USFS Bioregional Assessment of Northwest Forests

Received a press release today (below) and links to a Bioregional Assessment of Northwest Forests by the US Forest Service. Lots to read and discuss. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

Although there are benefits from consistent land management policy, land managers struggle with a one size fits all management approach that does not always fit the circumstances. For example, some plan direction hasn’t worked well in distinguishing between the dry and wet forest ecosystems across the national forests and grasslands in the BioA area, especially given the fire adapted ecology of some forests. The landscape-level amendments have focused on protecting and developing habitat for aquatic and old forest-dependent species, and they don’t necessarily reflect today’s understanding of dynamic landscapes. Some habitat types in the wetter parts of the region, such as vegetation that emerges after forest-replacing disturbances, are becoming scarce across the landscape. And, although the Forest Service is one of the largest suppliers of outdoor recreational opportunities in the area, the NWFP and other land management plans and amendments lack modern direction supporting sustainable recreation.

The BioA offers management recommendations to address some of these challenges. As the modernization effort moves into individual national forest and grassland assessments, analyses, and planning, we will use the BioA as a tool during conversations with diverse stakeholders to more fully address the social aspects surrounding natural resource management.

We acknowledge that land management planning alone won’t resolve conflicts in values or tradeoffs. We are committed to learning how and why stakeholders hold different values and to providing transparent public engagement opportunities throughout the entire planning process to increase shared learning and build trusting relationships. We believe that improving and maintaining trust among the Forest Service, Tribes, other agencies, local partners, and communities is essential to developing broadly supported land management plans, which help ensure that we’re moving toward the desired conditions on the lands we manage. With public and stakeholder participation, we’ll determine what current land management plan direction should be carried forward and what can be improved upon based on new information, today’s issues, and what best meets the needs of today’s communities and stakeholders.

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Press release, July 8, 2020:

Forest Service Releases Assessment of Current Conditions of Northwest Forests

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service released a Bioregional Assessment evaluating the social, economic and ecological conditions and trends covering 19 units across WA, OR and northern CA in a brief and easy-to-understand format. The assessment uses the best available science and focuses on capturing current conditions and changes on the national forests and grasslands. It provides recommendations on how the Forest Service could address the challenges facing forests, grasslands and communities in the plans that govern how land management decisions are made.

“The release of this assessment gives our region the data and scientific analysis to make future well-informed, landscape-level decisions that benefit our six northern forests,” said Randy Moore, regional forester for the Pacific Southwest Region in California. “Furthermore, we’re now able to move forward and prepare for updating land management plans to provide essential commodities and recreational opportunities, manage and reduce risk from wildfires through vegetative management and other proactive landscape efforts, provide clean air, water and habitat for plants and animals, and preserve our cultural resources, for present and future generations.”

The Forest Service and other federal land management agencies are required by law to develop plans that guide the long-term management of public lands. These plans are developed using public input and the best available science. They establish priorities for land managers and provide strategic direction for how the plan area is to be managed for a period of ten years or more. They may be periodically amended or revised entirely to address changing conditions or priorities.

“This assessment will make it more efficient to modernize our land management plans and reflect the new science, and changes to social, economic, and ecological conditions across this region,” said Glenn Casamassa, regional forester for the Pacific Northwest Region in Oregon and Washington. “It will also preserve the tenets of the Northwest Forest Plan that are working well, so that work can continue effectively and efficiently.”

The Northwest Forest Plan covers nearly 25 million acres of federally managed land in Oregon, Washington and northern California focusing on managing the entire landscape for long-term social and economic stability. The Bioregional Assessment is not a decision document and does not impact current forest management. Instead, it will be used to shape ongoing engagement with stakeholders, state, county, Tribal governments and Forest Service staff as they prepare for the next steps in the planning process together.

More information on Modernizing Forest Plans in the Northwest is available online, and subscribers will receive monthly updates.

