Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatments: VII. Framing Again: the Watershed Projects

We have already talked about the Forests to Faucets partnership effort in Colorado here and here. I raised the question at the time (2012) and I think it’s still relevant.. why do watershed projects seem to have fewer critics? As I said then:

I wonder why this water partnerships like this are a New Mexico/Colorado phenomenon and not a California/Montana phenomenon? Maybe I just don’t know about them elsewhere? Maybe the lack of a forest industry means that these things can happen without the timber wars ghosts? Ideas?

So we have the Flagstaff project (thanks, Jon!), the Santa Fe Fireshed, the Rio Grande effort (thanks Bryan!). Here’s a page from the Santa Fe:

The Santa Fe Fireshed is so big, what can be done?
Protect communities by mitigation activities in the wildland-urban interface.
Promote fire adapted communities. Learn more at www.fireadaptednm.org. This includes mitigating fuels, assessing wildfire risk to structures, evacuation planning and drills, awareness, and education.
Develop a landscape strategy that uses a collaborative process to identify landscape priorities and values at-risk.
Conduct project planning at the landscape scale in high priority areas. On federal managed lands, this includes National Environmental Policy Act planning.
Make use of the suite of land management tools that fit the landscape. This can include strategic thinning, fuels modification through chipping and mastication, wood utilization where appropriate, and the use of fire to reduce fuels. The use of fire may include burning piles, broadcast burning of the forest understory to mimic natural fire regimes, or using wildfire for resource benefit when firefighter and public safety allow.

This seems like a comprehensive both/and approach.

Here’s the latest on Forests to Faucets from February:

DENVER — Over the next five years, Denver Water, the U.S. Forest Service – Rocky Mountain Region, Colorado State Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service will invest $33 million in forest restoration projects to treat more than 40,000 acres within Denver Water’s critical watersheds.

Under the From Forests to Faucets partnership, the U.S. Forest Service – Rocky Mountain Region has been working with Denver Water since 2010 to implement forest and watershed health projects.

The goal is to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and restore forests impacted by wildfires surrounding reservoirs, as well as minimize erosion and sedimentation in reservoirs. More than 48,000 acres of National Forest System lands have been treated so far with fuels reduction, restoration and prevention activities.

Here are some hypotheses for why the “thinning doesn’t work” seems to be more popular in the Northwest and California.
1. They don’t have direct experience with bad fire/ water provider events (reservoirs filled with silt).
2. Water is not as important to them as they are wetter climates (although California gets water from Colorado..).
3. Different environmental groups in those areas are successful at framing the issue as being about “houses” or “logging the backcountry.”
4. A leftover of the timber wars.. so many people and organizations were developed to fight the wars, cooperation toward shared goals does not resonate the same way. People developed a lack of trust in the Forest Service, so that any utilization of wood resonates as a bad thing.
5. Related to #4, big universities full of scientists tend to be on the wet west side of Washington, Oregon and California, producing ideas and observations that might not fit the Interior West. Somehow they tend to take over the framing as being about returning to HRV, not about protecting values at risk.

Feel free to add your own hypotheses and thoughts..also feel free to give comments and additions/deletions to the table.

18 thoughts on “Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatments: VII. Framing Again: the Watershed Projects”

  1. #5 seems to have been “eclipsed”.
    But I do think that there is a disconnect between wet & dry forests across the landscape. Although I think the bigger issue, which is hit on by the “timber wars” comment, is the assumption that harvest is there to feed the capitalist. We need to get past that and somehow get people to understand that harvest is a method, with much less consequence, to help restore forest health. The other alternative, that those particularly in the wet forests lean to, is allowing wildfire back into the system. For some reason all the education available doesn’t seem to be able to get an understanding that current and predicted conditions make allowing wildfire back into the landscape both irresponsible and deadly. Not to mention having a much more severe and longer lasting impact on critical habitat.
    Up on the Colville they have made some major progress with collaborative projects, but in most areas of the westside a project of 50 acres is toughted as a major success. Modern industry talks economics, but economics is only there to make a project feasible and repeatable. Projects that take millions in subsidies are not feasible or repeatable across the landscape.
    I think open discussions that don’t have a preconceived agenda are pretty tough to have with both sides.

