Custer-Gallatin Forest Plan: On Climate Models and Planting Trees

This is an interesting article in the Bozeman Chronicle about their forest plan.

A slash pile near Fairy Lake Road can be seen below a recently logged section of the Custer Gallatin National Forest in the Bridger Mountains on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021.
Samuel Wilson/ Chronicle/ Report for America

Many points of interest here.. but I’ll call one out. There’s also an interesting discussion with Dr. Phil Higuera of U of Montana on fuel treatments.

Areas where ponderosa pine forests burned years ago east of Livingston are showing little to no signs of recovery.

That’s according to Cathy Whitlock, Regents Professor Emerita of Earth sciences at Montana State University and co-lead on the newly released Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment.

“There needs to be a seed-source for the forest to recover, and then those seeds need to become seedlings and develop into mature trees,” Whitlock said. “The concern is, at low elevations it’s just getting too dry for that to happen.”

Scientists predict that as drought and wildfire ramp up in the coming decades, forest ecosystems will change. In some parts of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, trees that die off may never grow back.

It’s interesting to me that when we were interested in reforesting dry ponderosa pine sites in the 80’s (that also had seed source, seed crop size, competition from other plants, munching by predators, mycorrhizae and all those associated variables)… we assumed we could overcome those things and worked on them by a considering it a technical challenge, messing with nursery practices, transportation practices, seedling storage, slurries, vexar and all that. As I’ve mentioned here before in Area 4 (then the Ochoco, Winema, Deschutes and Fremont) we hired a person just to work on that .. the Area Reforestation Specialist. On the west side, they had fewer challenges but even SW Oregon had a major investment in Fundamental Fir with OSU. I wonder how many academics and FS researchers specialize in reforestation nowadays?

Are we assuming that trees won’t live in the future because they’re not coming back naturally? Because in the past, we looked at “not coming back naturally” and said “guess we need to plant, they’re not coming back on their own”. The fact is that we don’t know how the climate of the future will affect the microclimates that trees experience, so my view would be “let’s not give up yet.” A few examples are that we know that aspect is important, as are soil type, competitors and so on. There’s a major scale differential between climate models and the environment relevant to a planting project or even a planting program. And local folks have knowledge of these local kinds of difference (where does the snow stay longest? what different soils are there?)

Now we have arrived in a puzzling philosophical eddy between “leave it alone because that’s natural” and “climate change isn’t natural so should we open up manipulation for various reasons?”
Certainly ESA, even without climate change, has led to an array of manipulations including captive breeding, reintroductions and so on. So perhaps the question isn’t “should we manipulate?” but “what’s a good enough reason?”. Which is definitely a values question, not a science question.

Do we want trees back? For wildlife, people, watersheds, carbon etc.
If so, what are we willing to do about it?

If we take the longer timescale view, the infrastructure that supported large and successful planting programs in the 80’s has gone away, and the people who were involved in these efforts are mostly long retired. And one of the Forest Service’s and partners’ current challenges is to crank back up to reforest after large fires. That time gap of infrastructure availability and knowledge transmission will also make new planting efforts almost starting from scratch again. My point being that I hope people don’t point to some lack of success and assume the reason is climate change. If we’d assumed that in the 80’s, there’d be a lot fewer ponderosa pine trees out there sucking up carbon. It was hard enough to reforest dry sites when we assumed we could, but hadn’t yet figured out how.

21 thoughts on “Custer-Gallatin Forest Plan: On Climate Models and Planting Trees”

  1. That a national forest is still named for a war criminal remains a mystery.

    University of Montana entomologist, Diana Six has been studying the relationship of forests, fungi and bark beetles for decades. Her work outlines how insects are clearing clogged watersheds being decoupled by the Anthropocene.

    The first humans were able to populate the Missouri River basin due in large part by the wealth of acorns along the Rocky Mountain Front. Ponderosa pine only reached central Montana a thousand years ago and aspen communities were far more prolific before European settlement.

    The Forest Service should come out of USDA and become a sister agency to the BLM. Repairing and restoring historic habitat is exactly what BLM Director Stone-Manning hopes to do.

