Patience vs. Pulaskis : Beaver Creek Fire by Denver Post

Jeremiah Zamora, left, a district ranger with the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests, and Aaron Voos, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Forest Service, look at downed and burned trees inside the perimeter of the Beaver Creek fire on Tuesday. Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Jeremiah Zamora, left, a district ranger with the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests, and Aaron Voos, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Forest Service, look at downed and burned trees inside the perimeter of the Beaver Creek fire on Tuesday.
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I’m hoping this difficult to capture article comes through via this link. If not, make a comment and I will try to fix it…

23 thoughts on “Patience vs. Pulaskis : Beaver Creek Fire by Denver Post”

  1. Interesting and informative look at the actual on the ground results of virtual non-management, including non-salvage. Here’s a snip from my latest post. Another state and another region but the lesson taught is the same. Catch the whole story at
    In California, timber stands on national forest land are, on the average, nearly twice the age of those on private land. Mortality on national forest land is 2.5 times that of private land while the timber harvest on national forests is only 12% of the harvest on private timberlands.

    Private landowners harvest about 43% of the gross annual growth; removing weak, over-aged, and unhealthy trees thus preventing mortality. Only 17% of the annual growth dies. In contrast, the Forest Service harvests about 8% of the growth while 56% of the annual growth dies. The data strongly suggest that prudent harvesting will prevent mortality and yield substantial economic and social benefits to the landowner and to society.

    • I can buy the idea that cutting down dead trees would keep them from burning (but wouldn’t agree that keeping them from burning is necessarily a good thing).

      It also makes sense that public lands have older forests, since they are mostly not growing a short-rotation crop of trees. Older forests mean more “mortality” of course (unless you use the common definition of “mortality,” which would include logged trees). But it’s up to us decide whether mortality is a bad thing on national forest lands. On these lands that depends on what is needed for ecological integrity (historic or natural conditions). Would that be closer to a stand age of 106 or 64?

      • “Ecological integrity (historic or natural conditions)” a fulsome combination of words that roll nicely from the tongue but that ignores the fact that humans are the single most important part of today’s and (hopefully) tomorrow’s global ecosystem. Conditions that served well the needs of hunter-gatherers or primitive agriculturalists are not conditions that serve the needs of 7.4 billion people. The person who coined the definition apparently wasn’t aware of the Anthropocene. She was looking into the rear-view mirror rather than at the road ahead.

        A realistic and useful definition of “ecological integrity” as a management goal would, of necessity, include the concept of sustainability and its relationship to humanity. IMO a revised definition is needed. Matt, Jon, care to give it a try? Hint: ancient trees and high mortality need not be a prerequisite of integrity.

        A final thought: national parks, monuments and wilderness areas are places created as “living museums” to preserve historic or natural conditions. National forests are places created to serve a variety of material and non-material human needs: needs that are not being met by by the non-management currently in place.

        • I agree that “historic” and “natural” aren’t exactly the right words for this. Probably “sustainable” comes closer. But I’ll just provide what the current law that governs the national forests says:

          “Sustainability. The capability to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. For purposes of this part, ‘‘ecological sustainability’’ refers to the capability of ecosystems to maintain ecological integrity;” (36 CFR 219.19)

          “Ecological integrity. The quality or condition of an ecosystem when its dominant ecological characteristics (for example, composition, structure, function, connectivity, and species composition and diversity) occur within the natural range of variation and can withstand and recover from most perturbations imposed by natural environmental dynamics or human
          influence.” (36 CFR 219.19)

          “Ecosystem integrity. As required by § 219.8(a), the plan must include plan components, including standards or guidelines, to maintain or restore the ecological integrity of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and watersheds in the plan area, including plan components to maintain or restore their structure, function, composition, and connectivity.” (36 CFR 219.9)

          These definitions and requirements are the result of the debate that led to the 2012 Planning Rule, so that’s the answer to your question for national forest lands. The Forest Service considered past human influences and intended this language to be forward looking to accommodate climate change.

          The more useful question now is what does that mean for a particular national forest ecosystem (“playing soon” on a national forest near you). So, for example, if there were no logging or fire suppression, what would the average stand age be?

            • Sharon, right on target. Of all the entities capable of defining an evolving and nebulous scientific term such as “ecosystem integrity”, congress would be the last hopeless choice. That body is unsure that climate change is a reality!! Let’s agree that the legal definition given in 36 CFR 219.19 is woefully inadequate and move ahead, hoping for a more educated congress in the years ahead.

