10-12 Acres per Nest Not Enough? Black Backed Woodpecker Saga Continues

Here’s the link.

RENO, Nev. — Forest Service officials have agreed to move post-fire logging operations at Lake Tahoe farther away from nests with rare, black-backed woodpecker chicks at the request of conservationists who’ve been fighting the overall project for years.

But leaders of the John Muir Project – who have documented one nest in the path of the logging and suspect there are more – say the no-cut buffers the agency is implementing are far too small to protect one of the rarest birds in the Sierra Nevada.

“No credible black-backed woodpecker scientist would say it is enough – not even close,” said Chad Hanson, a wildlife ecologist and executive director of the group who has filed a petition seeking protection of the bird under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“It will kill them just as surely as logging right up to the nest tree,” he said.

Lawyers for the Forest Service told the group last week its proposed 60-acre buffers around each nest would undermine the 1,400-acre project’s goals of restoring the forest and reducing future catastrophic risks where the Angora fire destroyed 250 homes in South Lake Tahoe in 2007.

But Deputy Forest Supervisor Jeff Marsolais said Friday the agency and the private logging contractor agreed to move the fuels reduction operations at least 10 acres away from the nesting area until the chicks leave the nest. One acre is a little less than the size of a football field.

“The relocation shows our ongoing commitment to balance ecosystem values and our intent to maintain efficient operations in completing our Angora restoration efforts,” Marsolais said in a statement the agency provided to The Associated Press late Friday.

In addition to no logging within 10 to 12 acres of the identified nest tree, an additional 25 acres of habitat will be preserved within one-quarter mile of the tree, until the chicks “fledge,” USFS spokeswoman Cheva Heck said.

The area includes some of the last of the 156 acres of forest that remains uncut in the overall 1,400-acre project first proposed in early 2009 and under way for more than a year.

A federal judge in Sacramento earlier rejected a request for an injunction to block the logging filed by the John Muir Project and its parent Earth Island Institute.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals currently is considering their appeal claiming the Forest Service’s environmental assessment ignores the agency’s own science suggesting the project will harm the bird without effectively reducing long-term fire threats.

Hanson said the Forest Service’s own science consistently shows one pair of black-backed woodpeckers needs 100 to 200 acres of good habitat with a minimum 60-acre core for foraging. He said the latest logging will come so close to the nest tree that the noise alone may cause the adult birds to abandon the nest.

Rachel Fazio, a lawyer for the group who argued its case in the 9th Circuit last month in San Francisco, said it made no sense to rush to log the last remnants of the project area given it was more than 90 percent complete and therefore, based on the agency’s arguments, had already reduced fire threats accordingly.

Fazio said the chicks may “fledge” – or fly for the first time – within about three weeks but would remain dependent on their parents weeks longer and be especially vulnerable to predators.

“It will just be a little island of habitat so that maybe the birds survive for a week or so,” she said.

Hanson said the additional 25 acres of habitat retained within a quarter mile – approximately 400 meters – is too far away for a bird that historically won’t travel more than 150 meters at a time in unsheltered forest for fear of becoming someone else’s dinner.

Hanson said the Forest Service took the same approach – unsuccessfully – with a post-fire logging project in the neighboring El Dorado National Forest, leaving uncut three 40- to 50-acre patches of black-backed woodpecker habitat after the 2004 Freds fire near Kyburz, Calif.

“They tested this exact theory before and it didn’t work,” he said. “No one has been able to find woodpeckers near any of those patches since then.”

Heck said the agency is leaving intact about 1,168 acres of burned forest for the woodpeckers and other wildlife – approximately 43 percent of the area charred to varying degrees over more than 3,000 acres.

But Fazio said that less than 800 acres of that 1,168 is considered suitable for the black-backed woodpeckers, which highly dependent on the most intensely burned forest habitat for the beetle larvae they peck from the bark.

Heck said she couldn’t comment directly on that claim because it’s part of the ongoing litigation. She said the district court has denied the group’s request for an injunction blocking the logging “citing the project’s benefits to the public interest.”

Note from Sharon:
It seems to me that with the same $ to pay lawyers, folks could have bought a number of acres in the Sierra to be managed or not to their own specifications. Not to speak of all the feds (including judges) we’re paying, and the paper and ink we’re using to deal with it. Are we really talking about 160 acres here, or am I missing something?

8 thoughts on “10-12 Acres per Nest Not Enough? Black Backed Woodpecker Saga Continues”

  1. Maybe an irreverent comment, but then again it might be completely apropos if you think about it…

    This saga reminds me of a quote form the movie “Fletch Lives”, where Fletch was pondering to himself: “And finally, when it comes to stewed prunes, is three enough or four too many?”

  2. Sharon, Your note comes off as flippant and unconsidered. The public already owns the National Forests. One of the “costs” of public land ownership is for caring people to monitor and enforce the “will of the people” as expressed through Congress, agency rule-making, and forest planning. The relatively modest sums spent on public interest litigation go a long way toward improved land management practices. Such efforts leverage a lot more ecological benefits compared to the cost of purchasing fee-simple interests in forests.

