them, while monitoring and adapting) is the fundamental action of climate adaptation.

    However, people want/need roads, water, tree products, ski experiences, natural gas, etc.
    So the balance really lies in the minds and hearts of well-meaning people working together in good faith, concerned about social, economic and environmental impacts at different scales, and supplied with scientific, practitioner and local information. I don’t see another way out of this.

    • I second your last paragraph, Sharon. But we need to keep in mind this question/comment, from Donnelly’s commentary, here :

      The most common “Collaboration” has to do with professional enviros self-selecting themselves to represent environmental interests in Collaborative Groups (usually called “Watershed Councils” or “Stewardship Councils”) around logging of our Public Lands. These “representatives” are approved by the relevant Agency and join with Big Timber and their usual pack of supportive public officials (all “stake-holders” in bureaucratic jargon) to hammer out agreements that always allow for more logging while that never-realized bone or two of promised protections is dangled in front of the public. As evidenced by recent appropriations for “fire-reduction logging,” the timber part of the deal always gets done. Yet, not a single acre ever gets set aside inviolate.

      Maybe we need to hear more about this from Matt Koehler, and others who for whatever reason are on the outside of these “collaboratives.” And maybe we need to look deeper into how collaboratives are formed, and how they actually operate.

      • The thing that bothers me most about agency acronyms is that they are often based on words that have been defined by university/agency personnel and then made into a series of capital letters that the rest of us are then encouraged to use. Is the result clarity or gibberish? My vote is for Babel, intentional or otherwise.

        Very much like the priests speaking Latin to illiterate English-speaking merchants and farmers — the word of God from our self-anointed hagiarchy: “Anna Domini NEPA, WUI, NFMA NSO ESA, Anna bisextus!”

        So, WUI wasn’t a word for most of my life, and I rarely ever (‘never”) use it for any actual discussion or planning considerations. These things seem to have become popular with agency people learning DOS-speak in the 1980s, who then discovered the power of inventing your own language and using terms that the commoners had never heard before and could barely comprehend.

        “Wildland?” In the USA? According to who? (I mean: “invented by what agency?”). And if we can’t accept some kind of new concept invented by some city-kid with a degree (from Stanford, if memory serves), then let’s just inject it into an acronym and all pretend that “wildland” is a word that can be used to draw lines on a map and establish “priorities.” THEN we can have an “interface” with the city-kids (“urban dwellers”)! Yay, mapped WUI! Protect the Interface!

        So, yes, a WUI in Idaho is exactly the same thing as that crazy WUI in downtown Manhattan that takes place after business hours (actually, technically, a “TWUI,” due to the temporal nature of the ephemeral WUI which creates “wild” and potentially dangerous situations in predictable locations as the evening progresses; particularly on weekends).

        In sum, WUIs, at best, are in the eyes of the beholder. Why are we even considering them? (Yes, that is a rhetorical question with a philosophical basis). It seems to me that the more this game is played, the richer and more powerful the environmental industry becomes — to the point that these NGOs, via their lawyers and select “scientists,” are forming partnerships with government agencies to create “collaborative relationships” that pointedly exclude the local residents and non-believers (“the rest of us”).

  14. It seems like some people may not want any trees cut, whether they go to timber companies or not. It seems like they want some form of concession – like more areas “set aside.” Yet in some parts of the country 70-80% of the acres are already in Wilderness or roadless.

    More “logging” more than what? If we use the definition of logging in the American Free dictionary “the work or business of felling and trimming trees and transporting the logs to a mill,” then we can use figures for harvested volume.

    The figures I have show that harvests on our National Forests declined by 84% between 1987 and 2008, i.e., from 12.7 to 2.0 billion (USFS 2011) . One could ask “are we arguing about “more” logging, or “any” logging?

    Let’s go back to the statement:

    to hammer out agreements that always allow for more logging while that never-realized bone or two of promised protections is dangled in front of the public.

    and ask “more than what?”

    • If people don’t want logging, there are venues for them to make their point, at scale and scope broader than site-specific projects. My point in #29 was, rather, that we ought to see who is at the table and who is left out — and why — in the make-up of collaboratives; and what type agreements, etc. are hammered out when cooperatives are part of governmental process–i.e. how they interrelate with NFMA, NEPA, FACA, etc. Perchance I was too quick to grab the quote I used. Maybe I should have used only

      The most common “Collaboration” has to do with professional enviros self-selecting themselves to represent environmental interests in Collaborative Groups (usually called “Watershed Councils” or “Stewardship Councils”) around logging of our Public Lands. These “representatives” are approved by the relevant Agency and join with Big Timber and their usual pack of supportive public officials (all “stake-holders” in bureaucratic jargon)….

      That seems to me to be a highly relevant question on the table.

  15. As a former member of a collabrative group I have some perspective on the role of these groups. But the one thread that seems very pervasive in many of the above comments involves logging, or thinning. Chainsaws are invariably involved, whether it is for sawlogs or to thin an overstocked stand for biofuel or to reduce fire hazards. Now I don’t react negatively to all chainsaw work, but here in steep, western mountain ecosytems it is the roading and machine churning of soils and (intentional or accidental) incursions into the riparian zones that causes me heartburn. And these factors are the major cause of opposition and challenges by environmental groups. Not to mention the need to protect what little old-growth stands remain in Inland Empire forests after over a century of logging.

