Landscape-level Fire Management in California: Getting to Yes

Thanks to Jon for posting this piece all for participating in the discussion on fishers and fuel treatments, and especially for Rene Voss being here to discuss his point of view. I’d like to further explore options for common ground.

“the agencies ignored a deep body of scientific evidence concluding that commercial thinning, post-fire logging, and other logging activities conducted under the rubric of ‘fuel reduction’ more often tend to increase, not decrease, fire severity (citing several sources, emphasis in original).

Having been on the other side (writing statements on “how the Forest Service considered those studies”, I tend to think that five or ten pages of explanation of how these studies were considered, is probably not what plaintiffs are ultimately after.

The view that “fuel treatments more often tend to increase fire severity” is not widely held by scientists, nor fire and fuels practitioners.

So we can only wonder what the plaintiffs are really after. Perhaps the problem is “commercial”? So in areas in which thinning is not “commercial” it can be helpful? But “commercial” is not a biological parameter. So, I guess my question is whether it’s possible for folks like Rene to articulate the parameters of what kinds of treatments would be OK with them. It seems to me that would save time and effort for everyone concerned.

Taking a look at California, we notice that in their State Forest Action Plan:

The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and other state entities will expand its fuels management crews, grant programs, and partnerships to scale up fuel treatments to 500,000 acres annually by 2025;
» California state agencies will lead by example by expanding forest management on state-owned lands to improve resilience against wildfires and other impacts of climate change; and
» The USFS will double its current forest treatment levels from 250,000 acres to 500,000 acres annually by 2025.

Governor Newsome asked for this funding in his budget.

In addition to electric vehicles, Newsom’s team actively highlighted the $1 billion investment it was making in wildfire management. That money would go to support firefighting, including 30 new fire crews and additional aircraft, as well as proactive fire management, ranging from tribal engagement on fire issues to creating markets for wood products sourced from forest thinning.

Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said this budget signified a “paradigm shift” in how the state approaches fire management.

The administration realized, he said, that it needs to be more proactive in landscape-level fire management, an effort that would come from moving toward melding modern fire science with traditional Native American practices of prescribed burns.

It seems to me that the State feels that fuel treatments are effective and worthy of megabuck investment. I wonder whether that scientific discussion has occurred with the State. What’s most interesting to me are the processes by which scientific arguments and discussions take place (or don’t) and why, peculiarly, they have a role in the courts that is different from everyday policy development. The courts, as we’ve found out, are not the place for scientific discussions, and also not conducive to finding common ground and where agreements might occur…except in individual settlements, which don’t really help public understanding.

If Governor Newsome wants to “be more proactive in landscape-level fire management”, when 58% of California’s forests are federally managed, and lawsuits can delay these federal projects, we have to ask “how could we get (currently litigating) environmental groups to not only support efforts, but actually to help row the landscape-level fire management boat?” I’m using the analogy of Michael Webber, in this interview on decarbonization).

What policy changes, or changes in project design, might work?

19 thoughts on “Landscape-level Fire Management in California: Getting to Yes”

  1. I think the current plans, which have (mostly) been in place since 1993 have been an adequate compromise to favor spotted owls (and other species who like large trees). Litigation over that time has been pretty minimal, and work has been getting done. We also need to accelerate these thinning programs. When much of the thinning of small merchantable trees has been done, I’d like to see a very limited thinning of trees between 30 and 40 inches in diameter, focusing on unhealthy and/or crowded trees. That could also pay for non-commercial work, needed in our forests.

  2. We need the latest science applied to a new vision and new era of responsibility, but instead we get the same old pigs feeding at the same old trough of dishonesty to get as much money as they can for more high grade logging and more expensive firefighting equipment rather than funding for low-impact ground crews that invest in the future of a fire resilient landscape in the long run rather than the same old maximization of theft/profits in the short run.

    Yet, we’re clearly in a new era where climate change is driving global average wind speed through the roof and rate of spread and wildfire intensity is moving off the charts. When a wildfire is hit with 15 mph winds that increases to 30 mph anyone who calculates windmills electricity generation will tell you that’s an 8-fold increase in energy input. Translated to firefighting that means that instead of peak rates of spread of a hectare per second just a few years back in the Tubbs and Paradise fire that (destroyed 5% of all housing in city of Santa Rosa and 10% of all housing in Butte county) we’re seeing energy inputs going of the charts with last Summer’s peak rates of spread in all three western states of 5 hectares per second. How much forests will we have left in 30 years if these types of fires that can burn 100K acres in a single day become more common?