  2. Montana. Here’s a sample of 1 involving the Tenmile Municipal Watershed for the city of Helena. There’s a pending project there, and here is some language from the Alliance for the Wild Rockies scoping letter. There is a lot more, but this addresses my interest in the forest planning angle (including the use of “the Finney model”).

    “There is nothing in the Forest Plan that identifies this fire prevention strategy for the Ten Mile landscape, including treatment of 20-40% of the landscape to create fuel breaks. As the scoping notice has indicated, this new strategy cannot be implemented without violating most wildlife standards that exist in the Forest Plan. Our point is that the Finney model for land management has never been
    provided to the public in a Forest Plan amendment. This strategy is simply being substituted for the existing Forest Plan in the Ten Mile landscape. This is a violation of both the NEPA and the NFMA.
    In a Forest Plan amendment to change the management direction in the Ten Mile landscape from wildlife habitat to fire prevention, the agency needs to provide a full accounting of why the Finney model is considered a valid way to manage public forest lands, given that it apparently required massive clearcuts, up to over 600 acres in size, across the landscape, and including within IRAs. The public has had no opportunity to say that this is how they want their public forests to be managed as a substitute for existing Forest Plan direction.” (It sounds like something I might write, but I have no contact with AWR.)

    The forest plan is also currently being revised. Here is the extent of what the proposed revised plan would say about this area: “Desired Conditions (DI-DC-WTR)01 – The Tenmile watershed provides a clean water supply for the city of Helena.” It would also be classified as suitable for timber production (a “crop of trees”). Something seems obviously missing here.

    • Jon, this is really interesting..what is the name of the project so we can take a look at it (sorry if I don’t think AWR is an objective source of info). I don’t see anything about the SPLATS we’ve looked at that would “require clearcuts.”

      And I was thinking that if there was a perceived need, especially with an old forest plan, that is in revision because it needs to be changed (otherwise why revise?) the FS is free to include a plan amendment with a project proposal. Somehow the quotes make it sound insidious, but it’s something that happens a lot with old plans.

      I would argue that any project plan would describe the proposed site-specific plan amendments and give the opportunity to comment (how many projects don’t have public comment?). Really is AWR saying that there will be no opportunity for public comment on this project?

      Sounds to me as if the Flagstaff, Santa Fe, and Forests to Faucets are about folks saying “let’s work together first and then see what we disagree about”, while the Montana approach is “let’s assume the worst, and attempt to get people riled up by issuing inflammatory press releases.”

      • It’s “Tenmile South Helena:”
        But the only link I found was to the scoping letters. No press releases mentioned here.
        But here is an article for some background. Some collaboration, but some resistance.

        And no mention of amendments. I agree that they could/must amend the plan for the project, but this wouldn’t be a typical “site-specific plan amendment” because it would apply to all future projects in a fairly large area. It would be unusual and maybe “inflammatory” to make a major long-term change in management of an area independent of an ongoing revision. And it doesn’t look like they want to have a discussion of what “provides a clean water supply” really means in the forest plan (“clearcuts?”). (Note that NFMA requires revision every 15 years regardless of need, and this plan is 31 years old – I was there.)

        • I guess it depends on how much you think the change is in degree and how large the area is compared to the whole forest. And if you are not on the national list for revisions, or you won’t start for 10 years, is that a reason to not treat acres? To me planning should be a servant to perceived needs by communities and the FS. If planning can’t do that (or it takes 45 years to get a 15 year plan) something is seriously amiss. Although there are forests that are perfectly fine with an old plan and needed amendments.

          • In this case, the Helena-Lewis and Clark has completed scoping for plan revision and proposed an apparent change for this watershed (that this project appears to follow). This sequencing and the and dearth of information in the plan and project documents are what I’m questioning.