14 thoughts on “USFS Bioregional Assessment of Northwest Forests”

  1. “For example, some plan direction hasn’t worked well in distinguishing between the dry and wet forest ecosystems across the national forests and grasslands in the BioA area, especially given the fire adapted ecology of some forests. The landscape-level amendments have focused on protecting and developing habitat for aquatic and old forest-dependent species, and they don’t necessarily reflect today’s understanding of dynamic landscapes.”

    As I’ve said before, if most/all of the scientists are in Corvallis, Seattle or Berkeley, there might be some tendency to not understand the natural world of the Ochoco and the Modoc just right…
    The corpus of science is shaped by where scientists live and their social and environmental milieu, and what there is money to study. It’s not so much “today’s understanding of dynamic systems” as this was always known – but the people who knew were not asked/didn’t have enough of a scientific/political profile.

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  2. Thanks for posting this Steve.
    I received this tip from another source; The full document is about 90 pages in length. If you only have time to review a portion of the document I would recommend focusing on Chapter 2 – Management Recommendations (starting on p.21).
    Good to see the agency moving toward LRMP revision process. The old plans from the ’90’s are woefully out of date in terms of science, changes in local economies, demographics and much more!
    I think of it as akin to trying to run a successful, effective organization using a 30 year old business plan! It wouldn’t work very well.
    It’s time for Region 6 to get up to date!!

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  3. This is my first time commenting on this site after lurking for awhile. I am a forester on the Mendocino NF. It has always struck me as odd how forests such as the Mendocino and the Olympic could fall under the same management plan, being on opposite ends of the mesic spectrum, so to speak. It is no wonder that of all the NWFP forests, the Mendocino lost the most old-growth between 1993 and 2017 (a period of time when there was virtually no logging compared to historic levels). I am glad adaptive management is finally being given more credit. My forest in particular needs much more mechanical and fire/fuels treatment in order to dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve gotten into. (You can’t manage a forest for timber for decades, suddenly stop harvesting, and expect old-growth to magically appear!)

    Your last comment rang very true, Sharon. Thanks for posting.

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    • I agree. I would hope that the environmental community would be shocked by amount of old growth that has been killed by fire. Maybe they and the FS would realize some fires need to be put out when small. Maybe they would realize that some active management is necessary if we are to have old growth forests in the future.

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  4. Here’s another assessment for the Lassen and Modoc:
    https://www.heraldandnews.com/outdoors/northeastern-california-plateaus-bioregion-science-synthesis-published/article_b99a8cf5-31f0-5733-8480-a131986b0945.html

    I look forward to the discussion. An assessment is the part of the process where we can begin to talk about the desired conditions, except this seems to be a level above that, where it is talking about talking about desired conditions. I tend to react to criticism of “one size fits all” like I do to politicians saying something is a “commonsense” solution. It implies that anyone disagreeing is obviously wrong. Let’s look at the specifics. Often that criticism is aimed at measures to protect at-risk species that are soundly based on the science of those species, and the complainers are those who don’t think those species are as important as what else it is they want to do on the landscape.

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    • Well-said! And the framers of the NW Forest Plan stated that they did not consider a “dynamic landscape” approach alternative. And they do distinguish between drier and wetter forests in the NW Forest Plan. But the new assessment is more concerned with shifting to the principles of the new FS Planning Rule than it is with what is needed at the landscape scale to support late-successional dependent species. (IMHO).

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      • A- what do you mean by “shifting to the principles of the 2012 rule?” An assessment is an assessment, right? Could you be more specific?

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        • The Planning Rule (§219.6) and FS Directives (1909.12, Ch. 10) have specific requirements for forest plan revision assessments. That said, these bioregional assessments are something different, but you would hope they are designed to facilitate individual forests meeting their requirements.

