Thanks to a Smokey Wire reader for this one!
The story is about Sagehen Creek Field Station run by UC. Well worth reading in its entirety. Lots of leadership, including by Scott Conway the silviculturist as well as I’m sure many others on the District, the Sagehen Creek folks, collaboration and patience. Sure, we all talk about the need for prescribed burning, but in this New Yorker story, the fact that it is University of California researchers saying it (and mechanical treatments prior) gives it extra cred in some communities.
As he led us through the trees, Brown pointed out that we were following an old railroad bed. Sagehen was clear-cut in the mid-nineteenth century to help build the railways and mines of the gold-rush era. (Sutter’s Mill, where the first gold was discovered, in 1848, is less than a hundred miles away.) After loggers felled the large trees, smaller ones became fuel for locomotives, and the eastern slopes of the Sierra are so dry that there are still stacks of cordwood left over from the eighteen-eighties. Nearby, Brown bopped up and down on pine needles that coated the ground. “See this?” he said. “These go down ten inches deep in places.”
In 2004, one of Brown’s colleagues at Berkeley, a fire scientist named Scott Stephens, came to Sagehen and took samples from the stumps of huge trees cut down during the gold-rush era. Examining tree rings and scorch marks, Stephens was able to construct a record of fires dating back to the sixteen-hundreds. His findings confirmed that, in pre-Colonial times, Sagehen burned regularly. Those fires sometimes occurred naturally, from lightning strikes, but they were also deliberately set by Native Americans. The consensus now is that the entire Sierra Nevada burned every five to thirty years.
So they tried to design some SPLATS (previously discussed here in an TSW interview with Dr. Mark Finney.
Brown and the rest of the Sagehen planning team decided to pursue a strategy that had recently been developed by a Forest Service scientist at its Rocky Mountain Research Station. Affectionately known as splat, for Strategically Placed Landscape Area Treatment, the technique involves clearing rectangular chunks of forest in a herringbone pattern.This compels any wildfire to follow a zigzag path in search of fuel, travelling against the wind at least half the time. The splats function as speed bumps, slowing the fire enough that it can be contained, while allowing the Forest Service to get away with treating only twenty to thirty per cent of any given landscape.
Adapting the splats to Sagehen’s terrain took four years. Then, just as the plan was being finalized, a paper was published documenting the unexpected decline of the American pine marten at Sagehen. The marten, a member of the weasel family, is not endangered, but its population levels are seen as a useful proxy for forest health. Soon, the Sagehen planning team heard from Craig Thomas, the director of the environmental group Sierra Forest Legacy, which has a long history of litigation against the Forest Service. Thomas asked them to redesign the project, with an eye to protecting marten habitat.
Thomas, a small-scale organic farmer in his seventies, told me that he was astonished when the Sagehen group, especially the Forest Service, seemed open to the idea. “Instead of getting their backs up, they jumped in with both feet,” he said. Conway recalled his own response a little differently. “I was, like, really?” he said. “It meant a bunch of complexity, and making this project, which was already really too long, much, much longer.” Still, as Thomas recalls, Conway “went away and read every marten ecology paper in existence by the time the next phone call happened. And I went, Ah, this is somebody I think I want to work with.”
So in 2010 the team, which had now been working together for six years, began planning all over again, this time with an even larger group of collaborators and a more expansive goal. “It started as science, but it became diplomacy,” Brown told me. “How could we get all these people—groups that didn’t trust each other, were actively suing each other—to a consensus on what was best for the forest?”
Brown secured grants, hired a professional facilitator, and brought together loggers, environmental nonprofits, watershed activists, outdoor-recreation outfits, lumber-mill owners. Sometimes there were upward of sixty people at meetings. Scientists from all over the region presented the latest findings on beaver ecology or the nesting behaviors of various bird species. To categorize Sagehen’s diverse terrains—drainage bottoms with meadows and those without, north- and south-facing slopes, aspen stands with conifer encroachment—working groups hiked almost every yard of the forest.
