Defining “Logging”in the Fuel Treatment Context

Burning piles to reduce fuels,, Dixie National Forest, Utah

Fuel treatments are one of those controversies in which there are dueling “ideas about things”. One of these is that “logging is bad from a fire standpoint, even in fuel treatment projects.” Those of us who work with things, and not “ideas about things,” see individual projects with individual prescriptions, and not necessarily through words like “logging.” It’s not clearly defined, and so it’s hard to say anything meaningful about it. I’m not so naive as to not think that people pick emotionally charged words specifically for their impact, but for the purposes of discussion, leaving things undefined often leads to us talking past each other.

When we worked on the Colorado Roadless Rule, we tried to clarify what people mean, and what they want and don’t want in terms of mechanical treatments. So we talked about “tree cutting” because there are so many possible activities after trees are cut.

Here are some. Readers can add as they have seen and worked on prescriptions.
1. Tree cutting. Simply felling trees and not removing or burning them. This prescription does not treat fuels, I just included it because people do it for non-fuel reasons.
2. Tree cutting and removal to piles to be burnt on site
a) small trees and brush only
b) large trees thinned and other ladder fuels cut
(these do not need roads per se, but may need equipment on site to move trees to piles. Of course, some people might define “land which is crossed by equipment” as “temporary roads.” Yes, there is a similar court case.) Once on a silviculture field trip in the 80’s to the Lake Tahoe Basin, I saw firewood-sized pieces removed via wheelbarrow.
3. Tree cutting with large trees sent to the mill and smaller trees and brush piled and burned.(Need temp roads to send logs to a mill)
4. Tree cutting with fuels chipped and left in understory or burned. See. for example, Fuel Bed Alterations by Thinning, Chipping, and Prescription Fire in a Sierra Nevada Mixed Conifer Stand
5. Others

You can imagine other variations and mixtures of these possibilities, all with different actual physical things happening on the ground. Environmental impacts are caused by physical alterations, and those absolutely site-specific. So when people say “logging causes…” it is a science “situation that shouts watch out!”

When we were working on the Colorado Roadless Rule, “logging” was just not specific enough for us to get a mental image of what people wanted or did not want. In fact, if we think about the western US with different soils, climate, and so on, it would be impossible to generalize about what is best for fuel treatment, or even what is economically feasible. When people use the term “logging,” I think they’re talking about 3) mostly, but if the choice is burning or selling thinned trees, why wouldn’t we sell them? Especially since we use (lots of) them, and import them from other countries (thank you, Canadians!). Especially since burning in place gives off particulates without scrubbers, can only be done at certain times of the year, and sends carbon into the atmosphere more quickly than if the log gets turned into products. All of these possibilities can only be prescribed based on local conditions.

Most folks I know, and whose work I have posted, have identified smaller-sized material in California as unsalable anyway, leading to needing lotsa bucks to do fuel treatments. So if we can sell some trees, somewhere, why not? What are folks afraid of? That the FS will permit forest industry do cutting that isn’t helpful for fuel treatment? Can we talk about how reasonable that fear is in 2018?

If you want to get an idea of how different fuels can be, check out this interactive photo digital series map put out by the Forest Service.

14 thoughts on “Defining “Logging”in the Fuel Treatment Context”

  1. Notably, in the Forest Service photo series (I only looked at Great Lakes photos), there is not a big tree (3′ dbh, or maybe even 2′ dbh) in any photo of midwest oaks, and red/white pine. A forest type extirpated from our time? It’s hard to develop public support for old growth when so few have ever seen a stand of really big trees. They were beautiful. JAB

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  2. I guess I’m surprised that people wanted to talk about “tree cutting” because “there are so many possible activities after trees are cut.” I would think that the big question would be whether to cut the trees in the first place – especially the big ones.

    As a place to start, the desired outcome for a “fuel treatment” should depend on what the long-term desired condition is for the site (especially where the question is whether to cut big trees). Getting the strategic decisions right (in a forest planning process) for desired fuel conditions and where timber products would be a goal should make decisions about what trees to cut and what to do with them a lot simpler.

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    • What if the long-term desired future condition for an area is “to be managed to change fire behavior such that there will be opportunities for suppression to protect communities and infrastructure. ” Within the timeline of a forest plan, there may be new communities and infrastructure to protect. Maybe the FS should stop general forest planning for a while and just do “fuel treatment desired condition and WFU mapping and guidance” amendments until the fire-prone areas are all covered.