    And, there is not a concensus in this area as to the future condition of these forests. Forest silviculturalists are persistent in advocating management that brings back western white pine and western larch early seral stands. Yes, white pine was a common, high-value tree species in north Idaho and parts of western Montana, but the sad fact of blister rust has made stands of yore practically impossible to reinstate. The USFS has spent millions over the past 50 years developing blister-rust resistent seedlings, and I guess that some folks feel a need to justify this investment by skewing “future forest conditions” towards this species. My point here, if it is not clear, is that there are significant agency staff who view the forest future condition in narrow-minded silvicultural models that give high priority to commercial removals over other uses/values. It will be interesting to see how the forthcoming Forest Plans describe “future conditons” here in north Idaho/western Montana.

    And please, don’t get me started on WUI zones rammed through by county disaster planners that extend a dozen miles or more into the forests beyond the actual urban interface neighborhoods Senseless and indefensible planning of the worst sort, with no rationale except as leverage to log or thin supported by the irrational excuse of reducing fire hazards to the urban zones. And none of the USFS fire specialists seem to have the courage to challenge these political decisions.

    • WUI zones should be fluid, with parameters fitting the land and the situation. What is a “proper” WUI in Montana, surely isn’t applicable to the San Bernardino, or the Sumter, or the Lincoln. Preservationism also insists that WUI’s remain tiny, ensuring that high intensity wildfires burn everything outside of the WUI’s to a crispy crunch. This also ensures that the treated areas will be at-risk to clouds of bark beetles, blowing into town, and killing the survivors. We’ve seen this mechanism in action in many parts of the West’s big wildfires. Again, “restoring” species compositions and tree densities could go a very long way to having resilient forests that resists drought, bark beetles and wildfires. Sadly, preservationists continue to support whatever happens to our unmanaged forests, as long as there are no chainsaws. I, personally, don’t think it is “senseless” to save endangered species habitats from huge catastrophic wildfires, like the Biscuit, the Wallow and others.

    • Ed, I don’t know if there are any political scientists who read this blog, but counties are another government entity, that ironically, the FS has to work with more closely due to the southern California plan lawsuit. You may not like what they do, or I, but they are elected officials, and I hope it’s not the role of federal fire specialists to trump local land use decisions.

      Here’s a good example of the Undersecretary and real political decisions about firefighting (the D’Amato air tanker incident). So please don’t accuse Jane Fuels Treatment Specialist of a lack of courage.

      The problem of homes in the WUI and fires is shared by localities, insurance companies and federal firefighters and public land managers. As to “leverage to log” check out these fuel treatments in Southern California.. I’ll start a new post.

      • It goes without saying that no thinking critic would compare WUI zones in north Idaho to WUI zones in SoCal. I do know the difference, Sharon. But you and Fotoware seem to ignore that WUI stands for “wildliand-urban interface”. This implies a zone or belt that is relatively high hazard wildland adjoining an urban or residential environment. I have fought major wildfires in the mountainous west, and I know from experience that a fire on a west-facing slope, in a region where the prevaling winds are 90 percent from the W, SW, will move upslope away from the urban area. Certainly there may be extremely exceptional weather conditions that might make this flat statement untrue, but lets face facts.

        We are playing a game of odds and risk assessment. Each time we try to increase the odds in our favor (or lower the risk) we are greatly increasing costs. If Congress in its wisdom decided to give our local Forest one million bucks to reduce the wildfire hazard around our community, I assume they would look first to the WUI map. Then, if they are wanting to get the most from their investment, they will zero-in on the one mile perimeter of wildlands near the urban areas. If they do otherwise they are wasting funds and should look for other work.

        Research has clearly shown that a well-managed or fire-proofed belt of about 1/2 mi to one mile will knock down almost all wildfires. In this area, I am confident that width would do the trick. Continuing a WUI designation for 5 or 10 additional miles into the forest is nothing but political manipulation with some hope of more thinning/logging.

        I realize that my thoughts would not fit the situation around Santa Barbara. My comments yesterday were intended to point out that science and common sense is too often subservient to politics when it comes to forest management decisions. Fire scientists of any state or federal agency have a duty to support sound science decisions when it comes to fire management, and should, in my opinion, be ready to challenge politicians who try to skew planning and managment because of other desires. Fire Specialists…do you jobs!

  16. I’m just not willing to sacrifice the forests outside of the WUI. In allowing big fires to approach the half mile mark, you are inviting disaster. As a former firefighter, I’ve seen firestorms send spot fires far ahead of the main front. There IS value in protecting lands that harbor endangered species, provide drinking water, offer both dispersed and organized recreational opportunities and contain irreplaceable cultural resources, etc, etc, etc. And, hey, American Indians managed their lands, outside of the “WUI” of their settlements.


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading