Bootleg Fire, pyrocumulus clouds and biomass logging?

Yesterday afternoon, I noticed on Twitter that the National Weather Service in Medford, Oregon identified pyrocumulus clouds coming from the Bootleg Fire.

So, I decided to have a closer look at what the landscape where those pyrocumulus clouds were coming from looked like. Here’s what I found.

It appears that much of the area burning hot was very heavily logged/roaded/managed. Also, this is clearly a dry-east side forest, not the lush Oregon forest many people outside of the region may assume when they hear that a big “forest fire” is burning in Oregon.

Next, I started hearing from numerous sources that the heavily logged/roaded and ‘managed’ area where the Bootleg Fire ripped and roared through yesterday—putting up those pyrocumulus clouds—is allegedly part of a huge biomass energy, “forest offset” (ie “carbon offset) logging project.

CarbonPlan sent out numerous tweets stating:

As the #BootlegFire burns out of control in Oregon — with critical implications for public safety, air quality, and forest health — we can report that another large forest offset project appears to be on fire.

And this:

The project impacted by the #BootlegFire, ACR273, is a 400,000 acre forest project that was recently harvested for timber and has earned more than 950,000 offset credits from California’s climate regulator as it regrows. acr2.apx.com/mymodule/reg/p

I also have noticed a number of tweets from Gary Graham Hughes of Biofuels Watch, which included information such as this:

Extreme fire behavior is a result of the logging. You are missing the #climate ironies of an offset project going up in smoke plus the tens of millions of dollars of public money for Red Rock Biofuels unicorn bioenergy project that has never yet produced even one gallon of fuel.

And this:

The fire is exploding through heavily logged lands belonging to Green Diamond Resource Company, holdings that are registered as an offset project for California cap-and-trade as well as been committed to provide feedstock for the unicorn #RedRockBiofuels project in #Lakeview.

I also couldn’t help but notice this tweet from the John Muir Project:

Or this map produced by Bryant Baker (MS) of Los Padres Forest Watch of the management history of the Bootleg Fire area.

I’m sure in the coming days and weeks we’ll end up learning more. It goes without saying that this part of the country just experienced some of the highest temperatures on record (and it was 121 degrees in…Canada). And this part of the world is also currently under exceptional drought or extreme drought.

If all of this sounds sort of familiar it’s because it should be. The same situation just played out in Oregon ten months ago during the deadly and destructive Labor Day fires. Speaking of those fires, and also the role that downed power lines have played in some of the most deadly and destructive wildfires in recent years, Oregon Public Broadcasting just published this story, “Residents of Gates, Oregon, aim their ire at Pacific Power nearly a year after their town burned: Despite high wind warnings, Pacific Power chose not to shut off electricity.”

According to Inciweb, the cause of the Bootleg Fire is currently “unknown.” Inciweb also reports, “Fire remains very active with significant acreage increases due to hot, dry, and breezy conditions, and plume-dominated fire behavior. Poor humidity recovery at night is contributing to active fire spread through the night time period. Robust spread rates are being generated by drought-affected fuels. Expecting similar conditions for the next several days.”

Stay safe everyone. And pray for rain…and climate action and more climate resilient communities and infrastructure. It’s going to be a long century.

UPDATE (July 20, 2021): According to InciWeb, on July 19th, the Bootleg Fire merged into the Log Fire to its northeast and now is being managed as one fire. Total acres burned to date are 388,359 acres. The cause is still “unknown.”

This is the aerial view of the northern part of the Bootleg Fire, again showing how heavily logged and roaded this specific part of the fire area is.


Also, here’s an updated map produced by Bryant Baker (MS) of Los Padres Forest Watch showing the management history of the Bootleg Fire area.

UPDATE (July 21, 2021): These new maps from Oregon Wild illustrate the extent of logging and grazing across the Bootleg Fire footprint.


38 thoughts on “Bootleg Fire, pyrocumulus clouds and biomass logging?”

