Judge Agrees With Forest Service On Thinning On North Kaibab



The above are photos of 1) what the stand is desired to look like, and 2) what stands look like when not enough 16 inchers have been removed. At least that is my interpretation of the photos in the EA here. If I misinterpreted, please feel free to point it out.

Here is the link and below is an excerpt:

The area in question is about 39 square miles located near Jacob Lake, or north of the 40,000 acres accidentally burned in 2006’s prescribed-burn-turned-wildfire on the North Kaibab Ranger District, called the Warm fire.

It’s a defeat for the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity, which have raised objections over the age and size of trees to be thinned since 1998.

Those groups asserted that the scale of thinning the Forest Service had proposed on the Kaibab Plateau is not beneficial to the northern goshawk, a bird the forest service considers a “sensitive” species (not federally listed as threatened or endangered), and submitted data to support that view.

The Forest Service weighed that data, then set it aside in favor of what its own expert had said about how dense or sparse the forest could be in areas where the goshawk live.

The plans allow for logging of ponderosa pines 16 inches and larger in diameter (with no upper size limits), though the Forest Service says it will only account for fewer than 2 percent of the trees to be cut.

The matter is potentially significant because the conservation groups have raised objections to similar plans for a handful of other thinning projects on national forests elsewhere in northern Arizona, including closer to Flagstaff.

“It makes no sense for the Forest Service to continue to push to log these old growth and large trees, when we have so little remaining. This is not a restoration project. It is a squandering of these biologically significant large trees — critical and missing components in many of our forests,” stated Sandy Bahr, of the Sierra Club.

The district forester lauded the decision.

“Thanks to the hard work and perseverance of our employees, and support from our local communities, we can move forward to help protect the habitat and the forest from high intensity wildfire,” stated North Kaibab District Ranger Randall Walker.

Note from Sharon:
1) I am curious whether this is the same project as in this story here” Group Sues to Stop Thinning Project near the Grand Canyon.”

And only a small percentage of the forest’s old-growth trees will be removed, he added.
I anticipate that some critics of my decision may mischaracterize this project with claims that it will significantly reduce old growth habitat,” Short wrote in the assessment. “Alternative 1 would reduce old growth by up to 105 acres within the 26,916 acre Jacob-Ryan project area. This equates to approximately 0.4 percent change in old growth allocation.”

Loggers would cull old-growth trees only where it would be necessary to promote restoration goals, according to the agency.

However the same story also says…

Under the proposal, about 700 acres of mature and old-growth ponderosa pines would be harvested.

39 square miles? 700 acres? 105 acres? This seems very confusing.

I sure think it would be interesting if, for each project that goes to litigation, the unit would develop a standard video package that shows 1) what the area currently looks like, 2) explains why they are doing what they are doing, 3) show how they would do the marking, and then 4) show what nearby areas look like after that treatment. There was some of that done in this EA, but I think a video showing what trees would be removed and why would be clearer. It would be helpful for folks on this blog, and other members of the public and the media to understand and compare. It would also be interesting to know how much the FS, OGC and DOJ spent defending this one (39 square miles, or 150 or 700 acres, whatever..) compared to the 150 acre and 600 acre projects we’ve talked about on this blog before. We could even then generate a litigation cost per acre..

Here’s a letter to the editor by the ranger describing the project and the FS side..Good work by the FS, OGC and DOJ on the case, and the District for the EA and getting the word out.

20 thoughts on “Judge Agrees With Forest Service On Thinning On North Kaibab”

  1. I have had the idea of an interactive computer video EA version, as an introduction to the actual document. That was back in 1990.

    I did go through that area, including wildfire zones, both inside and outside of the National Park. To my eye, the old growth stands were, indeed, quite overstocked. I really didn’t see all that much commercial-sized timber that I would pluck out but, I’m sure there is enough to make economic sense. Regarding old growth and ages of trees, it is difficult to estimate the age of a tree just by outside appearances. Sure, a trained eye like mine can see differences but, with the sheer acreage at stake in Arizona, how can we be sure that good silviculture is being implemented? It is one thing to write it on a paper but, it is another thing to apply it to the acres.

    It really sounds like a “gap and clump” strategy would work there. I cannot say what the specifics would/could be, as those forests are substantially-different than most pine forests. Those forests are upsidedown, with the dry adapted pines up higher, and the lodgepoles, aspen and firs below.