          • I’m amazed that the plan is to have clear cuts 640 acres or larger. The need for clear cuts this large would be tough to justify on anything other than an economic position that its an economy of scale. That being said I would argue that attempting to accomplish a project without heavy equipment is not going to accomplish enough to have a positive impact on forest health.

  3. The lack of support for logging watersheds to save them from fire raises the same concerns as arguments for logging habitat to save it from fire, or logging carbon to reduce GHG emissions from fire. The core issue is one of Bayesian statistics. The probability of watershed harm from logging is far greater than the watershed harm from low- and mixed-severity fire (the most likely fire types on a per acre basis). These watersheds are naturally shaped by fire. If fires are not aggressively suppressed or salvaged, there is not that much watershed damage from wildfire fire. Logging on the other hand, is much more likely to harm watersheds, especially commercial logging that requires dragging logs and maintaining a road system.

    • There are two issues that are being shown on the ground. 1) Fires were suppressed, so now the fuel loading should are “unnatural”, resulting in more medium to high intensity fires. 2) the subsequent fires are preventing habitat restoration and further degrading remaining habitat.
      Each season statistics are quoted and each season more habitat is lost at a rate far greater than it is being replaced. It’s been going on for two decades and yet the same arguments are being used to justify the destruction of watersheds and critical habitat.

    • Once a fire gets to medium intensity, there is no stopping it from going to high intensity. If the fuel is there, it will burn. It is the only component of the Fire Triangle we can effectively mitigate. I have provided pictures of benign logging on USFS lands.

    • Whoa, not to get all decision-science wonky here, but the core issue is “decision making under uncertainty.” Probabilistic analysis is only one of many possibilities. There’s also the field of risk assessment, so I think there are 8 zillion quantitative methods for looking at this.

      Somehow groups like Denver Water who don’t have a dog in the “commercial logging” fight have come up with this being the best choice for them.

      [caption id="attachment_21383" align="aligncenter" width="375"] Ten years after the Hayman Fire, restoration work continues. CUSP and partners facilitated this major river restoration/erosion control project in an area heavily impacted through the years by erosion and sedimentation due to the fire. CUSP staff and volunteers plant willows and grass seed around structures built by a renowned river restoration contractor. Photo courtesy CUSP.[/caption]

      This photo is from an article on the Hayman from the American Planning Association here.

      The fire caused changes in the landscape, increasing the number and severity of floods in the aftermath of the fire and leading to additional economic impacts. For example, Front Range city water providers (Denver and Aurora) spent $25 million in two years to remove sediment dumped into a reservoir that serves as a source of drinking water. Additionally, heavy rains and flooding after the fire resulted in extensive costs to repair damaged infrastructure. Roads and bridges were washed out, including State Highway 67, which cost $7 million to rebuild.

      You made a generic claim that “Logging on the other hand, is much more likely to harm watersheds, especially commercial logging that requires dragging logs and maintaining a road system.” But there’s all kinds of watershed protections for logging, and not much for wildfires. Folks like Denver Water don’t like erosion and sedimentation regardless of source.

    • 2ndLaw

      I’d like to see a link that provides scientific support for your claims that “The probability of watershed harm from logging is far greater than the watershed harm from low- and mixed-severity fire (the most likely fire types on a per acre basis).”

      In addition, the problem isn’t “low- and mixed-severity fire”. If all we had to deal with was the “low- and mixed-severity fire” then we wouldn’t have much to discuss about wildfire on this blog. The problem is in extensive, contiguous, overly dense stands where the probability of catastrophic (high severity) fire is significantly higher than normal.

      • Hi Gil,

        Do you know of any data or research that may shed some light on whether or not certain forest types are experiencing “catastrophic (high severity) fires significantly higher than normal?”

          • Hi Larry. I assume you are directing your request to Gil, because he’s the one who used the term “normal” in that context. I simply re-quoted what he said. Thanks.

            • It would be nice to have everyone explain their own versions of “normal”, under that same context. After all, with 84% of US wildfires being human-caused, we need to know what the “new normal”. is, specifically. We need to stop apportioning the idea of ‘natural’ to wildfires. We need to move beyond that false concept.


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