  1. It might be valuable to wait until the RAVG data is available to compare post-burn mortality to the harvest activities that occurred within the fire perimeter. Like most fires, there’s a lot of variation in severity and intensity that isn’t really apparent until the fire is out and we start getting data. This post is useful to get a sense of the different ownerships and previous activities in the area, but let’s wait until there is real data before we say that the “extreme fire behavior is a result of the logging”.

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    • Nope, nice try but as I followed the fire behavior and compared it to the satellite imagery, it only leads to the same conclusion. Private “managed” forests blew up big time yesterday to the west of the Gearhart Mountain Wilderness.

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    • According to Inciweb, current conditions: “Extreme, crowning, running, spotting. Fire remains very active with significant acreage increases due to hot, dry, and breezy conditions, and plume-dominated fire behavior. Poor humidity recovery at night is contributing to active fire spread through the night time period. Robust spread rates are being generated by drought-affected fuels. Expecting similar conditions for the next several days.”

      Yesterday, the report noted that “Heavy beetle killed timber and active fire behavior will present challenges in keeping the fire north and west of this road [the 34 Road]. “

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  2. Yep the really big pyro cloud was from a major run through the thickets of “managed plantation “forests” on private lands yesterday. The satellite imagery coupled with the heat maps are absolutely damning. And that major run through private forest lands got the fire supercharged as it entered in the Gearhart Mountain Wilderness, a really special place. So not only did Simpson (Green Diamond) and the biofuel scammers destroy the forests they “manage” but they are directly responsible for exacerbating the damage currently being done to public lands. Nothing new for Simpson though.

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  3. Thanks Matt, that is a very visually compelling post.

    Just to be super clear, Green Diamond ex Simpson Timber signed an agreement with Red Rock Biofuels back in 2018 to source feedstock from their holdings in this region, and Green Diamond is an official partner with RRB, you can see it on their website. RRB is a ‘woody biomass to aviation biofuels’ project.

    https://www.redrockbio.com/

    But they have never done any logging to feed this plant, because it is not operational. Red Rock Biofuels, even after receiving tens of millions of dollars of public money, including an initial $75 million from the Dept of Defense for aviation fuel development, has not finished constructing their plant and has run out of money. They have never produced even one gallon of fuel, even as they try to sell their model and secure more financing. Though no feedstock analysis was required of RRB in their permitting and the viability of their vision is left up to speculation, overall their aviation bio-energy logging scheme is one that has not come to fruition. The technology they are using has never been successful at scale. The question remains as to whether their project is actually intended to come to fruition.

    We produced a piece for KPFA radio about Red Rock Biofuels — listen here: https://kpfa.org/episode/terra-verde-july-2-2021/

    Now the issue of this very dubious from the get go forest carbon offset project of Green Diamond being impacted by the fire is another but related dynamic about the false promises of pollution trading and markets-based climate policy. Hopefully this will encourage more people to question the assumptions about the viability of relying on the land sector to ‘neutralize’ the burning of fossil fuels. The sooner we get away from the flawed science used to justify offsetting the better.

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  4. The commercial logging industries sure “own” a lot of forest land in the Western U.S.

    Oregon

    The largest private landowner in Oregon is the Reed family, owners of the Green Diamond Resource Company, who own 600,000 acres in Oregon (and a total of 1.3 million acres total, including Washington state and California, and growing).

    California

    Sierra Pacific Industries is the largest private landowner in California. Sierra Pacific owns approximately 2 million acres in California and Washington.

    Washington

    Weyerhaeuser Company, a timberland company, is the largest private landowner in Washington. Weyerhaeuser owns 12.4 million acres of land, with 900,000 in Washington.

    They have an army of lobbyists in Wash. D.C., too, many of whom are previous government “regulators.”

    https://www.opensecrets.org/federal-lobbying/industries/summary?cycle=2019&id=a10

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    • Second only to the feds, are you implying that they need some more land? Seems like they’ve got their hands full managing what’s on their plate.

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      • On the one hand, I am implying that these private mega-landholders are way too big and lack sufficient governmental oversight (and taxation). On the other hand, the USFS also lacks sufficient oversight, often operating like a profit-seeking business that prioritizes resource extraction at the expense of maintenance, climate change mitigation, and long-term sustainability.

        It doesn’t make sense to me that large tracts of forestland can be leveraged for profit using carbon offsets, and then the forests are not properly maintained, ecologically or sustainably, and can be logged extensively for “renewable” sources of biofuels/biomass (e.g., for jet fuel, or sold as renewable energy to foreign countries). The practice of harvesting large swaths of forest and then replacing them with new monoculture plantations, claiming that these new forests will someday capture carbon when they grow up, is misguided at best, and deceitful at worst. Then, when the designated carbon offset forests succumb to a devastating wildfire, they can just go in and salvage log the merchantable timber, and “rinse and repeat;” it is a preposterous scam. All the while, the carbon offsets are sold to polluting industries that can claim that they have reduced GHGs by purchasing compensating “offsets.”

        As for the impact on public lands, Spotted Owl said it best when he pointed out that “the biofuel scammers destroy the forests they “manage” but they are directly responsible for exacerbating the damage currently being done to public lands” as well.

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        • Michael, Your assertion of the Forest Service “often operating like a profit-seeking business that prioritizes resource extraction at the expense of maintenance, climate change mitigation, and long-term sustainability” is at odds with my view of the agency. Yes, the agency in the past did overharvest many areas — I know, because I worked for the agency back then — but that is no longer the case. The USFS’s biggest problem these days is that wildfire suppression is consuming more than 50% of its budget, siphoning off funds for maintenance, climate change mitigation, and long-term sustainability, not to mention recreation, etc. The agency isn’t perfect, of course, but it isn’t as you and others describe it.

          FWIW, I edited the 2018 book, 193 Million Acres: Toward a Healthier and More Resilient US Forest Service — 32 essays, 600+ pages.

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        • I think you missed the fact that the biomass plant in Lakeview isn’t open and there hasn’t been any biomass harvesting here. I like the argument that industrial landowners are too big. I would much prefer that those tracts be divided into 0.5 acre lots and/or turned into subdivisions. If you are still a student at OSU you should sign up for one of the forestry econ classes – if land isn’t profitable for timber it’s going to the next highest value (subdivisions).

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        • When it comes down to large ownerships without oversight, I’ll take the private over the public. One has the ability to self regulate, the other holds itself to task.

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          • Cameron, I respectfully disagree. It has been proven over and over that private industry will choose NOT to self-regulate when it thinks it can profit from not doing so and get away with it. Even Adam Smith (“founder of capitalism” and the “invisible hand”) warned us about the problem of monopolistic power and influence in the market and he saw the necessity of governmental oversight to discourage the corruption of economic rules designed to promote free and open competition (i.e., a fair playing field).

          • That may be true but various companies consumer pressures have Forest industry involved in external Forest certification.. don’t see that with the marijuana industry nor the oil and gas industry, just two of the major ones in my region. There’s also organic labeling and other not regulatory ( or semi- regulatory) approaches.

          • Michael, you are certainly correct about the excesses of companies when monopolies are concerned. Part of the story is how these large landowners came to own so much private forests. Here in California government regulation had a lot to do with consolidation. High regulatory costs put many smaller owners out of business and continue to create a high barrier of entry to the forest products market. Whether that’s for better or worse is up for debate.
            My point is really that government management of lands can be even less transparent. And their actions are not subject to consumer pressures but instead bureaucracies. This often leads to outcomes that are out of step with local communities needs and desires.

          • Cameron,

            I do have to concede to your point about government management of lands lacking full transparency and being out of step with local communities and desires. The problem has gotten even worse in the last few years, with the public being categorically excluded from being able to provide input on numerous decisions being made in the name of expediency (e.g., weakening of NEPA and CEQA laws). There are more and more cases where government agencies (i.e., USFS) have decided to ignore the laws and legislated guidelines.