    Picture number one looks like an old clearcut. Picture number two looks unmanaged. Yes, I would pluck some of those trees out of the second picture, still leaving the best and most vigorous of those pines.

  2. The real thing I take away from this story, but I don’t think it’s printed above, is a quote from another story about this lawsuit. It said, “the judge gave wide deference to the agency’s interpretation of it’s own management guidelines.” Compare that to a judge Molloy in Montana. That just about sums up all timber sale litigation. It has nothing to do with the science…it has to do with the judge hearing the case.

  3. For those of you interested, here is the Kaibab National Forest website with information on the Jacob Ryan Project:


    All the NEPA documents can be found at the following website link, including the resource specialist’s reports: http://www.fs.fed.us/nepa/fs-usda-pop.php/?project=32654

    Link to Final EA (Main document text only – Appendices are separate):

    Figure 4 of the Final EA shows how complicated a vegetation management project which involves nest area, post-fledgling family areas, and foraging areas for the Northern Goshawk habitat, when mixed in with even-aged and uneven aged ponderosa pine stratum.

    Specifics with regard to old-growth which may be affected by the Jacob Ryan vegetation Management project are discussed on pages 50-53 of the Final EA with percentages or acreage affected discussed on page 52 of the Final EA.

    But also “please” read the Decision Memo / Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) to get the big picture (rationale for making the decision) of why the responsible official decided to sign the Decision before it was challenged in court. Link to DN-FONSI:


    The Forest Service Mission is as follows:
    “It is the mission of the USDA Forest Service to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”

    Sustainability is the key to management of a renewable resource.

    Signed: Environmental Wizard (“In the forest there stood a tall, tall tree….)

    • Wizard.. I know it’s complicated and I looked at the EA.. but would it be possible for someone to explain in three paragraphs or so, what exactly is the question about old growth (trees? allocation??) and 700 or 150 acres is the correct number?

      • It is of the opinion of some conservationist (like CBD and Sierra Club) that all large trees are “old growth.” However, old growth is not defined as an old tree per se, rather is a condition within a group, stand, or area (acres) of trees that contain trees 180 years or older, usually VSS 5 and 6 trees (which are trees 18-inches in diameter and above), and you have to have an average of 20 or more of these larger trees per acre. Additionally, you have to have one snag per acre which is 14-inches dia. and over 15-feet tall. And basal area has to be 70-90 (square feet per acre) or above and canopy cover over 40%. If you don’t meet all these conditions simultaneously it is not “old growth.” But the simple answer to your question is that there is 105 acres out of 26,916 acres that is being thinned that meets the old-growth definition.

        The Jacob-Ryan Vegetation Management project will create 724 acres (total) of regeneration openings, within 14,475 acres of uneven aged stratum of ponderosa pine forest. (for reference an acre is about the size of a football field). These opening will usually be less than one (1) acre in size (usually ranging from ¼ to ½ acres in size), but the forest plan does allow up to 4 acre size patches (which can’t be more than 200 feet in width). So basically the project will create anywhere from 1,448 to 2,896 small openings within the older dense forested areas, in which/where small tree, grasses, forbs, and shrubs can grow. This will stimulate a higher preponderance of small prey species, rabbits, voles, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, which in theory will lead to an increase in the goshawk population (increase prey species and there should be a correlation to an increase in the goshawk population in the long run). But, bottom line is most of the “conservationist” are not conservation oriented at all, but rather they are preservationists (hands off our forest). This is a ridiculous stance to take when we are experiencing potential global warming. Higher temperatures lead to lower soil moisture content and higher evapotranspiration (evaporation through plants and trees), which in turn leads to more dramatic storm events (i.e., more thunderstorms), and potentially more lightning strikes and wildfire… These additional openings also lessen the risk of crown fire in the event of a wildfire.

        Would you rather try to preserve the forest through thinning of let Mother Nature take the whole 26,000 acres up in one wildfire event, which leads to “no goshawk habitat?” The forest is a renewable resource, and it needs to be managed as such.