              IMO here’s a definition that makes sense:

              “Ecosystem integrity is a measure of the capacity of ecosystems to renew themselves and continually supply resources and essential services. Ecosystem integrity is the degree to which all ecosystem elements—species, habitats and natural processes—are intact and functioning in ways that ensure sustainability and long-term adaptation to changing environmental conditions and human uses” (Great Lakes Commission 2003).

              This definition is realistic in that there’s not a word about historic conditions or the natural range of variation (Think American chestnut, Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeons, not to mention mastodons and dire wolves) but note the reference to supplying resources and services, sustainability, adaption, and human uses. A most useful definition and a noble goal in a rapidly changing world where flexibility will be the key to survival.

              • Addendum to “my post of the 29th. The definition of ecological integrity in 36 CFR 219.19 does not contain the word “historical”. Anyone know how that crept into this discussion or into FS planning? Jon, since you used the word to help describe ecological integrity, can you help with this?

                Seems to me that the “range of natural variation” is meaningless without a restrictive phrase “since _______”. Consider the range of conditions of these now forest lands since pre-Cambrian times.

                (This sort of discussion happens when people have too much spare time)

                • I used the term “historical” because I knew it was in the definition of NRV (included in my response to Sharon). I also know that the discussion in the Forest Service started with HRV (historic range of variability/variation) maybe 20 years ago before someone recognized that climate change would be big factor. The planning rule was built on this understanding (which is why the directives definition of NRV=HRV is not really supportable as consistent with the rule).

                  In response to Larry, the reference period was left up to the forests, and how to account for the role of the first people was left undetermined. So back to Steve’s, suggestion to look at what the southern Sierras are doing with this.

                  (My bias might be that the current species present are those that the FS must manage for, and those species are the result of, or at least persisted with, indigenous management.)

                  • When wildfires wipe out significant amounts of actual nests, the owls and goshawks populations will take such serious nosedives that no amount of “management” or “protection” will bring them back to acceptable levels. Hanson’s cry for “larger and more intense wildfires” should be shouted down as completely and unequivocally unwanted and unsustainable under current rules, laws and policies. Also, is it really “humane” for us to ignore these facts and welcome “Whatever Happens”? One cannot let “nature happen” without letting the impacts of humans happen, as well.

                    In essence, we seem to be “managing for” the demise of the California Spotted Owls, through inaction and unintended human impacts. THAT is the reality of this situation.

                  • Gosh, Jon, this really is a blast from the past. I remember when I was working in DC with the Hal Salwasser, Wini Kessler and Chip Cartwright and a cast of dozens on “New Perspectives” I remember a couple of people moved to DC from Montana (Bill someone? can’t remember) and had this idea of “historic range”.. it didn’t make sense to many of us, but for some reason that many of us never understood, it carried the day. Even before climate change became a frequently discussed topic, it simply didn’t make any sense (you can’t undo Chestnut blight, and so on)..

          • It will be interesting to observe the Sierra, Sequoia, and Inyo National Forests as they finalize their forest plans under the 2012 Planning Rule, and attempt to implement them, just as unprecedented mortality is wiping out ponderosa and sugar pines (my ocular assessment is that these pines will no longer be dominant species on large areas of the 3 forests, and may be nearly eliminated should the drought and beetle infestations persist). How will — how can — forest managers maintain or restore sustainability, ecological integrity, and ecosystem integrity in the face of such sudden, severe change?

  2. That fire can and does burn in beetle-killed timber is an important point in the article:

    “While there has been debate about whether beetle-kill forests are more likely to burn, officials on the Beaver Creek burn say the behavior of the blaze is proof of the challenge dead trees pose.

    “Standing dead trees, tilted timber and lifeless trunks on the ground created a ladder of fuels — paired with the needles of still living evergreens — for what one forest official called a “perfect Boy Scout campfire.” Sixty to 85 percent of the forest in the area is considered beetle-kill.”

    The same goes in the central/southern Sierras, where ponderosa/sugar pine has been decimated by drought and beetles. Once the dead needles have fallen, fire intensity is lower — little or no risk of a crown fire. But when the trees fall and you have jackstrawed, very dry trees on the ground, plus any remaining green trees, new young trees, brush, and grasses, that adds up to the potential for high intensity fire, and one where falling snags pose great danger for firefighters. These conditions may last for decades. Studies that look at fire danger only in recently killed stands where the needles have fallen are looking at only a part of the picture.

