Why Sierra Fuel Treatments Make Economic Sense

Sometimes it is useful to validate common sense with careful study. Here’s a report that does so:

Mokelumne Watershed Avoided Cost Analysis: Why Sierra Fuel Treatments Make Economic Sense

The study was conducted in an area just north of the Rim Fire.

An April 10 press release announcing the publication of the report follows:

Study: Investing in forests reduces megafires and saves millions

Cost-benefit analysis in Sierra Nevada shows savings of up to 3 times to pay for treatments up front
San Francisco, CA — A new study released today finds investing in proactive forest management activities can save up to three times the cost of future fires, reduce high-severity fire by up to 75 percent, and bring added benefits for people, water, and wildlife.  
“Recent megafires in California and the West have destroyed lives and property, degraded water quality, damaged wildlife habitat, and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars,” said David Edelson, Sierra Nevada Project Director with The Nature Conservancy. “This study shows that, by investing now in Sierra forests, we can reduce risks, safeguard water quality, and recoup up to three times our initial investment while increasing the health and resilience of our forests.”
The Mokelumne Watershed Avoided Cost Analysis examines the costs and benefits of reducing the risk of high-severity forest fires through proactive techniques like thinning and controlled burns.  Set in the central Sierra Nevada, just north of last year’s destructive Rim Fire, scientists modeled likely future wildfires with and without proactive fuel treatments.  The results indicate that investing in healthy forests can significantly reduce the size and intensity of fires and save millions of dollars in structure loss, carbon released, and improved firefighting safety and costs.
Megafires have become much more common in the last decade—the average size of a fire today is nearly five times the average fire from the 1970s, and the severity is increasing. The Sierra Nevada is at especially high risk this year with only one-third of normal snowpack as a result of the drought. “Many scientists are predicting an increase in the size and severity of fires due to a changing climate,” said Jim Branham, Executive Officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. “These fires, such as last year’s Rim Fire, degrade wildlife habitat, release massive amounts of greenhouse gasses, and can result in many other adverse impacts.”
Last year, the U.S. Forest Service spent $1 billion to cover firefighting shortfalls, taking money from programs that fund activities designed to reduce the risk of such fires. New bipartisan legislation called the Wildfire Funding Disaster Act seeks to address this problem by creating a reserve fund dedicated to excess firefighting costs, similar to the way FEMA provides funds to respond to other natural disasters.
“Our ongoing goal is to increase the pace and scale of our restoration work and this study strongly supports that,” said Randy Moore, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Regional Forester.  “Our current pace of restoration work needs to be accelerated to mitigate threats and disturbances such as wildfires, insects, diseases and climate change impacts.  The goal is to engage in projects that restore at least 500,000 acres per year. Many types of projects help us reach our restoration goals including mechanical vegetation treatments, prescribed fire, and managing wildfire for resource benefits.”
The study is authored by the U.S. Forest Service, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and The Nature Conservancy and was developed in consultation with a broad range of local and regional stakeholders. It concludes that the benefits from proactive forest management are 2-3 times the costs of fire fighting and that increasing investments in such activities would benefit federal and state taxpayers, property owners (and their insurers), and timber companies.   
For more information on the Mokelumne Avoided Cost Analysis, or to download the study, please visit www.sierranevada.ca.gov.

14 thoughts on “Why Sierra Fuel Treatments Make Economic Sense”

  1. It would be nice if the study also concluded that it is impossible to achieve the desired results with its current workforce. Too many “chefs” and not enough “prep cooks”! They continue to hire temporary employees, right off the street, to implement the increasingly complex marking prescriptions and labor-intensive on-the-ground work. They feel that they can teach anyone to wield a paintgun, deciding which trees live and die. They feel that offering 6 months of work, without health plans or retirement programs, each year, is a “living wage” that will attract quality employees. How many of these employees can actually pass a timber cruising certification program? How many can tell the difference between a Douglas-fir and a white fir? How many can accurately read a map? How many know the limitations of man and his logging machines? How many will work hard, knowing that there is little to no chance of getting a permanent job?