  2. It looks to me like just another plan to use “fuel-thinning ‘treatments’ for fire protection” as a cover to allow the cutting of the largest diameter trees for profit, which will be counterproductive for forest resilience and biodiversity over the long run.

    As Wuerthner states it so well, the “plan gives the Forest Service too much leeway to tamper with forest ecosystems, … and, “he worries that by logging and thinning trees often, the agency could inadvertently reduce forest resilience over time.”

    “A backcountry designation allows them to do what they want to do,” he said. “They use criteria to justify logging on forest lands, even though the trees that are getting cut are big trees that are going to a mill.”

    I would like to see the area officially designated as Wilderness to stop the incessant and relentless efforts to “manipulate the landscape.” Let’s be more patient and “take a hands-off approach to management” instead, and let natural climate resilience evolve without intensive human intervention.

    This Rewilding website discusses the failures of conservation agencies and policymakers to recognize and act to preserve the immense values of our last remaining Wilderness, which would include the Gallatin Range Proposed Wilderness:

  3. Bravo, Sharon – you have hit the nail on the head on all fronts related to reforestation in the Forest Service. Unfortunately most scientists who study these things on NFS land do not have much knowledge of FS law and policy related to reforestation. The bigger issue is lack of funding to do all of the planting that the FS needs to do. The number of FS scientists doing regeneration research in the PNW Research Station – 0. There used to be several. At RMRS – I think there are 1 or 2. Not sure about PSW, SRS or NRS. Oregon State University used to have a large reforestation research program – no more.

  4. Whitlock has been a proponent of apocalyptic global warming (“AGW”) for many years, however her predictions — and some of her stated assumptions — have not been proven accurate. She is not a forester. The lack of viable seed likely has zero to do with “climate change” and everything to do with forest management.

    It seems as if there are very few professors or agency employees with much experience or ability in regards to reforestation these days. Reforestation work by Oregon Department of Forestry on the Labor Day Fires — and specifically on the Santiam State Forest — have been revealing. Planting is being done underneath Douglas fir snags with alder and hemlock seedlings by migrant workers; 4,000 acres of snags were aerially seeded because the location was “too dangerous” for treeplanters.

    As someone with more than 25 years reforestation experience, I was disturbed to see these practices being promoted through media and private discussions. I have never heard of land that was “too dangerous” for a treeplanter before, aerial seeding was abandoned in the Douglas Fir Region decades ago due to repeated failures and spotty results, and reforesting snag-covered lands highly likely to burn again is just plain dumb. Replacing local businesses and work crews with foreign migrant workers is another topic with a sad USFS history.

    These are the supposed college-educated “experts” now in charge of regenerating our public forests. BLM and US Forest Service lands are in even worse shape with even poorer reforestation practices. Times have changed — but the climate isn’t the culprit.

  5. University of Montana entomologist, Diana Six has been studying the relationship of forests, fungi and bark beetles for decades. Her work outlines how insects are clearing clogged watersheds being decoupled by the Anthropocene.

    It’s important to remember ponderosa pine, high in volatile organic compounds (VOC), only reached central Montana a thousand years ago. The mountain pine beetle is hard at work clearing centuries of overgrowth throughout the Rocky Mountain Complex, so is the western spruce budworm. But leaving dead or dying conifers on the forest produces methane, an even more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is. Ponderosa pine sucks billions of gallons from aquifer recharges, pine needles absorb heat and accelerate snow melt. Clear that second growth pine, conduct fuel treatments, restore aspen, oak and other native hardwoods, build wildlife corridors and approximate Pleistocene rewilding using bison and cervids.

    Why any national forest in the United States is named for a war criminal remains a mystery.

  6. Brings back fond memories; Mike Panelli (I think I have the name correct) was the Area 4 reforestation specialist (if that’s the right word) when I was reforestation forester on the Ochoco, prior to moving to silviculturist. Anyway, we did plant a bunch; learned new ways in site preparation, nursery practices, especially tree handling techniques and animal damage control measures.

    I was arguing with an individual (really? Me? ?) about clearcutting the other day. Big difference then and now was successful reforestation – not only clear cuts and shelter woods, but also fire. Mark’s Creek burn was in the 1960’s and was around 3,500 acres! A monstrosity of a fire for that time. It was really lacking reforestation due to mainly just throwing seedlings at it and hoping for success.