    • In the Sierra Nevada, understory conifers like white fir and, especially, incense cedar, burn quite well, when green. Add to that, the drought stress, and you have perfect conditions for stand replacement fires, which rarely happened during Indian times. The California Indians had thousands of years to observe such phenomenon, and spent significant efforts to reduce, or eliminate firestorms in the lower and middle elevations. Some people still claim that “we need larger and more intense wildfires” in the Sierra Nevada but, that destroys the rare remaining nesting habitats of owls and goshawks…. in favor of snag habitat that is not rare or endangered on National Forest lands in the Sierra Nevada.

  3. Larry, with the vast mortality of pines in the Sierras, I reckon that Chad Hanson, he of the John Muir Project who says we have a lack of “snag forest habitat,” can no longer claim that there is a deficit of such habitat.

    • My point, exactly. However, Hanson loves to include private lands into his claims, as if the Forest Service should counterbalance what happens on other lands. People like Hanson want a pre-man landscape in a man-dominated world.

      • If we want functioning ecosystems (from Mac’s definition), then why shouldn’t the Forest Service counterbalance what happens on other lands?

        The definitions I quoted are from the Forest Service, not Congress. I think we should accept that neither is likely to wade into redefining these things again in the near future. I don’t actually see a lot of difference between them and the Great Lakes definition, though (especially when you add in the Forest Service definitions of social and economic integrity). I agree that “natural” wasn’t the best choice, but that should mean something like “unmanaged” (without past logging or fire suppression).

        I agree that there was a normative choice involved here. But it was driven by the need to define what Congress meant when it required in NFMA that national forests be managed for diversity of plant and animal communities. The choice is consistent with the idea that NFMA was passed to further confine the discretion provided by the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act.

        Sharon is right to point out the problem with how NRV is defined in the Directives. It does (despite what it says) make historic conditions into a target for future conditions. That definition could be changed fairly easily and might be worth further discussion. Here it is again:

        “Natural range of variation (NRV). Spatial and temporal variation in ecosystem characteristics under historic disturbance regimes during a reference period. The reference period considered should be sufficiently long to include the full range of variation produced by dominant natural disturbance regimes, often several centuries, for such disturbances as fire and flooding and should also include short-term variation and cycles in climate. “Natural range of variation” (NRV) is a term used synonymously with historic range of variation or range of natural variation. The NRV is a tool for assessing ecological integrity, and does not necessarily constitute a management target or desired condition. The NRV can help identify key structural, functional, compositional, and connectivity characteristics, for which plan components may be important for either maintenance or restoration of such ecological conditions.” (1909.12 FSH 05)

        • In going with a totally “natural” range of variation, no one knows what kinds of forests were here before people crossed over on the land bridge. Pretending that pre-European conditions were “natural” is bogus, as well. Here in California, those pre-European forests were meticulously managed, with expert care. The idea that we can return to those conditions by doing nothing is so far from certain that it is ludicrous to think that is an option. Man’s impacts will not be going away, until we leave this planet, one way, or another.

          How we get to those so-desired pre-European conditions is the real point, unless you subscribe to the “Whatever Happens” mindset, so popular with so many misguided voices.

          Once again, there IS NO LACK of snag habitats on Sierra Nevada National Forests. We ARE “snag-rich”. Historical accounts indicate much less snags in Indian-managed lands, due to their burning practices.

        • My bad. I should have said social and economic “sustainability” (not integrity – I don’t think I’ve ever said the terminology isn’t confusing). So I should probably include them here (219.19):

          ‘‘economic sustainability’’ refers to the capability of society to produce and consume or otherwise
          benefit from goods and services including contributions to jobs and market and nonmarket benefits;

          ‘‘social sustainability’’ refers to the capability of society to support the network of relationships, traditions, culture, and activities that connect people to the land and to one another, and support vibrant communities

          A key difference is that forest plans must “maintain or restore” ecological integrity (since ecosystems are what the Forest Service actually has authority and an obligation to manage), but must only provide a “contribution to” social and economic sustainability (219.8).

          • That would make sense, except the idea of “ecological integrity” makes no sense , so arriving at a meaningless abstraction will be a challenging, and dare I say, a resource-wasting, exercise.


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