    But instead of looking at this dangerous result of climate change, we get the same old pigs at the trough who continue to deliberately confuse logging of fire-resistant thick bark forest logging with unmerchantable brush clearing that can help create those types of fire resistant forests over time. It’s almost as if no ladder fuels and thick bark trees are being extirpated from the landscape because making money in the short run is still more important than protecting forests in the long run.

    And instead of creating millions of green new deal jobs that set up landscapes with back-burn prep work and brush chipping to improve soil ecology and hydrology that maximises a forests ability to grow into future thick barked trees, we get massive funding for more logging and more multi-million dollar machinery because everyone thinks giant expensive firefighting planes look like money is being well spent, when the truth is workers with chippers and hand tools and water tenders at scale is a far more effective solution.

    As in we just keep kicking the can down the road of what doesn’t work and we continue to create forest disturbance at scale, which yet again results in several decades of fine flashy fuels dried out soils and streams and more logs for the sawmill, as if that’s not going to make things worse in the long run. This method increases the amount of drought and disease mortality in our forests, but the logic is it’s ok because then we can justify even more logging. It’s the definition of insanity and is totally devoid of the essential basics of valuing long term investments into soil ecology and deep shade hydrology.

    • Deane.. what do you think back burn prep work and brush chipping will pay? And at those wages, where will they be able to afford to live?

      • If you integrated back burn prep and chipping teams with botanical and mycological surveys, as well as geologic, hydrologic and wildlife surveys you’d not only be paying science professional prevailing wages to generate data for long term planning, but you’d create a mountain of land use priorities that would help stop all the dishonest criminals in logging and grazing swindles. Everywhere these teams are deployed would mean science and observation would be the jobs creator rather than land destruction based jobs. And I know your replies well enough to dismiss all of this as impossible to fun. And if we went back to the great depression, you’d like argue the same view. But look at how much forest land infrastructure was created from that new deal legacy? What’s more look at the potential for what can created for the natural sciences via a green new deal legacy?

          • Just like the moon shot, restoring and revitalizing our planets living systems for maximum fecundity on all levels is going to be growth industry in many different sectors.

            Here’s how the moonshot changed humanity forever: Moon landing: 12 items we wouldn’t have without space travel

            • Measuring things.. though.. does not actually do anything. It’s good to see if you are achieving the goals that you want but I’ve seen much $ plugged into measurement for measurement’s sake. Not sure that’s 1) a good use of taxpayer $ compared to alternatives, nor 2) sustainable, nor 3) useful. And if it’s not useful you might as well be funding artists to produce art.

    • The thinning of trees averaging about 15 inches in diameter comes nowhere close to “high grade logging”. Clearly, you know nothing about logging in Sierra Nevada National Forests. Saying a lie, over and over again, does not make it true.

      • Exactly… High grade logging in depleted forests is passed off as “thinning” but in terms of hydrology, biodiversity and fire resilience it massively increases tree mortality and does nothing to decrease it unless you’re a braindead timber industry employee that would never think of considering the trees you send to the sawmill in your tree mortality calculations, which is standard operating procedures in these so-called scientific research papers about preventing tree mortality.

        • Leaving EVERY SINGLE TREE over 30 inches in diameter (except for hazard trees), while keeping 90% of the 20 to 30 inch trees is NOT high grading. No one in California considers a 15 inch tree to be “big”, in our forests. (BTW, I’m retired from Forestry, and have no one monitoring me for ‘timber industry loyalty’.) You have the same mindset as the Trumpers, making up your own ‘reality’.

          • Site specifics is everything and it’s a waste of time to talk about it in hypotheticals. That’s why we say follow the money…

            What’s more, being indoctrinated into a belief system like Trumpers, much like your beliefs about forestry, requires no one monitoring you to ensure you continue to promote the dishonety/timber industry. It’s baked into a mindset that rejects more life-affirming options because “we can’t afford it.”