    Some advocates of expanded restoration projects think that these issues will work themselves out, once the Forest Service’s timber program is “restored”. However, I have seen no efforts to expand the size of the permanent workforce in the Forest Service. I predict they will push for a privatization of the Forest Service’s temporary workforce, at an extreme monetary cost. Of course, the Forest Service will still need employees to do the contractor inspections, and even those could be temporaries, too.

    Simply put, the Forest Service offers jobs, instead of careers, and those jobs just aren’t very good ones. Ya get what you pay for.

    • And it is California, Region 5, and to hire you must have a current demographic map of the State because a former Region 5 Forester signed a consent decree that Region 5’s employment would faithfully reflect the demographics of California. Male, female, ethnicity, race, culture, gender preference, all are in play. So this “hire off the street” deal is not really true. They have to hire a specific number of Asian women, African American men, gay white women, etc. White males are less than 25% of the total. So, if you need educated and qualified people, you first have to have an education system that produces who you need. Or your don’t meet the consent decree requirements.

      Who is left in the USFS stable who can lay out a timber sale, anyway? Who do they have as permanent timber staff that can do a reasonable job? Institutional memory has been lost. The road map went with the people who found other work in other natural resource fields in government. And what kind of equipment is there to now log with? Lots of variables when you try to reconstruct a deliberately killed industry. It will take a long time to build anew. My thoughts that for every year you spend destroying something, it will take at least five years to rebuild and you will not get a complete job. It makes no difference if it is a tornado destroyed town, a war destroyed area or a Federal forest that has suffered a total lack of management for two decades. It will take 50 years for the USFS to get back to being the proud outfit they once were, and a place where good things were done.

      Remember, logging on the USFS was a very direct result of US wartime demand for price controlled timber and lumber to feed the US economic effort prior to and during WWII. The private lands were roaded, had management, infrastructure, and were grossly over logged in that time period. So the US Govt created the USFS timber sale program to fill the void and be there for the post war housing boom. Sure it was political. Sure it was making the timber barons whole. Sure it was not always environmentally correct. But it happened. It was real. What we have now is not real, and is not practical and is not working to “save” species or habitats. Those get burned in an entirely democratic process of extraordinary serendipity. Stupid human tricks and weather. But no matter the ignition cause, the results are mostly the same. Nobody wins. Not even the environment nor the critters of concern. And if that is not true, then the ESA laws are lying to us. A dead owl is a dead owl. Now non suitable habitat is still non suitable habitat, logged or burned or just blown over by a downburst or storm event.

      • The last marking crew I worked on was, indeed, hired right off the street. They cannot apply much in the way of hiring women and minorities, when only a handful of people apply. In our case, they did hire all 5 of us guys who applied, and we were all white, and the only applicants. One member washed out after about 6 days. I was very happy with our Silviculturist. Sure, he could have laid out our timber sale and written the prescriptions from his office, using aerial photos but, he worked really hard, walking over each unit and personally doing the flagging of the boundaries. The problem was that he had to do this for two RD’s, instead of one, since the downsizing happened. I doubt he can sustain all those acres, every year, at his age.

        We still have the opposition looking for loopholes to stop the thinning projects in the Sierra Nevada. They really want to use water quality issues to prevent logging, and they want the Forest Service to do individual EIS Plans for each thinning project.

        Also, owls don’t die from wildfires very often. The trouble is, their nesting habitats DO! Yes, the birds live on but they don’t reproduce until they find new and unoccupied nesting areas, which are extremely rare, especially since they are the most at-risk to catastrophic wildfires. Remember, both owls AND goshawks are territorial, and do not share their turf.

  2. Good comments Larry.
    If the present Congress has anything to say about it, the USFS will be forced to contract more work, which as you state, is the wrong way to go. Costs more with poorer results.
    That is what we get so often from contractors in the federal system. And I am sure that the agency is now tied up with restrictions on new FT hires.
    Everyone is a critic…”do the work, dummy, but you can’t have the funds or the right staff you need”. Or, “we need more prescribed burning, but don’t you dare burn one acre of private land, or let the fire get away, or you butt is out the door”.
    Same games being played as I recall from decades back. We just don’t learn, do we?