    • According to stats from the Oregon Forest Resources Institute:

      Nearly half of Oregon’s 60 million acres of total land area is forest

      Of that, 60% is federal (48% of Oregon forestland is USFS)

      Large private landowners (>/= 5,000 acres) 6,487,000 – 22%
      Small private landowners (<5,000 acres) 3,702,000 - 12%
      Total private 10,189,000 - 34%

      The state, counties, and tribes own the rest.

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    • And so does TWS, NWF, NRDC and so on.. some of whom are now political appointees. Should no one have lobbyists, or only some organizations?

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  5. The 2020 Labor Day fires occurred under some extreme wind conditions and I don’t think those have been affecting the Bootleg Fire?

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  6. 1) First off, I have never been a fan of carbon offsets in forests for precisely this reason, as I’ve said before “trees die from bugs, disease and fire.”

    But I also have to say there is a point of view (including in the scientific literature) that says “let forests grow longer for carbon” and it seems to me that logically you have the same problem. If you let them grow longer, some will burn up during that additional time, and that’s not as good for carbon as having removed some material into products that release carbon later. So you can’t say that letting forests grow longer is the best for carbon unless you’re sure you can protect them from bugs, disease and fires. We used to say that was a good bet on the wet West Side, but if fires are unprecedented due to climate change, then all bets are off… so…we’re talking prophecy, not science.

    2) Conceivably if fires are “wind-driven,” and fuels don’t matter, then that should also work both ways. No matter how forests are managed (or not) shouldn’t matter.

    3) Finally, I think a bit of history is in order. Satellite photos can’t tell you everything. About Lakeview. As a former resident, I can tell you that they have been working on community vitality from forest-based industry since the Lakeview Sustained Yield Unit (1950) https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/fremont-winema/landmanagement/planning/?cid=stelprdb5361188. All kinds of things have been tried. We’d all like it if businesses supported by taxes (including economic recovery $, rural development, and so on) worked out but I’m not sure they all do. Lakeview also has the obvious problem that it’s not close to anything (at the time, I used to say I was 96 miles and one mountain pass away from the nearest K-Mart).

    Another bit of history.. when I worked on the Fremont in the 80’s I did quite a bit of field work, as well as economic analysis of different silvicultural investments. At that time, also, I remember an OSU prof came over and told the FS that we should do larger clearcuts (granted that this was an economist, but it was the “latest science” and a bit of ongoing Westside Science Applied Perhaps Inappropriately ), and during this time the FS and BLM started doing clearcuts as well as industry. Weyco also did strange things (IMHO) like planting LPP on 8×8 spacing which IMHO set them up either to precommercial thin (put more money in) or stagnate. Now I haven’t been back (though I want to), but trees don’t grow that fast there and I don’t think that that’s changed. My point being you may not be able to tell from a satellite photo what is historic (say, roading) and what is current.

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    • I agree it is premature to attribute fire intensity to logging. However, it is fair to say that a major thinning effort did not slow this down. It is also fair to ask to what extent a predominantly second growth forest with limbs low to the ground can carry a fire in extreme drought conditions. With live moisture levels at “record lows” according to most inciweb reports in that area, well stocked stands of young pine are not going to fare well.

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      • I agree, that a normally dry area actually was even drier than normal, burned very well, apparently. Right-wingers always insist that ‘managed forests stop wildfires’. Enlightened people know how wrong this idea is. Dry forests with preheated live fuels and a breeze makes for great burning conditions.

        I worked on a fire salvage project west of there, back in 1993. I see that the live forests in that area were thinned, recently.

        https://www.google.com/maps/@42.621219,-121.7143638,1082m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

        I had a small participation in this project on the Chiloquin RD, as well. The stands were thick with PP and LP, causing some slower growth and drought stress. You can also see some patches of untreated forest, too.