            Site specifics is everything… Following the money defines the objective. We need funding to revitalize our planet’s living systems so they thrive for their own sake, not for the sake of dishonest claims that subsidize the deforestation industry.

            • I have looked at the cruise data, to get the 15″ diameter average. That’s not hypothetical. It is a summary of random cut trees, actually measured to exacting standards. In overstocked stands, most of the trees between 10 and 14 inches in diameter are cut, unless they have room to grow. Many trees between 14 and 20 inches in diameter are cut, mostly for spacing purposes, not understocking any part of the cutting unit. Anything between 20 and 29.9 inches in diameter is considered, if they are crowding other large trees.

              That process is supported by rules, laws and policies. Hey, most eco-groups don’t even bother to file a lawsuit because they will lose. Some eco-groups even support the idea of “thinning from below”.

              • The early settlers would hang their heads in shame if they knew in 2021 the amazing big tree forests of the Sierra Nevada range were reduced to 15″ as an average diameter… No better proof of how unsustainable forestry practices has been when you’re down to that diameter at scale.

                And just because we can’t win in court doesn’t mean we approve of what your’re doing. By very definition what you refer to as stocking standards and spacing is an industrial science designed for tree farming/saw log production, not long term ecological health that increases rather than decrease over time.

                Forests have been naturally thinning themselves and making soil and habitat of their dead according to the needs of a specific site for hundreds of millions of years and by every measure there is a profound network of interconnected systems-level intelligence to naturally thin in a way where nothing goes to waste. Humans barely understand that knowledge yet and we need to learn way more.

                But what’s in the way is your archaic tree farming methods that are not based on a long term drive for ecological fecundity at scale, but in tree growing profitability for the saw mill, which over the course of a tree’s life cycle from seedling to sawmill sends a massive amount of carbon into atmosphere over time and that irresponsible behavior at scale is what’s poised to make this planet uninhabitable for most life forms.

                But go ahead dismiss all your wrongdoing from being misinformed and refuse to accept where the science has been leading us. The timber industry would be proud of how well you defend their planet destroying behaviors.

                • When I talk about a 15 inch diameter, I am talking about the average diameter of the trees marked to be cut. You don’t cruise a tree that won’t be cut. Another thing you might not know is each cutting unit has its own marking prescription, often with its own diameter limits ( lower than the ultimate 30 inch limit ). Additionally, many cutting units have different spacing guidelines, as per site-specific analysis. For the record, I haven’t worked in Forestry since 2012. It is important to me that the truth is told about the Forest Service. I’ve always been a critic of many things the Forest Service does (or doesn’t).

                  California forests have been managed by humans ever since the glaciers receded. Those humans did very well in managing their forests, to enhance their own ‘profit’ and survival. In the Sierra Nevada, most dead trees burned before they rotted into soil components. Also for the record, I’ve never been a big fan of clearcuts. I’m also not a big friend of the lumber mills, while monitoring and controlling active logging. I am more about ‘sculpting’ functional and beautiful resilient forests, along with supplying all the rare wildlife with habitat they need.

                  You assume a LOT about me, without knowing anything about me. Do you do that to everyone you meet?

                • The early settlers seemed like a pretty pragmatic bunch according to Wikipedia..

                  “Logging in the Sierra Nevada arose from the desire for economic growth throughout California. The California Gold Rush created a high demand for timber in housing construction, mining procedures, and building railroads. In the early days, harvesting of forests were unregulated and within the first 20 years after the gold rush, a third of the timber in the Sierra Nevada was logged.[1]”


        • So much for civil discourse eh folks? I’m sure calling your fellow Californians brain dead gets a lot done when it’s time to collaborate on forest plans. Aw well, more fun to name call online then to get anything done eh?

  3. Deanne’s proposal: A wooded, or brushy site, with a chipper and hand tools sitting there, with a crew of scientists to do research and manual labor at the same time. How much work do you think would get done chipping? The immense size of the landscape says that this method would be impractical. Hell, mechanized treatment is a joke, Another road she goes down is that all resource extraction is being done by a bunch of criminals based on greed, with no benefit to society. Perhaps focusing on population control would provide more benefits for her goals?


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