Sequoia ForestKeepers Weigh in on HUD Grant for Stanislaus National Forest Salvage

Volunteer from Tuolumne River Trust working on Rim Fire restoration.
Ara Mardosarian of Sequoia ForestKeeper posted this as a comment on an earlier thread. Since it is specific and about something new, I am posting it here to get more discussion.

On 31 May 2019, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy held a field trip regarding a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Redevelopment (HUD) funding application by Stanislaus National Forest for $70 million, through the National Disaster Resilience Competition, to salvage log burned areas of the 2013 Rim Fire FOR BIOMASS BURNING – A DESTRUCTIVE CLEARCUTS-FOR-KILOWATTS SCHEME. This field trip was attended by 80 persons, including members of more than 20 environmental organizations in opposition to post-fire salvage logging, including Sierra Club and Sequoia ForestKeeper. Dr. Chad Hanson, John Muir Project Fire Ecologist, and Dr. Dominick DellaSala, Geos Institute Director, lead the effort to defend the position to not salvage log recovering burned forest habitats. Brandon Collins, USFS Pacific Southwest Research Station, said there was little to no conifer regeneration within the Rim Fire. We saw seedling regeneration at multiple sites. And the Forest Service saw the seedlings growing in the Rim Fire snag forest habitats as fuel, when we see this as biodiverse habitat. Besides providing habitat for Black-backed woodpeckers and other cavity nesting species, standing burned dead trees/snags provide cooling shade that helps hold the moisture in the ground for the already-growing, natural tree seedling regeneration and for eventual delivery of that retained drinking water to communities below the forest. At no time did the Forest Service acknowledge the value of the standing burned dead trees/snags for sequestering carbon in the forest or counteracting the climate crisis. The agencies would not even address the repeated queries about the emissions from biomass power generation that the project would cause. The blatant climate science denial and antipathy toward nature by the Forest Service and its supporters (John Buckley, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center), (David Edelson, The Nature Conservancy), and (Craig Thomas, Fire Restoration Group) of this clearcuts-for-kilowatts scheme was stunning. Why is $70 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Redevelopment (HUD) disaster funds going to log federal forests (creating unnatural flammable conditions) when those funds should be spent on community disaster relief? This $70 million of HUD funding should, instead, be applied to the real disaster of the Camp Fire in Butte County, to help the victims in Paradise, California who lost everything.

Note: I think we should be consistent about calling people Drs. or not.. it appears that Brandon Collins is arguably just as much of a Dr. as Hanson and Della Salla, plus his research is equally, or more, relevant, depending on your point of view. Here’s a link to his papers.

Mardosarian makes several claims in this comment that are interesting and worthy of discussion:

1. Collins said there was little or no regeneration (did he say this? is the first question and “is it true?” is the second question).
2. The Forest Service saw seedlings as fuel (in my history with the Forest Service we didn’t think this way, but perhaps times have changed).
3. Standing dead provide shade and reduce moisture loss. I don’t know if this is true but it sounds plausible. But of course dead trees ultimately fall down and dry out, and when burning can potentially damage soil.
4. The shade of standing dead treese provide better microenvironments for seedling establishment and/or growth than open areas.
5. Standing dead sequester carbon in the forest (is that better than being turned into wood products? I think this depends on assumptions)

I am interested in the mechanisms by which people think that standing and fallen dead trees “counteract the climate crisis.”

6. Emissions. If Californians are worried about emissions from biomass energy (unclear whether particulates or CO2), then the obvious answer would be to sell the material to other markets, like our friends in BC, or for CLT, or to turn into biochar or …? To what extent does the ultimate use matter.

In my own experience with a broad range of individuals in the FS and TNC, as we worked on climate change and other issues, they were not “climate deniers” nor have an “antipathy to nature”. Certainly, as Dr. Tom Mills used to say, “reasonable people could disagree” about salvage logging in a specific place at a specific time.

This seems to be the agenda for the tour. If someone has a photo

8 thoughts on “Sequoia ForestKeepers Weigh in on HUD Grant for Stanislaus National Forest Salvage”

  1. Again, we see people ignoring the ‘elephant in the room’. The Groveland Ranger District has one of the highest fire frequency around. Tree rings say that up to 14 fires have burned in the last 100 years on parts of the RD. Additionally, we have more human-caused ignitions there, too. Pretending that snags sequester carbon in this situation just isn’t a rational thought. They burn before they can decompose into soil components. We MUST include human effects upon our public forests, instead of purposely ignoring those issues.

  2. At first glance, it’s awesome to know that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is so flush with cash, and everyone’s needs in America are met in terms of Housing and Urban Development, that HUD can give $70 million dollars in U.S. taxpayers funds to the U.S. Forest Service to do post fire logging on public lands. This is truly how we make America great.