        Can it ‘stop a fire’? Of course not.

        Can it survive a fire? Maybe, or maybe not.

        Can it survive a fire if it were still un-thinned? Nope. (Go eastward and see my old burn salvage project, which BTW was recently, itself, thinned. I see that my old skidtrails still exist in the un-thinned portion https://www.google.com/maps/@42.5802593,-121.4925129,2164m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en )

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        • Thanks for pointing out these differences, Larry!
          There’s been historic logging from selection to clearcutting on both NFS and private timberlands since…the 1800’s?
          Some clearcuts have been planted, since at least the 80s, but then at some point clearcutting mostly stopped on NFS and BLM (I think except for specific circumstances, which I think we discussed on TSW before).
          Trees grow very slowly there (did I say that? perhaps the only way timber can pencil out is with ecosystem service payments or offsets).
          I don’t know how a person could conclude anything much about any history/practice/ecotype combo from watching a fire go across that variable landscape..
          On the other hand, though, Larry says (depending on the fire) if it gets into overstocked dried out stands they are toast even if they have not been managed.

          The Wilderness in this case hasn’t been managed and also is at higher elevation and so is wetter so those things are conflated.

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        • Larry,

          Areas that have been salvaged logged after a disturbance are often more severely impacted than if they had been allowed to recover naturally.

          You yourself have highlighted how skid trails from decades ago are still visible in a satellite image; it only proves that these added disruptions (i.e., added insults to injury) have exceptionally long-lasting (negative) impacts.

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          • Preserving excessive (dead) fuels can only have one outcome, in the dry west. Those skid trails are on favorable ground and show ZERO amounts of erosion. The mere existence of such skid trails does not mean environmental damage, especially almost 30 years later. Are you saying that those pre-commercial thinning projects are also ‘severely impacting’, too?

            One thing that was pretty unique about this salvage project was the harvesting of smaller dead trees. The minimum log size was 7 inches in diameter to a 5 inch top, at 8.5 feet long. Yes, we did leave ‘wildlife trees’, too.

            EVERYTHING is site specific, but you’re insisting that ALL (modern) salvage projects are bad for that particular piece of land? Re-burns are tremendously catastrophic in the damages they do to soils. A soils study on the Biscuit Fire proved those terrible impacts of high intensity fires.

      • It looks like their feller-buncher is working out ahead of their skidding crew. You might notice the entire trees are lined up, butt-first, towards the landing. A skidder grabs each bundle and runs it back to the landing. The process is lighter on the land, with less ground disturbance. (Those trees look kind of crispy, though… Maybe it’s the image.)

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  7. At the risk of sounding like some kind of “socialist,” I must say that I personally am alarmed at the growing economic inequality in the U.S. (and the world) and I think we have unwittingly relinquished too much control to a small class of oligarchical barons who have way too much individual power and influence with only their immediate selfish economic interests in mind – climate change, biodiversity, future generations, and protection of the “Commons” be damned. We have strayed too far from the way it was after WWII, when enterprising small business owners could innovate and flourish and share in the national pie. Perhaps, it’s time to raise taxes on these Über-powerful entities and revisit our Anti-Trust laws to hold the few accountable to the many.

    But, we’ve strayed too far from the immediate topic at hand, which is “what are the best methods to mitigate the magnitude and impacts of fire in the face of climate change?” “What spatial extent and intensity of fuels reduction are needed to combat the coming wildfires?” Personally, I think the verdict is still out and I worry that we may have swung too far in the opposite direction, from complete fire suppression to massive vegetation removal as the most effective fire mitigation technique. Perhaps, there is a middle ground and we can find better ways to work WITH nature to promote more natural forest healing processes and stop trying to micro-manage and intervene in every instance?

