Let’s Identify and Discuss Some Specific Projects- Fuel Treatments “Miles Away” From Infrastructure

A number of years ago, before I graduated from the Forest Service, our Regional Forester invited some academics from the University of Colorado at Boulder to talk to us. There was a fairly large groups of Regional Office specialists at the meeting (including our Regional Fuels Specialist, wildlife, fish, ecologists and so on.).  I do remember the professors kept telling us that logging in the backcountry was not necessary for fuel treatments to protect communities.  We found ourselves in agreement (of course there are many definitions of WUI and backcountry) and said “but we’re not doing that.” But it was like information only went one way.. from them to us.  My hypothesis is that teachers are sometimes not used to being challenged by people who know the same, or more, about a topic.  Of course, I wanted to ask them to cite evidence for their claims, but in the context of the meeting that was considered to be – I guess- inhospitable or inappropriate.   The underlying fear, I believe, by FS folks was, that if challenged, even in the most gentle way (I thought I was gentle, anyway), they might become even more outspoken about us in a negative way. I don’t know if that was true and suspect that they might have enjoyed an intellectual free-for-all.

Nevertheless, here we are, years later, and Matthew has brought up a related concept.. “protecting homes and communities from wildfire does not include logging miles away from the homes and communities.” This sounds a lot like what those professors from CU told us years ago. But since then I realized that the professors framed fuel treatments as only being about homes and communities. I know, Denver Water headquarters is not that far from Boulder, but I don’t know that the circles ever crossed.

Denver Water, for example, does not want wildfires costing them large amounts of money in sediment removal.

At the EADM workshop for Region 2, power line folks were represented. They were looking for coordinated NEPA approaches to do vegetation management around their power lines.  Are there power lines in the “backcountry” or does the existence of power lines make it “not backcountry”?

So fuel treatments may be desirable to protect infrastructure besides home and communities. And where is that infrastructure located? Are we just talking past each other when some say “homes and communities” and others say “protecting water supplies” or “power lines”? Do different parts of the country have different infrastructure concerns that drive the way this discussion gets framed? Should someone (??) organize field trips so that people can see the same projects and discuss them?

I think to really understand each others’ points of view, we would need to find some examples of “logging miles away from communities” or “logging in the backcountry” and see 1) if fuel treatment was in the purpose and need and 2) specifically what infrastructure the treatments were intended to protect (what we might call “protection targets”.

Based on Dr. Mark Finney’s work, it can be “science-based management” to do treatments that are further away from specific protection targets based on the model. So it would be interesting if that science (on Strategically Placed Landscape Treatments)  is currently being used, and how far those treatments are from protection targets. Here are the links to two posts  one on Finney’s work and its application in the Sierra Nevada in California.

Here’s a link to the Forests to Faucets YouTube video in the image above.


12 thoughts on “Let’s Identify and Discuss Some Specific Projects- Fuel Treatments “Miles Away” From Infrastructure”

  1. When there are too many trees for the annual precipitation to support, thinning projects are the best tool to reduce tree densities. When species compositions lead to more flammable forests, thinning projects are perfectly acceptable to correct that situation. When even-aged stands need structural diversity, again, thinning is a way to make room for younger trees.

    “Whatever Happens” is very poor at correcting all of those situations. Active forest management is appropriate in stands that aren’t currently ‘natural’.

  2. Protecting communities from devastating wildfire is a high priority in large part because it is such a clear example of avoided costs. But this focus makes it more difficult to make the case for managing “backcountry” forests in order to maintain provisional benefits like water, carbon sequestration or avoid costs like wildland fire suppression, impaired air quality, impaired water quality, CO2 emissions. It would be easier to make this type of argument if we could clearly articulate to the public/policymakers how forests (and the benefits they provide) are facing existential threats due to climate change. Society at large may not care until these benefits are gone or on the brink.

  3. Forest planning is the answer (picture a SAF bumper sticker).

    That is where identifying which resources to protect from fire should be done, with public input. If a forest plan doesn’t do that, then it has no basis for proposing projects intended to lead to that result.

    Forest plans should also address the question of priorities. I think most public input would establish that protecting human lives is more important than lowering costs of municipal water or powerline maintenance, or preserving the timber base, or creating more drought-resilient generic landscapes.

    • For the record, Jon.. power line folks pay for their own maintenance, their problem was that the way the NEPA worked made their work more difficult than it needed to be. Some might think that when a power line was permitted, the basic work to maintain them involving vegetation would also be permitted (as long as it feel within specific parameters). But the folks at the EADM meeting said that such was not the case and they had to do separate NEPA for every district, forest and region (and sometimes differently for each one). Maybe they were overstating their case, but that’s what they said.