        It’s too bad that most of the conservation groups have grown too large and lost their way from true conservation. They tend to be money driven for contributions by how many projects they can forestall or kill, and most are spearheaded by a hand-full of NEPA lawyers who know how to buck the system. I’m not saying they don’t have the any rights to promote their cause or follow the current legal system, but I am sick of the abuse of the legal system. The public taxpayers and government need to change the laws. If these large not for profit organizations had to pay all legal fees (whether they win or lose), then there would be a lot less abuse of the legal system.

        • Well said, EW! We have similar uneven-age management goals, using gaps and clumps, where appropriate.

          Goshawks are ultimately limited by their nesting habitat, as they seem to forage almost anywhere. Many times, the prime nesting habitat is already locked up, and offspring have trouble finding their own niche, where they can try to establish their own system of nests. I think a study of goshawk offspring would be interesting, to see how they disperse (since they are territorial), how they find mates and how they compete for very limited potential nesting habitat.

          Here in the Sierra Nevada, we have been dealing with rigid diameter limits since 1993. There always seems to be grumblings about eliminating those limits, in favor of scientific discretion but, that might be a losing battle, until education and trust can combine into enlightenment. The 30″ dbh limit is pretty arbitrary but, it has been working for most people. There are still people who want the old Clinton Era specifications of 20″ dbh. That would kill the Forest Service timber program in the Sierra Nevada.

          It has never really been about the actual age of individual trees. Ancient tiny trees are cut all the time, being slow growers in the shade of better trees. I do see you have some mention of mistletoe as a problem to address in forest health. We don’t have that luxury, When we have a 32″ dbh white fir, with mistletoe in the top and huge cankers, we cannot cut them. Same with the big pines.

        • Ok, Wizard, thank you so much for your explanation. But let me ask you a few more questions to make sure that I understand.

          1) 105 acres currently meet the old growth definition. You are going to thin them. Now, do you know they won’t meet the definition after you thin them, due to the need to reduce the BA, or is it a function of how close the large trees are to each other? Or that you need to reduce the canopy cover for fuels reduction and protection of the large trees?

          2) You are doing 724 acres of openings, or increasing the structural diversity and resilience of the forest to insects, and fire.
          Can someone explain what the issues are from the plaintiffs that this is bad for the goshawk? Or do we have to read the legal documents?

          Note: I think it would be clearer and better governance to have this discussion among scientists and practitioners in the open rather than through the legal system.

          • The thinning in the uneven age “may” affect 105 acres of old-growth (worst case scenario); one has to understand that it is the silviculturist and the marking crews that mark the trees to be cut to prescription that ultimately determine which trees stay or go. We know these opening won’t meet definition for old-growth after treatment because they are regenerated to VSS 1, which only requires leaving two or three reserve trees for progeny. So for a stand of blackjacks for example, thinning would take most of the blackjacks and leave one or two older yellow barks. By the NKRD Forest Plan definition there has to be an average of 20 of these blackjacks and/or yellow barks per acre to meet the definition of old-growth (so it depends on each individual forest plan and its definitions). And yes part of this thinning will reduce the canopy cover (which is only measured in VSS 4-6; canopy cover cannot be measured in VSS 1-3 (there are six different VSS age and size class definitions under the NKRD Forest Plan). But also remember that fuel loading involves what is left on the ground (dead and downed woody debris per acre), which is usually measures in tones per acre.
            The plaintiffs’ case was weak from the beginning, (CBD and Sierra Club) they were grasping for straws because they knew their case was weak. They had three claims: 1) that the inner or interspaces between tress (from drip-line to drip-line between individual trees) was not accounted for in the analysis when looking at canopy cover percentages. 2) that we followed a draft goshawk guideline in the analysis and therefore since the draft guideline never underwent NEPA that we were in violation of NFMA and NEPA, and that 3) since other forest in Region 3 did forest plan amendments with regard to the goshawk guideline that the Kaibab forest should have done a forest plan amendment and that there was a regional level violation of NFMA/NEPA process. What is ironic is that when these organization throw hundreds of pages of forest service e-mails and documents as attachments to their comments and appeal and argue that the FS followed another internal direction (usually they attach all there documents in scoping, draft EA responses, and Appeal attachments, which amounts to about a hundred different documents). The NKRD strictly followed the Forest Plan. And there were documents supplied by the plaintiffs with statements from R3 management that said “do not use the goshawk guidelines because they are draft and to follow the forest plan. The plaintiffs also cited one scientific paper (Biere) on the Apache-Sitgreive, which was an observational study and it had a theoretical conclusion statement that RM-217 standards and guidelines do not improve the goshawk habitat because trending of the populations for certain time-frames over the last 20 years is downward. But there have been no large thinning projects over the last 20 years on the NKRD, so one cannot attribute the implementation of RM-217 guideline to a downward decline in goshawk population. The plaintiffs tried to argue that “opposing scientific viewpoints were not considered.” But we did respond to the plaintiffs’ scientific paper in the public response to comments as consideration, but the court basically said that it was not the courts duty to determine which scientific arguments are or are not correct, and thus deferred to the FS experts. The NKRD also has 20-years of Goshawk data, which was compiled by DR. Richard Reynolds, a NKRD expert.
            I agree about the scientific discussion and that is the viewpoint of the ruling judge too. But remember it’s not about conservation, it’s about whether you can halt progress and stop a project all together when you’re in the adversarial role. If they stop a project or make it go to appeal and litigation, then they can drum up $$$ from their sponsors (see we did this and halted the timber harvest on this forest, which protected the goshawk). And they will lie through their teeth to get what they want (an example was a picture by the sierra club for a coal mine proposed near Bryce Canyon National Park, the picture was photo shopped to show the dozer below the Bryce Canyon red spires…It was posted on their website before someone actually called they on it.) Collaboration does not work both because the advisories will be in bed with you making the decision one day and the very next day they will be filing a suit to halt the project, no shame for environmental lawyers…