    I didn’t know any better (now 1979) and listened to Pinelli on how to reforest the burn. Last year I received a Christmas card from a longtime friend out there and he said all that reforestation is a success, and needs thinning! I have/had clear cuts reforested that most folks would not know they were clear cuts, all over the Ochoco – Big Summit, Colorado, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Probably at least thousands, if not tens of thousands (including prescriptions).

    I am a firm believer in planting our way out of climate change impacts, including reforestation of these large fires. Bring back the “Super Tree” program, restart nurseries, learn the science of reforestation. Etc.

    I actually wrote a couple “white papers” for Region 6 at the time on successful reforestation. I was just a young, snotty-nosed forester, who listened to the experts and old timers alike, on how it’s done.

    Unfortunately, Pinelli and his kids were killed in an auto accident; never got to finish all my lessons from the master!

    • It was Mike Panelli.. there is a seed orchard named after him on the Bly Ranger District. I thought Mike was killed in a FS plane crash.. maybe someone around remembers?

      • I think Pinelli and his two kids were killed in an auto accident in Nevada. His wife was not on the trip.

        Sad; he was my friend and coworker….

    • Hi,
      While searching for dad’s monument information in the Bly National Forest, I came upon this thread. Michael Panelli was my dad. He and my sister, Lena, were killed in a crash when a trucker crossed over into their lane. My mom was in the car, was awake the whole time, and survived. I wasn’t in the car. Dad loved his Forest Service career and believed passionately in planting trees for the future. It was nice to read about someone who worked with him. Thank Jim Z for your kind words.
      Maria Daly (Panelli)

      • Maria,
        I also remember your Dad, Mike, and worked with him also. He was the Area Reforestation Specialist and I was the Area Geneticist. II learned a lot from him and as you said, he loved planting trees.
        The Panelli Seed Orchard on Bly Ranger District was named after him. I don’t know if any of the trees survived.. they had a root rot problem. I’d love to go back if you find the location. There are still retirees around Lakeview who remember him, I’m sure.
        In the last ten years people have gotten interested in planting trees again, so your Dad’s work is being carried on.


  7. Obviously, for national forest lands, planting would have to be consistent with the forest plan desired conditions that must be based on the natural range of variation for forest conditions. That needs to take climate change into account. To me that means species and density of trees that would grow there under projected future conditions. I don’t think those future conditions necessarily have to reflect lack of a seed source due to fire severity and extent that is occurring now due to past fire suppression.

    • Jon, I’m confused
      “natural range of variation for forest conditions. That needs to take climate change into account. To me that means species and density of trees that would grow there under projected future conditions.” How do you think “natural range of variation” and “projected future conditions” fit together?

      And we don’t really have a clue as to what “species and density of trees that would grow there under projected future conditions.”

      • Projected future climate conditions are part of determining NRV (FSH 1909.12 §23.11a):

        “The natural range of variation is useful for understanding each specific ecosystem, for understanding its existing ecological conditions, and for understanding its likely future character, based on projections of climate regimes.”

        Managing for historic conditions is not appropriate when “Conditions that rarely or never occurred in the past, but that can be managed for in the future, will better contribute to long-term ecosystem sustainability and adaption to the effects of a changing climate.”

        I don’t think the argument that we can’t know the future so we shouldn’t plan for it carries a lot of weight in any field.

        I think it would be ok to compensate to a point for lost seed sources, but not to attempt to reforest where trees are unlikely to grow. I like Ben’s explanation, too.

  8. So, climate change is turning current tree species habitat into non-habitat and it’s being suggested that we try to force the species to live in areas that no longer naturally support it? Isn’t there a very real risk that beetles will have a feast and potentially spread into adjacent more productive forest? We already don’t have nearly the resources needed to reforest the abnormally large patches of high severity fire we seem to be routinely seeing these days. To me, we should focus our limited resources on getting trees back into the ever-growing backlog of areas that are likely to continue to be habitat in the future and making those areas fire resilient, before we try to force trees into areas that climate change has turned into non-habitat.