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    • Michael, you’ve brought a lot of interesting points to this discussion, and while we disagree I appreciate hearing them. As I mentioned above, I feel that we can point to regulation as one of the causes of consolidation as opposed to it’s solution. Today we harvest timber more sustainably and with more regulatory oversight than ever before. But this does add huge upfront costs to the process, costs which often prevent smaller landowners from doing even non-commercial fuels work. This leads to a situation where most private management occurs on large industrial ownerships. Would more small landowners working with less oversight lead to better outcomes? It’s hard to say. But I don’t believe adding more regulatory pressure will lead to better outcomes.
      You are very correct in pointing out that we are still searching for the optimum management strategy for our fireprone western forests. In the end, it will have to be site specific. Some prescribe no management and a return to a “natural” fire regime. As someone who has seen family members and friends lose homes to fire this strategy does not make sense in many cases. I’ve also mentioned the thousands of acres of forest being lost to brush under our current regime of high severity fire.
      On the other hand, many have made good points regarding extreme fire weather and how we cannot manage this with fuels treatments. There’s also budgetary and workforce limitations when it comes to fuels treatments.
      We are lucky to have both public and private land managers working on these issues with different approaches. Only time and further research will help us see what techniques are truly effective.

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  8. I wonder if they had a post-fire logging plan prepared, or if they will make hasty decisions in crisis reaction mode. The site could make an excellent subject for a case study.

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  9. This website, and forum is a great resource, and highly informative … so glad I discovered it!

    Given that a large majority of fires are human caused, I believe that we should be embarking upon a massive closure of forest service and state lands roads, at least when fire danger is elevated – which unfortunately today is always, with the way the climate is changing.

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    • The public forests belong to the people and is not fair to keep the people out of the forest.
      It would be good if we had a better behaved public but that is another very complex problem. I would be very disappointed if I couldn’t access our public forests.
      The are many gated roads. Almost all private land is gated. I would guess in the last two decades over a million miles of roads have been decommissioned on public lands.

      A couple of things I keep reading that I have experienced to be untrue. First that Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are driven by the desire to create profits generated by the sale of timber. If you work with these agencies you would fine timber sales to be a small part of their concerns and the profits from them almost nonexistent.
      Second would concern thinning sales. I would say that over 90% of the timber taken in a thinning sale are understory smaller diameter trees. I have seen a few projects lately were they are going in just grinding up the underbrush. They are not going in and removing the dominant larger fire resistance trees, which really aren’t so fire resistance. Thinning might not stop fires but I think it makes for a better looking and healthier forest. And I know this is inappropriate but these sales do provide jobs and wood products and I know its evil, but sometimes profit.
      Thirdly, from my own area of experience, is the idea that salvage timber sales are harmful to the environment and the forest. I have not seen proof of this. After a time the harvested areas often appear to have more growth and trees than the unharvested areas. There is never a shortage dead material and snags.

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      • Bootleg Fire update, July 19, 2021:

        “Critical fire weather conditions including gusty southwest winds and low relative humidity are expected Monday afternoon and early evening with a Red Flag warning in place from 2 PM to 8 PM. Wind gusts of 30 to 35 mph are possible along with relative humidity dropping into lower to middle teens. A few light showers in the morning are expected with a slight chance of afternoon isolated thunderstorms Monday afternoon.”

        “Extreme, crowning, running, spotting. Aggressive surface spread with pyrocumulus development. Spot fires quickly exhibiting extreme fire behavior with very high percentage of ignition. Closed timber stands easily sustaining short to moderate duration crown runs.”

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  10. If you take a look at my website centennialwoodproducts.com you can see some examples of moderate forest management on private land. I really believe that the end result is better for wildlife. Wildlife hasn’t been part of this discussion, which is unfortunate. I also believe, from a common sense point of view, that removing fuels reduces impacts from fire, simply by lowering the temperature from combustion. I could go on and on. One simple example is restoring Aspen by doing conifer removal. It is pretty hard to make an argument against that treatment. Just my 2 cents. Thanks.

    Reply

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