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      • Maybe that would be a good strategy in some places. In revisions or amendments I would expect to see fire/fuels management as a key rationale for plan components, but I think the agency has still not resolved the turf conflict about what strategic fire decisions need to be made how. I’ve been disappointed with a lot of what I’ve been seeing in recent forest planning.

        I think the concept in your suggested desired condition is good, but it isn’t specific enough. It would work as a goal, but needs to be translated into desired vegetation conditions and fire regimes for specific areas, especially those with values at risk.

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  3. Much of the problem arises because the Forest Service, BLM, timber industry and their allies use fuel reduction as an excuse to promote logging that goes far beyond the minimum necessary to reduce fire/fuel hazard.

    Timber targets get part of the blame. The agency has to find timber volume in virtually every project even if log removal is not needed, and even if it undermines stated objectives related to fuel reduction, habitat restoration, etc.

    These problems create public distrust and seems related to the semantics and discussed in this post.

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    • When there are too many trees per acre, in multiple size classes, you’re going to have to cut some merchantable trees. It’s definitely better if humans pick the weakest trees to cut, instead of letting “whatever happens”, happen. It’s really no mistake that some units are prioritizing areas that have excess merchantable trees. With limited budgets and a serious uncertainty about whether non-commercial projects might ‘sell’, they go with what produces the results that the budget-makers want to see. Reality, plain and simple. Northwest Forest Plan projects are like thinning projects with no diameter limits, as far as I can tell, having worked on a few. At least, that’s what I get from the marking prescriptions.

      Sure, you can state your opinion but, that broad brush is just not accurate in many places. It is certainly NOT about volume, here in the Sierra Nevada. With 30″ diameter limits and a ban on clearcutting, timber volume is just a huge mass of trees between 10″ and 18″ in diameter. It’s more about “acres treated”.

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    • So how to restore trust? Have a panel of independent fuel treatment specialists that review each document and go onsite and discuss specific marking of specific trees? I’m picturing something like sustainable forest certification, only for fuel treatment projects. Otherwise we could spend the next 30 years having the same discussion and having the same mistrust (at least in Cal Ore Wash ID and MT).

      It’s hard for me to imagine a situation where log removal “undermines” fuel reduction. It seems like that that’s generally the point. Are you thinking of a specific situation?

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  4. “too many trees” and “excess” trees imply some goal or standard for the location and its ecosystem. Some areas should be planned and managed to produce wood. Other areas should have different over-riding goals. The standards for producing wood are not the only standards for managing all of our public lands. JAB

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    • Yes, it is called using site-specific data in determining what that piece of land can support, with its annual precipitation. We should be focusing on what we are leaving, and not how much we are taking. That is why Silviculturalists are certified to be able to make those judgments. Timber volume is a nice side effect of thinning but, not the focus. There is no conspiracy or collusion involved.

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    • James, this post was intended to be about removing trees during fuel reduction projects. So they are trees that fuels specialists determined are “in the wrong place” in terms of being able to change fire behavior.

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      • This assumes that “fire behavior” is the only factor relevant to removing trees. In some places that would be true, but that is the kind of strategic question that should be answered by a forest plan. Neither changing fire behavior nor producing wood are the only strategies for managing public lands.

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        • Actually, ‘resilience’ is a goal which includes many facets of improvement in today’s undermanaged forests. Such forests might have been logged before, cutting the big trees, or had an insect infestation, or other modern disturbance. If there are already good skid trails and landings in place, shouldn’t we re-use them? Thinning and fuels reduction projects have very few minuses, far exceeded by the pluses. It’s an investment in the forests’ future, with multiple benefits, instead of ‘whatever happens’.

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      • In my experience, “fuels specialists” shouldn’t be determining that sort of thing. They tend to see everything as fuel and often don’t integrate biology or ecology of the forest plants into the mix. And in some cases, they can make things worse by cutting species that resprout readily. Anything that affects trees is a silvicultural prescription that has to be prepared or approved by a certified silviculturist and the prescription has to be consistent with the land management objectives. While maintaining living forest cover is an important part of those land management objectives, planned timber production may be another important component, and wildlife habitat and riparian areas usually figure in as well. We are rarely doing something with a commercial size tree removal that is only for fuels. There is usually a need for density reduction for tree growth purposes, along with some modifications for ladder fuels, restoration of stand spatial structure…and, of course, reduction of stand density also reduces bark beetle risk in pines and reduces crown bulk density, which plays a large role in reducing crown fires. And while this type of prescription might work at the stand scale, there has to be a landscape scale component as well if we truly want to change fire behavior at the landscape scale.

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