Arriving at a consensus took years of discussion, but, in the end, the strategy the team decided on turned out to mimic the way fire naturally spreads. For instance, fire burns intensely along ridges and more slowly on north-facing slopes. Martens, having adapted to these conditions, rely on the open crests to travel in search of food and mates, while building their dens in shadier, cooler thickets. Following the logic of fire would create the kind of landscape preferred by native species such as the California spotted owl or the Pacific fisher—a mosaic of dark, dense snags and sunlit clearings, of big stand-alone trees and open ridgelines connecting drainages. Conway then led an effort to formulate a detailed implementation plan whose treatments varied, acre by acre, according to the group’s predictions. Some areas were to be left as they were, some were to be hand-thinned with a focus on retaining rotting tree trunks, and some were to be aggressively masticated and then burned.
Typically, a Forest Service project takes two months to plan. Sagehen had been in the works for nearly a decade, but Brown eventually achieved the impossible: a plan that everyone—environmentalists, scientists, loggers, and the Forest Service—agreed on. Then, three days before the group was due to sign off on the plan, there was yet another hitch: in one of the units of Sagehen that were scheduled to be burned, a Forest Service employee discovered a nesting pair of goshawks—raptors that are federally protected as a sensitive, at-risk species.
This time, it was the conservationists who compromised. “I could have said, ‘O.K., this area is now off limits, and if you don’t believe me I’ll sue your ass,’ ” Craig Thomas recalled. But, after some discussion, he agreed to stick with the plan. He knew that burning might make the birds leave or fail to fledge young, but, he told me, “the collaboration effort and what we had accomplished together mattered more.”
But, despite the success of the project, enormous challenges remain. The Forest Service struggles to muster the resources and the staff necessary to burn safely. The California Air Resources Board restricts prescribed burns to days when pollution is at acceptable levels and the weather likely to disperse emissions from fire. In practice, this means that burning can occur only during a few weeks in the spring. In summer and autumn—the seasons when forests would burn naturally—the state’s air usually falls foul of the Clean Air Act. These are also the months that are most prone to uncontrollable wildfires, whose smoke is far more damaging to human health than that from prescribed fire. But, perversely, because wildfires are classified as natural catastrophes, their emissions are not counted against legal quotas.
Across the region, the Forest Service is devising projects to thin and burn on the Sagehen model. Meanwhile, Brown has helped launch the largest forest-restoration venture yet undertaken in California: the Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative. It encompasses an enormous swath of forest that extends as far north as Poker Flat, level with Chico, and as far south as the American River, level with Sacramento. Brown’s goal is to return fire to three-quarters of a million acres in the next fifteen years.
This may sound like the same old..but again, why not export chips? I’d expect to see something more organized in California or with other states to develop markets for this material, e.g.chips to South Korea in Arizona, CLT mill in Washington, and so on. At least there would be folks at Cal working on this. When did using stuff become less-cool research? Back in the day. it would have been a good research consortium proposal with related education and extension to apply for NIFA grants. We have been talking about this for at least 20 years..
Brown has begun working with a group of researchers at U.C. Santa Cruz to imagine the outlines of a timber industry built around small trees, rather than the big trees that lumber companies love but the forest can’t spare. In Europe, small-diameter wood is commonly compressed into an engineered product called cross-laminated timber, which is strong enough to be used in multistory structures. Another option may be to burn the wood in a co-generation plant, which produces both electricity and biochar, a charcoal-like substance used to replenish soil. Brown has also been talking to a businessman who hopes to burn waste wood to heat an indoor greenhouse-aquaculture operation. His vision is to provide organic vegetables and shrimp to buffets in Las Vegas, and then to interest California’s cannabis farmers in using shellfish-dung-enriched biochar as fertilizer.
Here’s also a link to George Wuerther’s comments published elsewhere. https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/09/02/what-the-new-yorker-got-wrong-about-forests-and-wildfires/
There are sidebars that scientists working at Forest Service Research Stations or professors in forestry schools must observe if they want to keep their jobs and/or funding. These individuals do not fudge the data, but they start with specific questions and assumptions that beget certain conclusions.
Really? And others don’t frame questions that beget “certain conclusions”?