    • Before taxes, a GS-3 makes approximately $13,500 per year, with no health plan or retirement benefits. You can add on whatever they get in Unemployment, which the Forest Service also pays. This certainly isn’t a “livable wage”, especially if you want to have a family. Such employment realities ensure that there will be a revolving door of new temporaries that will need extensive, on-the-job training, each and every year. My last Ranger District, with its own Collaborative Group, trumpeted their “accomplishment” of “training a marking crew”, only to disband that crew the very next year, in favor of a “Zone Crew”, based on another RD. I hear that my old RD got tired of having less work accomplished by the Zone Crew, due to “hanging around the office” and the 2 hour round trip travel time. Now, they are back to hiring a brand new crew, hoping that will get more work done, on the ground.

      They want you to be a “team player” without actually putting you “on the team”. Timber temps are third class employees, in many places. There is no incentive to be an excellent employee, providing needed expertise. You can always be replaced by an inexperienced worker drone, and they don’t let you forget it, too. Career ladders are important to everyone’s future. The Forest Service likes to talk about jobs, and putting people to work but, not “THOSE kinds of jobs”.

  3. LarryH

    In the 60’s I was so proud of being a summer employee and was nothing but extremely impressed with the USFS professionals that I met. That was on the ground in Northern California, research assistant and caretaker for an experimental forest in Virginia and as a statistical assistant in Pennsylvania.

    I don’t know if the Forest Service is the root of the current problem but I doubt it.

    • Well, back in the early 90’s, a temporary could work on a 180-day appointment. If you worked four 10-hour days, you could work 45 weeks out of the year. Overtime didn’t count against their appointment days. At one point, OPM looked at accusations of temporary employee abuse. An investigation caused the Forest Service to admit abuse, and OPM took away their “Hiring Authority”, and limited appointments to 1039 hours, one hour short of a “permanent seasonal” position, with benefits and status. The 1039 appointment was less about protecting temporaries, and more about punishing the Forest Service. In fact, it hurt the temps more, limiting the amount of money they can make working longer through the year.

      OPM also allowed “Term Appointments”, where employees could work all year, and accrue the benefits that permanents enjoy, while still being a temporary. A few units experimented with Term Appointments but, they discovered that those were almost as expensive as having permanent employees. While Term Appointments are still available, they are rarely used, nationwide. Term Appointments can be extended for 4 years, and after that, they have to be abolished.

      The Forest Service continues to use temps for jobs that are permanent in nature. They need marking crews each and every year, and temporary appointments should not be used for such needs. Now, if they reduced the hours to a truly temporary level, say, 800 hours, that would surely change their tune. Many in the Forest Service already complain about the 1039 limit for temps, having more annual work than just for 6 months. Some units game the system, claiming extensive “training hours”, which don’t count against those 1039 hours. Since OPM doesn’t care about the temps, they don’t monitor those limits on hours.

      In other professions, temporary employees often make more money, due to the lack of benefits and standing. Temps are more like “migrant farm workers”, and are treated as such. Not every unit treats their temps like this but, it is a common practice.

      Now, imagine if all fire crews were filled by temps. You would see some of the very same issues coming up with massive crew turnovers, each and every year. Even temporary fire folks can get health insurance through the Agency, these days. Timber temps are pounding the ground, each and every day. Not so, for fire folks. Some fire engines are just WAY too shiny. *smirk*

  4. Steve

    Great Post

    Re your statement: “Sometimes it is useful to validate common sense with careful study. Here’s a report that does so:”
    –> In terms of semantics, I would contend that and prefer to focus on the fact that this is but one more validation of countless studies since the 60’s (and probably earlier) which have consistently come to the same conclusion. The common sense is missed by those opposed to sound forest management so there is nothing common about common sense.

  5. “… and managing wildfire for resource benefits.” This is really the only activity that they can really “accelerate”, although Let-Burn isn’t used all that much, with so many mountain communities “in the way”. It is pretty scary to see this comment: “The goal is to engage in projects that restore at least 500,000 acres per year.” Clearly, they seek to expand the use of Let-Burn, during an epic drought. Two Rim Fires ought to accomplish that! *smirk* Pretending that Let-Burn wildfires “restore” anything, here in California, is ludicrous.