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  5. Those eager to jump in and log mature & old-growth forests in the reserves might want to read this …

    The SAT noted that “considerable additional research is likely required” before we will know whether silviculture can be compatible with spotted owls, and while the spotted owl is relatively well studied, the risks and uncertainty are even more pronounced for the hundreds of other species associated with old-growth. It should also be recognized that President Clinton’s Mission Statement directed the FEMAT team to ensure that “tests of silviculture should be judged in an ecosystem context and not solely on the basis of single species or several species response.”

    The 1993 Report of the Scientific Analysis Team (SAT) specifically highlighted the risks associated with logging in suitable owl habitat, saying “intentions to selectively cut forest stands to create conditions favorable for spotted owls, represents increased risks to the viability of the spotted owl.” The Scientific Analysis Team said there are several factors that support this conclusion and affirm the Interagency Scientific Committee’s decision to exclude logging in old growth reserves and rely on natural processes to maintain and restore habitat:

    a. “Lacking experience with selective cutting designed to create spotted owl habitat, such practices must be considered as untested hypotheses requiring testing to determine their likelihood of success. … Given the uncertainty of achieving such expectations, it is likely that some silvicultural treatments, which have been characterized as largely experimental, may well have an opposite effect from that expected. Consequently, such treatments may hinder the development of suitable habitat or they may only partially succeed, resulting in development of marginal habitat that may not fully provide for the needs of spotted owls. Results which fall short of the expected conditions could occur because of delay or failure to regenerate stands that have been cut, increased levels of windthrow of remaining trees, mechanical damage during logging to trees remaining in the logging unit, the spread of root rot and other diseases. Increased risk of wildfires associated with logging operations that increase fuels and usually employ broadcast burning to reduce the fuels also increase the risk of not attaining expected results. Such events may spread to areas adjacent to stands that are logged, thereby affecting even more acreage than those acres directly treated.” [SAT p 147-148] The SAT indicates that these comments apply equally to density management and patch cutting, both of which are being promoted as tools to enhance owl habitat. The SAT also cited concerns about the effect of logging on snags and down woody debris which are essential features of owl habitat.

    b. “Planning produces a description of desired future conditions [and] culminates in a final plan for a project which, for timber sales, involves legal contracts obligating the purchaser and the seller to specific provisions. … Our experience is that commonly not all provisions of the plan are thoroughly incorporated into such contracts, nor are all contract provisions thoroughly administered to ensure compliance.” [SAT p 148-149].

    c. “There are also probabilities associated with how well monitoring will identify ‘trigger points’ that indicate a management plan may need modification. The more complex the plan (i.e., the more variables there are to monitor) the less likely the monitoring plan will successfully detect problems. Manipulation of forest stands to accelerate development of spotted owl habitat on a landscape scale, as prescribed in the Bureau of Land Management Preferred Alternative, is an extremely complex issue involving a myriad of variables over a very long timeframe. Development of a monitoring plan intensive enough to isolate the causes of observed variations for wide-scale implementation of the Bureau of Land Management Preferred Alternative seems unlikely to us. … [I]nadequate monitoring will increase, perhaps dramatically, the risk of failure of a plan that relies heavily on adaptive management.” [SAT p 149].

    d. “A basic requirement for a viable adaptive management strategy is the existence of resources necessary to make the required adjustments. Adaptive management can only be expected to reduce risk if options to adjust management to fit new circumstances are not eliminated. Adaptive management, therefore, can be considered a means to reduce risk associated with a Resource Management Plan commensurate with the options for adjustment which remain during the time the plan is in effect.” [SAT p 149-150] In other words, silvicultural manipulation of mature forests has long-term consequences and is likely to foreclose some future options in those stands, thus reducing the utility of adaptive management. A prime example is the fact that logging “captures mortality,” yet mortality is an essential feature of old-growth habitat used by both spotted owls and their prey.