    Let’s give HUD Secretary Ben Carson an Oreo for a job well done!

  3. I attended the tour. Here are responses to the first two questions posed by Sharon:

    It is my recollection that Dr. Brandon Collins stated that there was little to no natural regeneration of conifers in the interior of large, high severity burn patches that were more than a few hundred yards from live conifers. He did not characterize the entire Rim Fire Burn area as having little or no natural regeneration. Certainly there are plenty of low and moderate burn areas that we drove through where we saw quite a bit of natural regeneration, but there were miles of Forest Service lands that we drove through that burned at high severity where I personally saw little to no natural regeneration of conifers. This is consistent with my many weeks that I have spent in the Rim Fire footprint over the past 6 years.

    I don’t recall whether anyone described the seedlings that are naturally regenerating as fuel, but I do recall a discussion (maybe during Dr. Eric Knapp’s presentation) about how surface fuel loads will increase as many of the burned snags fall down in the coming years (as many are already doing), and that when a fire burns through those areas with extra concentrated surface fuels, it will mean that many trees will likely be consumed by the fire.

    I’d appreciate a more in-depth discussion of emissions. I suspect that this is not a black-and-white issue. What are the potential fates for standing and fallen dead trees, excessive amounts of small trees in many parts of the forest, vast quantities of shrubs, biomass, etc? What are the emissions (particulate and CO2) that will be produced under different alternatives and over what time frames?

    And comments on other portions of the Sequoia ForestKeeper Post:

    The HUD grant (awarded under the Obama Administration) is not paying for any salvage logging. In fact, the salvage logging that was done in the Rim Fire burn area was completed in 2014-15. There has been no salvage logging since then and no more is planned. There is prep work planned as part of the reforestation. This will result in removal of some standing, dead trees and some jumbled piles of fallen logs.

    Also, another correction – rather than $71M going to do fuel removal and other restoration work in the burned forest, the majority of the HUD grant is paying for one or two community centers to help the county recover economically and for a wood products campus to make waste wood into usable products. Only 1/3 of the HUD grant is going to fuel breaks, tree planting, and fuel removal.

    • Thanks for some real information about this story, Patrick. I’ve toured through the Rim Fire several times, even looking at some of my own work, from the year 2000. There are some huge acreages where we wouldn’t expect to see much forest recovery, due to a lack of seed sources and/or poor sites.

      I’m seeing that the field trip is allowing multiple points of view to ponder the future of some parts of the Rim Fire. Certainly, there is still much to learn about how such fires burn, how to deal with them, and how to move on, into the future. In the Sierra Nevada, everything is so site-specific, so arguing for blanket policies is useless. Some would like to see all Forest Service vegetation management ‘discretion’ eliminated.

  4. I appreciate this discussion, thanks. A few comments on the May 2019 field trip and thoughts related to biomass production.

    1. We were standing on the side of Forest Route 3N01, in Stanislaus National Forest, West of Yosemite National Park and close to the northernmost area that burned over 257,000 acres in the 2013 Rim Fire, the largest Sierra Nevada fire recorded in recent times.

    Dr. Collins’ exact words, while referring to the Rim Fire forests, were “we have major regeneration failure.” Unfortunately no one in the group pointed out that we were standing in the middle of several clear-cuts to the north and west of us. This is a very common problem – four years after the 2015 clearcuts, it’s hard to see clearcuts even while standing in the middle of them, due to the shrubs and grasses that are in front of all the stumps. I documented the clearcutting back in 2015.

    Ms. Tonja Chi, who asked Dr. Collins a couple of questions, revisited and investigated the USFS plots in 2018 and found regeneration in every single acre of previously unlogged forest – acres that were slated for cutting due to the “major regeneration failure.” In other words, the 4000+ acres – which were planned for clear-cutting of the charcoal snags due to perceived lack of regeneration – had varying amounts of healthy conifer regeneration.

    I do not know whether there is regeneration failure elsewhere, in the Rim Fire, but I do know that every single previously unlogged patch of forest that is planned for clearcutting (ongoing right now) featured natural conifer regeneration, because I documented Ms. Chi’s efforts. They were different in different areas, but there was regeneration in all the acres to be “clearcut for biomass.”

    Ms. Chi pointed out the regeneration to Dr. Collins. He asked her “conifer regeneration?” and she said yes.

    It’s entirely possible that Dr. Collins only saw the USFS early data and did not see the later data taken by Ms. Chi, which was documented very carefully with thousands of photographs and with footage. Ms. Chi was actually crawling under deer-brush to count seedlings (something I did not do!)