      Similarly, Denver Water pays part of jointly agreed upon projects. You could say that the FS shouldn’t partner with others if it doesn’t fit with the specific priorities laid out in plans, but most plans aren’t that specific. That leaves opportunities for flexibility, adaptation and joint efforts with others. I have heard concern among some that these kinds of partnerships use up $ which could have gone to higher level priorities in the minds of the current forest leadership.

  4. If memory serves me, twice in roughly the past two decades Denver Water has had to deal with “Strontia Stout” – water in a reservoir downstream from fires that turned the color of dark beer. This Forests to Faucets effort was not intended to downplay the importance of fuels treatments near communities, but was an effort to engage other interested partners in sharing the cost of fuels treatments across the landscape. California took note and expressed interest in similar projects – I heard this project discussed at a conference in 2010 as an example of a way to fund large-scale fuels treatments. The FS does not often have the capacity to plan and implement landscape scale fuels reduction projects alone.

    • From E&E News today:

      The House showed its willingness yesterday to spend more on forest-thinning to curb wildfires as long as environmental policy fights are out of the picture.

      Lawmakers easily passed measures that would boost funding for hazardous fuels reduction and state and private forestry programs, adding them to a disaster spending bill that also passed the Democratic-led chamber.

      The spending bill isn’t likely to advance, stuck in the dispute over the partial government shutdown and facing a dead end in the Republican-led Senate.


      • Two paragraphs later, in the same article, we learn the (just a drop in the bucket) amounts:

        “The first proposal, by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), would add $21 million for hazardous fuels reduction. The second, by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), would increase funding for state and private forestry programs by $10 million. Both passed on voice votes.”

        • And the last paragraph:

          Neither of the approved forest management amendments touched on policy questions that have divided lawmakers, such as easing some environmental regulations in order to speed forest projects. Westerman has been the lead sponsor of such legislation in the House, where it has Republican support but faces dim prospects now that Democrats control the chamber.

          • “Westerman has been the lead sponsor of such legislation in the House, where it has Republican support but faces dim prospects now that Democrats control the chamber.”

            Here’s more information on that legislation from Westerman:

            The Westerman Bill: The Timber Industry’s Dream
            By Andy Kerr

            Who wouldn’t want “resilient” (“able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions”) forests? With the name Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 (H.R.2936, 115th Congress), what could possibly be wrong with this bill?

            Everything. Judge neither a book by its cover nor a bill by its name.

            Introduced by Representative Bruce Westerman (R-4th-AR), the bill is the timber industry’s wet dream legislation. In only his second term in Congress, Westerman has received more campaign contributions from Big Timber than any other industry.

            The Westerman bill would legislate horrifically harmful public forest policy into law. Among its many sins, the Westerman bill would

            · gut the National Environmental Policy Act by giving the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) essentially a blank check to just start logging in many places for no reason other than getting out the cut;

            · gut the Endangered Species Act by letting the Forest Service and the BLM—not the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service—judge whether federal logging will harm threatened and endangered species;

            · gut the Equal Access to Justice Act so citizens and conservation organizations won’t get their costs reimbursed by the federal government for holding the federal government accountable in federal court to follow its own laws (the timber industry could generally still recover fees and costs);

            · gut the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to allow wholesale logging in national forest roadless areas;

            · gut the Administrative Procedure Act by allowing the federal forest agencies to avoid judicial review for up to 230 lawsuits each year;

            · gut judicial review by making Lady Justice put not just her thumb but her butt on the side of the scale favoring Big Timber;

            · make it nearly impossible for federal forest agencies to decommission environmentally harmful and fiscally challenging roads;

            · gut the National Historic Preservation Act by short-circuiting procedures designed to protect historical resources;

            · gut the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act by converting it to a Secure Timber Industry and Community Oppression Act;

            · gut the Fair Labor Standards Act to allow children to work in the logging industry;

            · gut the National Forest Management Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act by allowing national forest and public lands to be transferred to tribal control; and

            · essentially require salvage logging after any disturbance regardless of any ecosystem benefits.

            I could go on. And I will.

            Click here for the rest.

  5. While I don’t believe Andy Kerr is an unbiased source of info.. I do wonder about why transferring national forests to Tribal control would be bad.. wouldn’t that be a desirable form of reparation?

  6. Logging to save water quality from fire!
    Logging to save spotted owls from fire!
    Logging to save carbon from fire!

    None of these make sense because logging is a much bigger threat than fire. No one can predict the timing, location, or intensity of fire, so logging will be widespread and haphazard. Many places will be logged (and roaded) yet never experience fire during the period the fuel reduction might be effective. All this unnecessary logging will cause significant water/wildlife/carbon trade-offs without any corresponding fire-control benefits.

    Pay attention to your Bayesian priors.

    The FS remains willfully ignorant of these probabilistic critiques of their logging rationales because …

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” — Upton Sinclair

    “Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes discrepancy with policy goals.” — Iraq Study Group, December 2006.


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