    e. SAT then noted the cumulative effects of all these uncertainties: “The combined risks associated with treatment of spotted owl habitat or stands expected to develop into suitable habitat for spotted owls, as discussed above, will likely result in situations where either habitat development is inhibited or only marginal habitat for spotted owls is developed. The exact frequency of these partial successes or failures is unknown. Given the likely cumulative relationship among the risks for each factor, it appears to us that the overall risk of not meeting habitat objectives is high. … Members of the Interagency Scientific Committee indicated that, because a plan (the Interagency Scientific Committee’s Strategy) was put forth which proposes to reduce the population of a threatened species by as much as 50 percent, providing the survivors with only marginal habitat would be extremely risky and certainly in their minds not ‘scientifically credible’ (USDA 1991:45).” [SAT p 151].

    f. The SAT concluded, “The transition period (1-50 years) between implementation of the Interagency Scientific Committee’s Strategy and achievement of an equilibrium of habitat and spotted owls is a critical consideration. … Given the existing risks that face owl populations and the sensitivity of the transition period, the short-term effect of these actions on habitat loss may be much more significant than the long-term predicted habitat gains. We further conclude that, although research and monitoring studies are presently being initiated, no significant new data exist which suggest that the degree of certainty that is expressed in the Bureau of Land Management Draft Resource Management Plans for developing owl habitat silvicultural treatments is justified. Therefore, it is our opinion that the course prescribed in the Interagency Scientific Committee’s Strategy, pertaining to timber harvest in Habitat Conservation Areas, remains the most likely course to result in superior habitat conditions within reserves (i.e., Old-Growth Emphasis Areas). The approach prescribed by the Interagency Scientific Committee’s Strategy preserves options for adjustments in the course of management under a philosophy of adaptive management.” [SAT p 151-152].

    The authors of the Northwest Forest Plan took all this into account and determined that 80 years is a useful place to draw the line between younger forests that are likely to benefit from careful thinning and older forests that are likely to experience net negative consequences. There is no new science to change that conclusion.

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  6. “Our experience is that commonly not all provisions of the plan are thoroughly incorporated into such contracts, nor are all contract provisions thoroughly administered to ensure compliance.”

    So what we’ve seen recently with the Mexican spotted owl (https://forestpolicypub.com/2020/07/13/a-closer-look-at-the-mexican-spotted-owl-cbd-forest-service-agreement/) and on the Daniel Boone (https://forestpolicypub.com/2020/05/18/kentucky-heartwood-13163-trees-illegally-sold-on-the-daniel-boone-national-forest/)
    is not a new or isolated phenomenon. The NFMA requirement for projects to be consistent with the forest plan is being short-circuited by project implementation failures. Maybe this needs more attention.

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    • But based on the Daniel Boone’s response https://forestpolicypub.com/2020/06/10/the-daniel-boone-national-forest-response-on-greenwood-vegetation-project/ it sounds like the provisions of the plan were incorporated but the disagreement was about whether a stream was intermittent or ephemeral at a particular place based on when observations were made. So it looks to me that the plan provisions made their way into the marking, which is the step beofre the contract. I’m sure it happens (plan components don’t get into project documents and contracts) but this doesn’t seem to be an example of that.

      “It is clear the trees in 5062_40 were not intentionally marked in the 1.E.Riparian Corridor (USDA FS, 2004), but it does appear some trees were marked within 50-feet of what is confidently an intermittent stream reach in stand 5062_40. A vast majority of this intermittent stream was not marked on a topography map. Where the stand boundary crosses, the stream does not solidly fit the definition of an intermittent stream, so it is reasonable that it was not identified.

      The trees were marked in late summer of 2018, when the reaches were likely dry because the water table was lower. It should be noted that in March 2020, the area recorded 9.64-inches of precipitation in Whitley City by the National Weather Service. This would result in well above average flows as the water table would be high. This amount of flow would still be evident in April when Heartwood made their observations, because leaf out was not complete and not as much groundwater was being taken up by trees. Without monitoring these stream flows for an extended period, it is impossible to know for certain if it flows >10-percent of the year. “

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