    • Tree… in specific cases, I can see that management is improved due to litigation. In other cases, it seems out of proportion to the management action at hand.

      In many cases, the FS wins the litigation- does then the expense contribute to “improved management practices.” I don’t mean to be flippant and unconsidered, but I am honestly asking the question whether this specific case is “enforcing the will of the people as expressed through Congress, agency rule-making and forest planning.”

  3. “…folks could have bought a number of acres in the Sierra to be managed or not to their own specifications”

    That’s called privatization of public lands — (a curious position for an employee of the USFS to be advocating) — and certainly not a viable solution for responsible federal land (or even private) land management but especially management of a species on the brink of extinction.

    This is, however, an excellent example illustrating how an agency can claim:

    “”The relocation shows our ongoing commitment to balance ecosystem values and our intent to maintain efficient operations in completing our Angora restoration efforts…”

    When in fact, trying to balance “efficient operations” with “a commitment to balance ecosystem values” results predictably in short-changing an already well-established understanding of habitat needs for an endangered species. This further exposes an agency exploiting public trust to do the right thing by employing all the green washed soundbites and marketer’s terms, but falling far short of what those terms such as “ecosystem balance” means.

    “the black-backed woodpeckers, which (are) highly dependent on the most intensely burned forest habitat for the beetle larvae they peck from the bark.”

    Makes one wonder if there were more suitable habitat for beetle larvae eaters, there would be less beetle-kill trees? Go figure.

    “Not to speak of all the feds (including judges) we’re paying, and the paper and ink we’re using to deal with it…”

    This seems to be denigrating the bureaucratic and judiciary costs of government based upon, (and which can only function by), a set of checks and balances, and salaried professionals such as yourself, Sharon, — as unnecessary, frivolous, or what?

    Regardless, the pattern is well-established: After decades of self-admitted mismanagement, the USFS (and JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, Rio Tinto, etc. etc.) promises they will all do better without all those pesky, expensive, cumbersome regulations.

    I don’t think so.

    • No, David, it is not called “privatization of public lands.” It is called “management of private lands.” Many acres in the Sierra are in private ownership.

      If the intent is to have 150 more acres of woodpecker habitat, I was simply asking the question if outright purchase would have been a cheaper and more effective (in the long run) way of conservation.

      Is the most important thing “getting more birds conserved” or “making the feds conserve, even if fewer birds are conserved”? I don’t know.

      I know the former sounds like TNC’s philosophy. I don’t agree with everything TNC does, but I do agree with their approach.

      I am not against regulations or Congress.. I am just saying, practically speaking, that 156 acres can hardly make the difference in the survival of an endangered species that depends on snags in the Sierra.

  4. Sharon, thanks for clarifying your point. Your proposed solution vis a vis TNC’s free market environmentalist approaches highlights the disturbing corporate outsourcing of false solutions to chronic problems perpetrated by agency malfunctions and malfeasance.

    This era of new improved agency “transition” to a relationship with TNC as the premier corporate front group under the greenwashed guise of “conservation” and”collaboration” is gaining more and more public awareness of a captured agency in alliance with corporation-funded front groups as simply fulfilling the neoliberal end game of disaster capitalism. The taxpayer funds an agency to degrade its public lands, then is subjected to corporate “partnerships” claiming “restoration”.

    Back to your response: this is not just “talking about 160 acres here”– its about an agency attitude which gets repeated across the national forest system. You’ve provided a casebook example of what must happen next (court challenge) if a species dependent on public landscapes has a snowball’s chance in hell to survive. (That hell is both “degradation” of habitat, and that familiar phrase taking on greater and greater meaning with climate change, severe drought and wildfires.)

    The courts function to point out your agency is NOT providing a viable remedy to an imperiled species. Promoting private ownership of lands “to be managed or not” only privatizes your highly questionable remedy for the species but does nothing about your captured agency.

    After all, we are talking about a citizen court challenge of routine agency mismanagement on public lands, which only supply about 2% of the nation’s annual wood consumption.(USDA Forest Service, U.S. Timber Production, Trade, Consumption, and Price Statistics, Forest Products Lab, Madison, WI and USDA Forest Service, Timber Harvested and Sold Reports, Forest Service, Washington Office)

    Sooner or later, the public will have to ask what is more valuable use of public lands, degradation of public landscapes to in the name of a relatively few number of taxpayer subsidized timber jobs, or the vastly more valuable ecosystem services of carbon sequestration, water management, and fish and wildlife populations.

  5. Wouldn’t the cheapest and most effective way (in the long run, short run and medium run) just be to better manage our public lands?

    • YES, THAT’S IT….hold the blog folks!!!…”we” just need to “better manage” our public lands, the debate is over!

      Matt, I jest in my response. Certainly you were making a tongue-in-cheek comment above. If not, there may be a bright future for you Inside the Beltway! DC isn’t all bad, there’s always crabbing on the Bay!


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