    The steep area below where we were standing at 3N01 (the first stop in the field trip) was one of the many areas that were left untouched during the 2015 clearcuts, and this is where Ms. Chi documented abundant conifer regeneration in the USFS plots.

    I can understand why Dr. Collins would think there was major regeneration failure in forests after the Rim Fire. Out of 182 unlogged plots surveyed by the USFS to document conifer regeneration, only 85 were actually conifer forests. The rest of the plots documenting lack of conifer regeneration were on skid roads, oak woodlands, chaparral and rocky outcrops etc. I documented several of these areas where USFS was assessing conifer regeneration where there would be no conifers expected. I remember one of the USFS plots was on a paved road, because they were assessing based on a grid system. However, they could have left out areas like roads and rocky outcrops and just judged conifer regeneration based on areas that were conifer forests.

    4. Regarding point 4, whether the shade of standing dead trese provide better microenvironments for seedling establishment and/or growth than open areas. I have documented thousands of seedlings emerging from behind downed logs and also close to the standing dead trees. It’s interesting. Would take more study comparing growth in partial shade vs. growth in full sun.

    One of the areas that was clearcut after the May 2019 meeting was a favorite of mine because I found tons of mammals including ringtail cat (state protected) and also a young goshawk using this high severity patch. A family of black-backed woodpeckers were raising their young there. It’s 1S82, off Sawmill Mt. Rd. The conifer regeneration there was intense – over 70 conifer seedlings in a 5 meter radius. It’s been clearcut now.

    But I think that logger was a kind soul – clearly he was trying to save the seedlings as he piled up the snags. Unfortunately most of the seedlings were not doing well, but I appreciate his efforts to save them while he was doing his job.

    In terms of biomass production, it would be interesting to compare the quick emissions of carbon dioxide during burning in biomass plants (and also burn piles left in the forests that will not be used for biomass). I think a quote from Dr. Mary Booth is worth looking at:
    “Far from a zero-emission practice, burning forest products in biomass plants will emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, on a time-frame that will not allow for natural forest processes to sequester the amount of gases being released into the atmosphere by burning forest biomass.”

    • I highly doubt that clearcuts were mandated by the Forest Service, or designated as such by actual original project plans. Of course, many areas had hazard trees, due to power lines, roads, canals, etc. Remember, the original plans called for only about 32,000 acres, with half of them being in plantations from the last wildfire(s). Adding to that, some of those projects did not sell. Remember, also, that some areas were left ‘to let nature take its course’, after the early 70’s burn. Those areas had 8 foot tall thick brush, which burned at higher intensities than the adjacent plantations.

      A clearcut, by definition, is the cutting of ALL trees. Not just the dead ones. I highly doubt that a project plan allowed for the cutting of ALL trees, including healthy green trees. Maybe you could show us actual project plans that mandate clearcuts for us?

      Hey, even SPI didn’t clearcut all of their 22,000 acres of the Rim Fire. Then, there is always the scientific facts that show how many fires have burned in this area in the last 100 years. Should we wait for another fire to come, burning up those perfectly-preserved ‘sticks’, in the next 10-40 years, eliminating all that precious reproduction? The Forest Service already has seen the results of ‘letting nature take its course’, both inside Yosemite Park, and outside of it.

  5. About seeing seedlings as fuel, that perspective was articulated by Tom Wheeler, a board member with the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and was reinforced in by a USFS staff member (forgot his name) during the second to the last stop of the tour – a site that was recovering beautifully with hundreds of conifer, fir, and shrub species. It was a remarkable example of how a post-fire forest can respond with rich biodiversity.

    However, Wheeler didn’t see it that way. He asked Dominick if he thought the area represented a healthy forest. Dominick said yes, pointing out, for example, the large number of bird species that were setting up nesting areas, singing, and generally just filling the air with beauty.

    Wheeler dismissed the perspective that the area was healthy because there were too many seedlings/saplings and dead snags. The USFS staff member concurred later.

    When confronted with the fact that thousands of nesting birds would likely be killed in the scheduled salvage/grinding operation (clear cutting*) on that very spot, Wheeler said that such a thing didn’t matter because, after all, birds will be killed in the next fire anyway because all the newly growing trees would fuel another high-severity fire.

    *Some folks seem to be hung up on the term clear cutting. Sure, by pure forestry vernacular, I suppose one could argue that ripping out snags, grinding up shrubs/saplings, and replanting with nursery stock is not “clear cutting” by forestry terms. But, really? We are talking impact on the environment here. It doesn’t matter if the dozer/tractor wheels are engaged in clear cutting a timber stand or ripping out an early seral forest, the impacts quite similar.


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