Conservation groups call for more thinning, biomass removal and prescribed burning in national forests

This photo shows well-spaced, large pines with smaller, younger trees six years ago in the Stanislaus National Forest near Smoothwire Creek, north of the Middle Fork Stanislaus River.
Courtesy photo / CSERC

From the Union Democrat of Mother Lode (Sonora) country in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

The Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte and 14 other conservation groups are urging Randy Moore, the former Pacific Southwest regional forester who is now chief of the U.S. Forest Service, to increase prescribed burning, thinning of surface and ladder fuels, and biomass removal in the face of unnaturally severe megablazes and climate change.

“Dear Randy,” the Aug. 2 letter begins, “As many of us have already communicated to you on behalf of our conservation organizations, we applaud your selection as the new Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Over the 14 years that you served as Regional Forester in Region 5, our groups worked closely with you on a broad range of issues.

“With this letter, we urge you — as the new Chief — to apply your leadership so that the Forest Service ramps up the pace and scale of needed actions to effectively address the pressing challenges of high-severity wildfires, climate change, and loss of biodiversity.”

“We look forward to working with the Forest Service, national and state policymakers, tribes, and diverse stakeholder interests to ensure that taxpayer-funded investments are applied so that agency actions are carefully prioritized and science-based and provide beneficial social and ecological outcomes,” the open letter states. “By focusing on ecological restoration and science-based actions, the Forest Service can continue building trust so that individual national forests can ramp up the scale of forest treatments while minimizing controversy.”

Asked Tuesday to quantify how much conservationists want to see prescribed burning to increase, Jamie Ervin with Sierra Forest Legacy said, “The Forest Service and the state have set a goal of ramping up pace and scale forest restoration including prescribed burning to a million acres a year. That would be a good start. The actual fire regime — calls for more than that.”

Fire regime refers to the kind of fire and how much fire a particular ecosystem experiences historically, before European settlers arrived, Ervin said.

“Our best estimate is California would have had about 4.5 million acres burning annually,” Ervin said. “From lightning strikes and indigenous people burning intentionally for forest clearing and hunting.”

Prescribed burning right now is about 100,000 acres a year statewide, Ervin said, speaking from Nevada City, about 125 miles north of Sonora. It varies every year. An estimate of prescribed-burn acreage statewide so far this year was not available. Eighteen months ago, the California Air Resources Board reported there were 125,000 acres of prescribed burns statewide in 2019.

Fire is natural in California, and we need fire in the forests, Ervin emphasized. The issue right now is we’re experiencing unnaturally severe fires due to the fact we have suppressed fires for over a hundred years. Conservationists want more forest management, especially significant investment in federal and state prescribed fire programs.

With their letter to Moore, the conservation groups share their collective agreement that it’s essential to significantly ramp up all three kinds of forest treatments — science-based thinning logging in appropriate areas; carefully planned prescribed burning during mild weather times of year; and the removal where economically possible of excess biomass fuels, Buckley said.

“This letter is a relatively unique sharing by a variety of conservation groups,” he said. “While our local organizations have been broadly supportive of those treatments, this is a strong sharing of agreement by groups that normally don’t emphasize endorsement of logging or biomass removal.”

Other groups that signed the letter with CSERC and Sierra Forest Legacy were the California Wilderness Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, the Foothill Conservancy, Friends of the Inyo, the Training and Watershed Center, California Native Plant Society, Sierra Nevada Alliance, the Nature Conservancy, South Yuba River Citizens League, Sierra Business Council, the Tuolumne River Trust, American Rivers, and the Fire Restoration Group.

(my bold)

7 thoughts on “Conservation groups call for more thinning, biomass removal and prescribed burning in national forests”

  1. Take another look at the picture. You’ll see a carpet of bearclover, which is extremely fire-adapted and flammable. Their roots go very deep, and this is the main plant which herbicides used to be used on, in Sierra Nevada Forest Service clearcuts. Today, bearclover could be very helpful in accomplishing burning targets. I’ve participated in burning projects, and the bearclover ensures a consistent and complete consumption of all flashy fuels on the ground.

    Unfortunately, you won’t see it in true fir ‘natural’ monocultures. Not enough sunlight. This plant is also known as “Mountain Misery”, from the aromatic oils it deposits on your pant legs.

