Let’s Talk About Specific CE’s in the Rissien Report: I. Ecotonal Habitat Restoration Project

It seems to me that the Forest Service does projects in a variety of ways, and they are criticized for the way they do them. This is particularly interesting with CE’s, because you can criticize 1) their use in a given situation, 2) the amount of public involvement and/or 3) the level of analysis 4) probably other things. But I think it would be more useful, perhaps, to look at the use of specific CE’s in specific places and ask the question “what would you have done instead?”. We have all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, on The Smokey Wire and so I think it will be interesting to see how much we agree, or not. I wrote to Adam Rissien, the author of the report, and he gave me information on five projects he highlighted (he will send us the report when it’s available). One more point that I think is important. The Missoulian story as posted by Jon here, said:

Rissien used Forest Service postings to tally all the logging and/or burning projects proposed for the past quarter – January through March – where forest managers had applied a “categorical exclusion” to avoid the public process normally required by law.

It seems to me that logging probably needs a definition (usually commercial, so selling of trees), but I don’t know that many people who are against prescribed burning. I’m sure folks want to be involved in reviewing PB projects, sure, but I wonder how many PB projects without mechanical treatment have actually been litigated? So that’s probably worth looking at also- what activities are actually included in the project. Since Rissien had added up acres, and some projects did not mention acres, this was a problem for him.

So let’s start with the Ecotonal Habitat Restoration Project on the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Region 1. Here’s a link to the scoping notice, it’s seven pages and has a great deal of concise information in tables. They took public comment via the scoping notice, and expect a decision in May or June. Many folks who use CE’s write a short response to comments, but we don’t have that nor the analysis documentation yet.

Purpose: Bringing ecotonal communities toward NRV

What activities?

Management options (Figure 2) that would be available to maintain or restore ecotonal ommunities across the CGNF could include but are not limited to:
* Removal and/or piling and burning of small conifers with hand crews
* Using mechanical equipment to cut and pile conifers: followed by pile burning. Alternately, mechanical equipment could be utilized to masticate(chip) conifers
*Girdling (killing the tree but leaving it standing) larger conifers –
*Prescribed fire (preceded by cutting down conifers where allowed but leaving them
laying within the stand for fuel to carry a fire)
* Patch cutting or thinning; this could include piling and burning or removal of commercially sized conifers using a service or timber sale contract
* Cutting hardwoods to stimulate suckering, daylight, and/or provide physical barriers protecting hardwoods from browsing where needed
* Root separation (break up lateral roots at some distance from the parent aspen trees using mechanical equipment and a single shank ripping attachment run along the contour on
suitable sites)
* Protection from browsing (including, but not limited to fencing or directional felling) –
* Re—activating floodplains and elevating water tables in waterways using natural materials and accepted methods to restore or enhance riparian vegetation, floodplain function, and
stream bank stability (6.g. simulated beaver dams (beaver dam analogs), large woody debris introduction, and bioengineering techniques).

Project implementation would be ongoing and could span 10to 15 plus years. We expect this management decision will result in 6-10 specific projects implemented annually across the
forest. Projects would typically range in size from several acres to a few hundred acres. It is anticipated some projects could cumulatively exceed a thousand or more acres for the following
* Lower intensity habitat management activities could be pursued over a larger area versus higher intensity treatments within smaller areas.
* Topography, aspect,or the existence of natural barriers enables prescribed fire to accomplish multiple treatments/objectives over a larger area.
* Funding opportunities make it possible to pursue larger restoration efforts.

In the scoping notice, they quoted the CE category:

36 CFR220.6(e)(6)
“Timber stand and/0r wildlife improvement activities which do not include the use of
herbicides or do not require more than one mile of low standard road construction”.
Examples include but are not limited to:
a. Girdling trees to create snags.
Thinning or brush control to improve growth or to reduce fire hazard including the opening of an existing road to a dense timber stand
c. Prescribed burning to control understory hardwoods in stands of southern pine.
d. Prescribed burning to reduce natural fuel build—up and improve vigor.

And mentioned extraordinary circumstances:

If it is determined that the degree of potential effects of approving this programmatic would result in the existence of extraordinary circumstances, further environmental analysis and documentation may be warranted.

What would you do differently? Are your concerns about the acreage (seems to be open for prescribed burning opportunities)? Having PB or commercial timber harvest as a part of this decision? Which activities? Programmatic nature? Amount of public involvement? What do you think is “just right” analysis and public involvement? Do you think it would be OK to use this CE for these projects, but not as programmatic? Do you think the activities should be grouped differently for analysis? Or different activities should be analyzed at different spatial scales? Do you think it would make sense to standardize the way these analyses are done, by district, forest, region, FS and BLM or ??

3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Specific CE’s in the Rissien Report: I. Ecotonal Habitat Restoration Project”

  1. We looked at this particular CE here: https://forestpolicypub.com/2018/08/10/you-say-logging-we-say-thinning-mechanical-treatment-or-stand-improvement/

    And here’s what I said regarding removal of larger trees: “Maybe you can technically call it “thinning” if you leave any residual trees, but that is clearly not what this CE was intended to cover. There is another CE for hazardous fuel reduction, but it’s limited to 1000 acres of “mechanical treatments.” And another for “harvest of live trees” (limited to 70 acres). Is this the kind of misleading corner cutting the Forest Service is going to go back to when it is under pressure to “get the cut out?””

    And yes, I think size matters to the NEPA question of significance (in terms of “context and intensity”). I actually found myself thinking about the landscape-scale condition-based strategies we’ve been talking about that fail for lack of site-specific analysis. Especially when they refer to multiple future “projects” over many years that they don’t intend to do any additional environmental analysis for. The idea that this is a “category” that couldn’t have significant impacts is hard to imagine.

    Here’s a definition of “timber stand improvement” from Cornell: “periodic cutting made in an immature stand of trees to stimulate the growth of the trees that remain.” Are we really talking about “immature stands” with “larger conifers?” Or are we really talking about cutting down large trees to benefit wildlife? Both seem implausible to me in most cases. It feels like they are pushing the limits of this category in many ways. If they want to use a category they should tailor the project to it; if they really want to cut big trees they should use the appropriate NEPA procedures.

    • Ah… what is appropriate use of this category? Here’s a 9,000 acre use in 2013. I don’t know if they were under pressure to “get the cut out” then.

      I also think that what the Forest Service means by TSI might be more complex… there is the NEPA category, then there is “what TSI $ can be used for”. I don’t know if the FS has a definition in regulation that would apply to all these uses of the word.

  2. “Thinning” would only occur on <3000 acres, in the "understory," and there is no authorization of removal of big trees (unless the Kaibab has a real low threshold for "big"):

    "The NKRD plans to treat up to 9,123 acres of the project area with prescribed fire, conduct
    fireline pre-burn preparation activities on approximately 380 acres of forested land along the project’s north and east boundary lines, and conduct thinning operations on understory trees ≤ 9” dbh on approximately 2,800 acres within the eastern 1/3 of the project area (See Proposed
    Thinning Activity Map). Additionally, treatment options would be exercised to remove trees
    between 9”-12” dbh that are infested with insects or disease within the proposed 2800 acre
    thinning activity area."


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