NW Forest Plan 25 years later: Wildfire losses up, bird populations down

Press release from Oregon State today:

 

2-4-19

 

NW Forest Plan 25 years later: Wildfire losses up, bird populations down

By Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039, [email protected]

Sources: Matt Betts, 541-737-3841, [email protected]; Ben Phalan, [email protected]

This story is available online: http://bit.ly/2G97xKn.

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Twenty-five years into a 100-year federal strategy to protect older forests in the Pacific Northwest, forest losses to wildfire are up and declines in bird populations have not been reversed, new research shows.

The findings, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, underscore the importance of continuing to prioritize the safeguarding of older forests, the scientists say – forests characterized by a complex structure that includes multiple canopy layers, large trees, downed wood and snags.

The researchers stress it’s vital to remember that upon its adoption in 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan was conceived as a century-long plan, and was not expected to show significant positive impacts on biodiversity for 50 years.

“Trees in the northwestern United States are some of the longest-lived and largest in the world,” said Matt Betts of Oregon State University. “Douglas-fir can live to be more than 800 years old and grow to be more than 100 meters tall, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it is hard to ‘restore’ this forest type, and that any plan to do so will take a long time.

“The plan has been one of the most impressive forest conservation strategies in the world, and there is no doubt that it has had a strong positive impact on the conservation of old-growth forests, but our results show that even with these strong conservation measures, bird species living in this system still aren’t doing too well.”

The NWFP, a series of federal policies put in place at the behest of then President Bill Clinton, encompasses 10 million hectares of land, including national forests, national parks, wilderness areas and Bureau of Land Management parcels, in Oregon, Washington and California.

Betts and OSU research associate Ben Phalan led a collaboration that used region-wide bird surveys, forest data and land ownership maps to gauge the plan’s effect on biodiversity so far. Birds are a key indicator of biodiversity.

The researchers examined population trends for 24 widespread bird species for which the Pacific Northwest holds important populations – some associated with older forests, some with diverse early-seral ecosystems, and some with both.

While there have been other detailed studies of threatened species such as spotted owls and marbled murrelets, this study focused on what populations of more-common birds can tell us about wider forest biodiversity.

Populations of bird species associated with older forests – such as the varied thrush, golden-crowned kinglet, Pacific-slope flycatcher and Townsend’s warbler – are continuing to struggle on both federal and private industrial land, the findings show.

On private industrial land, that’s likely due to ongoing timber harvesting, while on federal land it’s due, at least in part, to the recent uptick in fires in the Northwest, in part because of drought.

“All forests in the region evolved with fires to some degree, but now, at a time when old-growth forests are so depleted, stand-replacing fires have become an important cause of declines in bird populations in older forests,” said Betts, professor of landscape ecology and the IWFL Professor of Forest Biodiversity Research in OSU’s College of Forestry. “Evidence suggests that some of the increase in fires is climate related.”

Another important finding, notes Phalan, now based at the Institute of Biology at the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil, is that the area of young, complex preforest vegetation – known as “diverse early-seral ecosystems” – isn’t declining as much as the researchers expected, and had increased in some regions.

“Again, that seems to be because new fires are creating quite a bit of early seral,” Phalan said. “There are proposals that more of this vegetation type be promoted via forest management, but our results show that birds in older forests are more likely to be in decline than those in early-seral ecosystems, so we need to be very careful not to reduce our options for recovery of older forests – especially dense, moist forests.”

Diverse early-seral ecosystems support many broadleaf species, shrubs and herbs as well as young conifers, and are important habitats for some bird species. Bird species associated with these habitats that are showing ongoing declines include the rufous hummingbird, willow flycatcher and orange-crowned warbler. For most of these species, however, in contrast to birds of older forests, the declines have not gotten worse.

Betts said that before launching into efforts to create these diverse early-seral ecosystems, more information is needed regarding how much of it there might have been historically in different areas, and how sensitive the associated species are to reduced habitat.

Phalan emphasizes the findings show that efforts to maintain and restore old-growth forests are working, but that it’s harder to prevent stand-replacing fires than to manage logging.

“It was anticipated in the plan that species declines might take decades to arrest,” he said. “It was surprising, though, to learn that species associated with older forests continued to decline much faster than those in early seral. We argue that, because forest regeneration is an inherently slow process, and because fires are going to become more frequent in most forest types, forest plans should continue to emphasize conservation of old-growth habitats.”

 

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11 thoughts on “NW Forest Plan 25 years later: Wildfire losses up, bird populations down”

  1. If we want to conserve old growth habitat we should do everything we can to see that they are not eliminated by fire. The FS is responsible for eliminating millions of acres of old growth habitat due to their fire fighting philosophy.

    Reply
    • If we want to conserve old-growth habitat we really should’ve listened to the “environmental terrorist groups” who 40 years ago started to sound the alarm about totally unsustainable logging and roadbuilding on U.S. Forest Service lands. The FS, timber industry and certain politicians are responsible for eliminating millions of acres of old growth habitat due to their ancient, old-growth forest logging and roadbuilding agenda.

      Reply
      • We HAVE conserved old growth in the Sierra Nevada National Forests for the past 26 years. We’re still having huge ecologically-damaging firestorms and massive bark beetle mortality. The ‘annual cut’ is currently about 1/13th of the levels of the 80’s. We could triple that amount but, preservationists would file lawsuits and spread misinformation through media outlets, as well as lies from those eco-groups. We’ve already seen that happening with the current situation(s).

        Reply
  2. “Populations of bird species associated with older forests ……. are continuing to struggle on both federal and private industrial land, the findings show.

    “On private industrial land, that’s likely due to ongoing timber harvesting, while on federal land it’s due, at least in part, to the recent uptick in fires in the Northwest, in part because of drought.”