            • Thanks for this clarification, and for your description of how it feels to deal with this kind of litigation, and your observations of folks’ behavior. I think being open about these things (and negative perceptions of the FS as well) is the only way to move forward in seeking a “better way.”

  4. The USFS is not very good at comparing the effects of logging versus fire. The true comparison must be based on the probability of harm fire versus the probability of harm from logging plus fire. Th FS cannot legitimately claim that logging suitable habitat provides net benefit to the habitat of species that depend on dense forest habitat (like goshhawks). There is surprisingly little empirical research exploring the probabilistic dimensions of logging vs fire, but in the literature on forest-carbon clearly shows that although thinning can modify fire behavior, logging to reduce fire effects is likely to remove more carbon by logging than will be saved by modifying fire. There is a direct correspondence between dense carbon-rich forests and dense forests favored by goshawks. See Mitchell, Harmon, O’Connell. 2009. Forest fuel reduction alters fire severity and long-term carbon storage in three Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Ecological Applications. 19(3), 2009, pp. 643–655 http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/journals/pnw_2009_mitchell001.pdf

    • Tree- you are talking about something else than I think the fdesigners of the project are. I don’t think that they mentioned carbon; but certainly we haven’t in this discussion.

      There are big trees. Goshawks like big trees for nesting (or ???). If the big trees are in a clump they are more likely to all burn up when fire comes.
      Now fires are part of these ecosystems, so you could try to keep it out forever, but that doesn’t seem very practical. We can barely keep it out of communities.

      So I am not a wildlife person, but is it the same idea as for spotted owls who also need big trees?

      And remember this link from Eric Forsman about fuel treatments and owls..

      Maybe one of the commenters can explain more about these birds for us who don’t know much about them.

    • The Warm Fire is a clear indication of what is likely for the rest of the forest. Regeneration there seems problematic, due to the area being high and dry. It makes more sense in “sculpting” a better forest out of one that is overstocked and at risk to a stand replacement fire.

      Saying that goshawks like dense forests is like saying that polar bears like arctic conditions. Pairs of goshawks will claim large areas of land, where their system of nests sit. “Newlywed” pairs often get chased out of territories and are forced to try to nest in marginal habitat. Leaving clumps tends to mitigate the impacts of thinning projects, and the practice may even promote the establishment of brand new nests.

      Yes, spotted owls and goshawks share the same nesting habitat, somehow. Goshawks can take down the larger owl, as well. Usually, there is less to eat in those closed-canopy nest stands. Foraging habitat can be improved by thinning, for sure. Edge Effect is good for those kinds of predatory birds. In the end, we should retain some amount of canopy cover, while thinning from below. It seems that the battle will be about having the discretion to cut bigger trees, under certain conditions.