    I did have a small role in helping shape the views of the Sierra Business Council, based in Truckee. They understand the juggling act of all the issues affecting their communities. They recognize the trade-offs and desires of local people.

    • Bear clover. Oh, man, I remember Rx fire in bear clover in the area now scorched by the Caldor Fire. I worked in several USFS capacities in that area. Back then, we were in the midst of the debate about cutting old growth — which we certainly did, on the El Dorado. (Larry Placerville District. You?) Some of my friends have had to bug out ahead of the Caldor fire. The are is a classic example of the effects of fire exclusion. But also of of an area that was highly flammable, even back then. A friend from back then says we were good at managing 500-acre fires, and even the rare 5K-acre ones. I worked as a firefighter on a 10K fire, which was considered large. But 100+K? It’s a whole new world.

      • I worked there from 1989 to 1992, and again in 1999-2000. I was happy to be working in the higher elevations during the bark beetle response. I was pretty green in 1989, but very savvy by 1992. We had big timber crews, with some experienced firefighters, too. I loved it in the fall when it was burning season. We had so many landings and slash piles to burn. We also had those old cull decks that needed to go away. I had the best ‘family feeling’ from working in Placerville. There were so many willing teachers.

  2. You seemed shocked that “conservation” groups may recommend forest management.

    As I see it, the real problem is – it may already be too late for controls to be implemented at a scale that would sufficiently mitigate the backlog of fire due to a century of fire suppression and the logging of fire-resilient trees (i.e., “cherry-picking” by timber companies); climate change is the real elephant in the room.

    I would interpret the following recommendations like this:

    “Science-based thinning logging in appropriate areas” would mean utilizing ecologically-based silviculture methods that retain fire-resilient trees (i.e., mature trees) and removes non-fire adapted trees and the plethora of young trees that are crowding out and compromising the larger trees, all competing for limited and precious water resources.

    “Carefully planned prescribed burning during mild weather times of year,” would mean using prescribed fires (mostly) around communities where defensible space can be established. Note: the time windows when this can be done safely are closing rapidly with each year of warming temperatures and drought, and the expansion of human settlements in the WUI are only exacerbating the situation, making the use of prescribed fire even more problematic.

    “The removal, where economically possible, of ‘excess’ biomass fuels,” would mean providing Federal funding for biomass removal and utilization where there is little expectation of there being a market for small-diameter trees and brush; substantial tax breaks and subsidies may be necessary; profits will need to be calculated in ways that prioritize ecosystem benefits (e.g., hydrology, biodiversity, soil recycling, carbon capture, etc.) over saw-timber profits. Perhaps a market could be created for biochar, which could be used for soil replenishment, forest restoration, and ultimately, for added carbon sequestration?

    For those who would claim that past fire suppression and overgrown forests are the only causes of the huge fires we’re witnessing in the U.S., I would simply point to Siberia, where fires are raging out of control in the arctic. As of August 16, the area covered by fires in Siberia since the beginning of the year has amounted to 17.08 million hectares – an area nearly twice the size of Portugal – and they are still growing. Are those fires the result of past fire suppression and forest mismanagement? I would attribute them to a warming climate and associated drought conditions, which are only going to get worse.

    I do agree, however, that we need to be more proactive and focus on making and keeping our forests healthy and less focused on funding reactive fire-fighting. As things are going now, we may not have any substantial forests left to preserve in the near future; this is one reason I studied URBAN forestry, as that may be the only forestry profession left in the future. 🙁

    • I wasn’t shocked, Michael.because I spent time talking to people while working on “looking for common ground”; I bolded that part because there are folks in Calif who are against thinning and belong to other organizations within the environmental community. Which I think is worthy of interest.

    • The truth is that the Forest Service has already been doing this in Sierra Nevada National Forests since 1993. There could be more biomass utilization of giant slash piles, generated from removing limbs and tops from harvested small trees. Again, fire safety is just one of the benefits of modern thinning projects. There are other silvicultural benefits to the thinning projects, thoroughly based in science. Sadly, the current “pace and scale” doesn’t seem sufficient to stem the threat of these massive stand-replacement fires, and there is no hint that there are more large projects on the horizon. In some Forests, thinning is no longer an option, due to increased bark beetle mortality.

  3. Key words: “in appropriate areas.” That’s a value judgment which requires a planning process with public participation.


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