    Splitting up those 500,000 acres to all 8 Sierra Nevada Forests, they would have to have each Forest accomplish 62,500 acres this year. In 2012, on my old Ranger District, we did 5500 acres of thinning project preparation. Add on about 1200 acres of prescribed fire and you have an entire season’s worth of “accomplishments”. Divide 62,500 acres by 5 Ranger Districts and you have 12,500 acres to do, for each RD. (I’m not adjusting for RD sizes but, the Eldorado has one substantially smaller RD). Our marking crew was very productive, leaving the office before 6:05 AM, every single 10-hour work day. Our crew leader was a tyrant!

    Now, on the other hand, the Stanislaus, where I live, is notorious for underperforming and not meeting their targets. It wasn’t that long ago that Congress gave them (as well as the Sierra NF) more funding to output more volume. Congress was not happy with the outcome.

    I predict that there will be a bark beetle bloom that will make all this talk of “restoration” a moot point. It is just getting started right now but, I predict that they won’t recognize the problem until mid-summer. Keeping tree densities so high just isn’t “sustainable”, especially during an epic drought.

  6. What I thought was interesting about this was the bipartisan state effort to develop and fund “the Sierra Conservancy”

    “33301. The Legislature finds and declares all of the following:
    (a) The Sierra Nevada Region is a globally significant area, including many national and state parks, the highest peaks in the 48 contiguous states, and large, pristine areas that are open for public use.
    (b) The Sierra Nevada Region is an important part of the state’s economy, providing substantial agricultural products, timber resources, ranching, mining, tourism, and recreation.
    (c) The Sierra Nevada Region provides 65 percent of California’s developed water supply and nearly all of the water supply for western Nevada. As California’s principal watershed, the region is the critical source of water for urban and rural parts of northern and southern California.
    (d) In cooperation with local governments, private business, nonprofit organizations, and the public, a Sierra Nevada Conservancy can help do all of the following:
    (1) Provide increased opportunities for tourism and recreation.
    (2) Protect, conserve, and restore the region’s physical, cultural, archaeological, historical, and living resources.
    (3) Aid in the preservation of working landscapes.
    (4) Reduce the risk of natural disasters, such as wildfires.
    (5) Protect and improve water and air quality.
    (6) Assist the regional economy through the operation of the conservancy’s program.
    (7) Identify the highest priority projects and initiatives for which funding is needed.
    (8) Undertake efforts to enhance public use and enjoyment of lands owned by the public.
    (9) Support efforts that advance both environmental preservation and the economic well-being of Sierra residents in a complementary manner.”

  7. the roads and soil damage associated with the treatments in these areas would do more damage ecologically than the fires. Treat the areas near structures, prioritize human safety, and leave the rest of the forest alone to recover on its own. If you want to log for timber production, log for timber production. Don’t pretend it’s going to magically stop fires.

    • Under fuels treatment projects, roads are maintained back to “new” functioning. That usually means less erosion and a boost in water quality. You cannot say that fuels reduction projects include any significant amount of new road construction. They know it is a deal-breaker and that it is hard to defend in court. You also cannot say that wildfires equal “recovery”. Hot fires around here set “recovery” back by decades, and maybe even a century, or more. The Rim Fire is showing us what did work, and what didn’t work, regarding pre-fire and post-fire decisions in the last 50 years.

    • Charlie

      If you had spent much time on this blog you would know that no one here claims the straw man that you constructed with your words: “Don’t pretend it’s going to magically stop fires”. There are very few certainties in forestry and established science has repeatedly validated over more than a half century that sound forest management reduces the risk of fires turning into catastrophic fires. No one that knows anything about forestry would claim anything else.

      You could look here for a start. https://forestpolicypub.com/2014/04/11/scientific-basis-for-changing-forest-structure-to-modify-wildfire-behavior-and-severity/
      If you look further, you will find that LarryH, BobZ, others and myself have repeatedly explained the basic scientific principles involved.


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