    Drought’s become an increasingly potent issue for trees and associated forest values just about everywhere. In 2005, PNAS published an analysis of “massive” forest dieoff caused when a heat wave came atop a drought in New Mexico. In the 2012 US drought, about 300 million trees died in Texas alone, including in unlogged urban forests. It’s been repeated cause for concern about the Amazon, particularly the Basin’s capacity to persist as a carbon sink. In the US Rockies, a series of studies have concluded that the forests capacity to bounce back after fire is questionable where drought snuffs seedlings. Drought reduces conifer resistance to the beetle, favors fire, reduces streamflow, and can mean slim pickings on the food supply of varied species. Logging remains a contentious issue, and can contribute to drought in more ways than one, including emissions. That acknowledged, heat alone can dry things up, and logging per se may be nowhere near the drought risk being imposed by heat-trapping emissions from an economy long dependent on the combustion of fossil fuels. Conservationists thus face a situation where saving forests from logging runs headon into a scenario of losing them to the effects of rising global heat.

    Reply
  3. “Diverse early-seral ecosystems support many broadleaf species, shrubs and herbs as well as young conifers, and are important habitats for some bird species.” “There are proposals that more of this vegetation type be promoted via forest management,”

    So, they want to cut down old-growth forests to create diverse early-seral habitat, but when that habitat is created naturally by fires, they want to get rid of it by salvage logging it? (https://forestpolicypub.com/2019/01/29/disagreement-about-fuel-treatment-exhibit-a/)

    Notable for forest planning:
    “it’s harder to prevent stand-replacing fires than to manage logging.”
    “because fires are going to become more frequent in most forest types, forest plans should continue to emphasize conservation of old-growth habitats.”

    Reply
    • Jon, I do not know of anyone who “want to cut down old-growth forests to create diverse early-seral habitat.” Mature (120 years) and younger, yes.

      I disagree that “it’s harder to prevent stand-replacing fires than to manage logging.” That is illogical.

      “because fires are going to become more frequent in most forest types, forest plans should continue to emphasize conservation of old-growth habitats.” — OK, but conservation of old-growth habitats sometimes requires harvesting (thinning), even when that involves cutting large trees — for example, cutting 30-inch white fir to reduce stress on old-growth ponderosa pine or giant sequoia. A member of an environmental group I spoke with recently thinks conservation of old-growth habitats means no thinning at all.

      Reply
      • Well, for the most part Steve, the timber industry has already cut down most of the accessible ancient, old-growth forests on private, corporate and public lands in the Pacific Northwest. So there’s that.

        Reply
    • Salvage logging is not necessarily incompatible with “diverse early-seral habitat”. And the amount of salvage that occurs on federal land in OR/WA/CA is pretty miniscule compared to the area burned. I believe that it is <5% of the burned area.

      Given the conditions we have seen since 2015, preventing stand-replacing fires is harder than managing logging – long-range spotting due to wind, and rapid fire growth due to dry conditions and other "weather-driven" (vs. fuel-driven) fires are very challenging to prevent. I encourage folks to visit the King Fire (which was weather-driven) and figure out how wide the fuel break would have had to have been to prevent that fire from spreading so quickly.

      Reply
      • It was also terrain-driven. The weather created solely by the fire should not be included in the “weather-driven” definition. We already know that the major drainages of the Sierra Nevada are conduits for fires, often in both directions. The overnight growth of the King Fire was not predicted by the afternoon fire weather predictions. In fact, a local news team was able to drive into the burn the next morning, on roads that weren’t closed. We’ve also seen that the river canyon was mostly unlogged and protected old growth, ready to burn.

        In the case of the King Fire, it was inevitable, being so close to so many humans. Maybe we should should consider human ignitions in forest management?

        Reply
  4. One thing is for sure. Over $200million spent under the NWFP in an uninformed attempt to stop evolution (Barred Owl replacing the Northern Spotted Owl) didn’t accomplish a thing.

    Reply
  5. Public Release: 6-Feb-2019
    Climate modeling shows significant shifts in 21st century Pacific Northwest coastal forests
    OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY
    A changing climate in the 21st century will significantly alter the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest, according to researchers at Oregon State University.

    Full release – https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-02/osu-cms020619.php

    Excerpt with link to [ open access ] journal article

    Vegetation is projected to change from predominantly conifer to predominantly mixed conifer and hardwood forests, according to modeling results in a study published in the journal PLOS ONE <>.

    Much of the current forests can be expected to eventually be replaced by trees better adapted to future conditions, according to the MC2 Dynamic Global Vegetation Model focusing on the Pacific Northwest west of the Cascade crest.

    Widespread maladaptation could lead to plant mortality, which would reduce timber available for harvest. An increase in hardwoods could result in a decline of mature evergreen trees for harvest, according to the study authors. Projected impacts on forests could affect fresh water supplies, wildlife habitat quality, and recreation. It is reasonable to anticipate that climate-driven stress will make these forests more susceptible to disease and pests, the authors wrote.

    “The bottom line is that forests on the western side of Oregon and Washington will be under a lot of stress in the future,” said the study’s lead author, Tim Sheehan, a doctoral student at OSU. “Our findings point out the seriousness of climate change and the importance of working to limit climate change as much as we can, as well as to look at the region and identify those areas that are either more or least susceptible to climate change, to better target management activities.”
    —————————————————————————————————
    “By the end of the 21st century, forest ecosystems in the United States will differ from those of today as a result of changing climate.”
    “Climate change will alter ecosystem services, perceptions of value, and decisions regarding land uses.”
    United States Department of Agriculture
    Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Research Station
    General Technical Report PNW-GTR-870
    December 2012

    Reply

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