      • Larry, thanks so much for your explanation. If that is true and it’s all about “taking out 1 16 incher or 2 or none on 150 acres, or 700 (?)” it seems (I gotta say it fairly trivial compared to the other challenging environmental questions of the day). I wonder why they chose this project?

        When you get past the rhetoric to the reality, it doesn’t seem like there’s much there.

  5. The commentary on Jacob Ryan that ran in the Flagstaff newspaper SIDE-BY-SIDE with the district ranger’s comment posted above is here: http://azdailysun.com/news/opinion/columnists/pro-con—jacob-lake-forest-project-controversy-cutting/article_24cf3101-c258-50de-ab56-9aab5ae01327.html

    The Forest Service never once told a straight story about what they planned to do at Jacob Ryan in 12 years of planning, which included four NEPA documents and one successful administrative appeal. In his 2009 appeal finding, the Kaibab Forest Supervisor admitted that the project violated Forest Plan guidelines for goshawk habitat.

    District staff also maintained that “no” old-growth would be cut, and changed their story only after the Center for Biological Diversity cored 200+ year-old trees in VSS 5 and 6 groups that had been marked for cutting and submitted that evidence to the Forest Supervisor.

    The lawsuit boiled down to a judge deferring to the agency’s interpretation of a single table in the Forest Plan that was unrelated to the goshawk guidelines, ongoing violations of which created the cause of action. It is an example of the Ninth Circuit’s Lands Council v. McNair precedent creating an unduly wide shield protecting federal agencies from public scrutiny of arbitrary and capricious decision-making.

  6. Thanks for posting, Pyrolysis. I appreciate getting your perspective.
    I see that in the DN the deciding official said:

    There is, however, a diameter limit included in Alternative 1 that is not arbitrary; trees
    greater that 12 inches in northern goshawk nest stands will not be removed [EA, p.7 – action
    1(a)] in order to meet the denser canopy cover requirements for nesting goshawks, as
    directed by the Kaibab Forest Plan.

    Could you be more specific about how this project violates forest plan guidelines on goshawk, if that was the assertion in the lawsuit? I know it is probably in the lawsuit documentation, but it would be helpful to have it in plain English.

    It also seems confusing, at least to me, when different people and groups use the term “old-growth” to mean stands with a number of specific characteristics, and also old trees. That seems like it could lead to a myriad of misunderstandings.

    • Thanks Sharon. I believe that you’re looking at the 2008 EA, which also contained Alternative 2 setting an 18-inch diameter limit on tree cutting that the Forest Service contended at the time was “not arbitrary” and addressed the “significant issue” raised in public comment of retaining large and old-growth trees.

      The 2008 Decision Notice approved Alternative 2 and was reversed in whole by the Forest Supervisor (see appeal decision at http://data.ecosystem-management.org/appeals/displayDoc.php?doc=VjFab1EyUXhjRmhTYms1cVpXNU9OVlJXVWxkYWF6RlZXak5rVGxwNk1Eaz0=).

      After that appeal, the North Kaibab District reversed field and changed its story, contending in two later NEPA documents (one withdrawn, one advanced to decision) that cutting large and old trees was “necessary” to meet the purpose and need for the Jacob Ryan Project. However, it never clearly justified that contention except with claims that it would amount to a small number relative to the total number of trees cut.

      The 2012 EA was advanced to a new Decision Notice and litigated by the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club. It contained only one action alternative, no diameter limit, and no other protection for old-growth, as had been proposed before but not observed by marking crews.

      Essentially, the Forest Service finally did what it intended to do all along, and merely papered over its mistakes with new NEPA. The tail wagged the dog, as the district silviculturalist overrode the best intentions of the District Ranger.

      Regarding goshawk, the project violates Forest Plan guidelines requiring the retention of canopy cover in older forest stands. The agency reinterpreted the guideline to apply only in “groups,” which may comprise as few as two trees. As a result, far more trees >18 inches diameter are to be removed and far less than 40-50 percent canopy cover at stand (>10 acre) scales will be retained than expected in the Forest Plan.

      Regarding old-growth, the Forest Plan defines it with a number of factors that vary with site productivity. In the North Kaibab, it is >18-inches diameter, older than 180 years, >90 square feet/acre basal area, and >50 percent canopy cover.


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