    • I’m curious Ben, how you would know whether habitat was non-habitat without planting a variety of seed sources and waiting.
      My point was .. the fact that they didn’t come back (in a couple of decades) without human intervention doesn’t mean they won’t grow there just fine. For example, when there is not a close seed source… is it unnatural to get seed from somewhere else? But if the fire was a megafire due to climate change and that’s why it was so large, then it would be OK?
      I get that you would prioritize the most likely spots (mesic sites) but I would argue that in dry areas, trees are more important for wildlife, etc.

      This seems to be a historical cycle of a dominant mesic-ism in Oregon (or coastalism)?

      Forest management on the east side is not important because timber is important and trees don’t grow fast (80’s) (Trees are more important on the west side for timber)
      Therefore you don’t need your own researchers … there’s a bunch on the West Side
      and now we’re at:
      We don’t need to plant trees on the east side because it’s too dry and the climate is changing anyway. (Trees are more important on the west side for carbon)

      • My point, Sharon, is we shouldn’t reforest in areas where climatic water deficit is now or soon will be greater than seedling tolerance. The Cathy Whitlock quotes were about areas becoming too dry for regeneration, in addition to a lack of a seed source.

        We know it’s not habitat when the climatic water deficit is too high for the species species to reproduce. Climate envelope modeling is one method to help determine where to plant and where not to plant, in addition to expert opinion. Decisions should be informed and justified using the best available science. Decisions should not be based on, “We wont know until we try, so let’s just try everywhere to see what happens.”

        Don’t go making a strawman argument here. This isn’t some Tupac vs. Biggie beef. Climate change sucks. It is changing species ranges, do you believe this? If so, does it make sense to try to force a species to live a place it is not adapted to survive and reproduce? The ESA comparison is nonsense. Reintroductions are not targeted in areas that are unlikely to support survival and reproduction. Assisted migration does not occur to areas that are not thought to support survival and reproduction.

        It does not make sense to use limited resources to try to force a species to live someplace it is not adapted to survive and reproduce, especially when we cannot get our act together to reforest and provide fire resilience where climatic water deficit is and will be within the range of tolerance for survival and reproduction.

        We must also consider that, in addition to wasting limited resources, there may be an ecological downside to forcing trees outside of their climate envelope (e.g., bark beetles kill stressed trees more than vigorous trees of some species and an outbreak could ensue and spread to areas that are actually within the climate envelope for the species).

        • Ben, I guess, having watched projections shift for about 30 years now, I am less confident that we have a clue about “climatic water deficit is too high for the species species to reproduce. Climate envelope modeling is one method to help determine where to plant and where not to plant” for four reasons:
          (1)Climate envelope modeling don’t take into account soil/hudrological differences and aspect differences – even shade differences, that can be significant in dry country.
          (2) Climate models are not that good anyway; including we don’t know how much carbon will be released as CO2 plus we don’t actually know many of the other assumptions in models.
          (3) Plant physiologists and geneticists don’t know what the envelope is for a species or relevant populations, nor how much their offspring can adapt.

          We actually have a history of planting trees outside their ranges… sometimes bad things happen and they get et by bugs, other times, like jack pine on the Nebraska, they give wildlife and human denizens of the Plains many years of shade, heat amelioration, and various kinds of diverse habitat.

          Perhaps if you’d observed, as I have, predictions from the 90’s about species not being able to survive, those predictions, the height of “science” at the time… which never really panned out.. you might have less confidence in making decisions based on a complex set of quantified assumptions about things which, if we were to be honest- we have not a clue about. At least not without, as Susan Jane said in another thread … ongoing monitoring.

  9. I would highlight Higuera’s other point:

    Knight supports the parts of the municipal and North Bridgers projects that call for removal of smaller trees, but he’s noticed that much of the work involves cutting down old growth. That makes me wonder, is this really about getting some valuable timber and trees out of there or is it really about creating fire breaks?” he said. “It’s probably some of both.”

    Higuera said that, generally, removing small-diameter trees from the understory decreases the likelihood of a surface fire turning into a crown fire. It also provides benefits to larger trees and gives firefighters more latitude in responding to a fire. If managers are aiming to reduce fire hazard and protect communities, generally, they’d want to leave larger trees on the landscape and focus on cutting small-diameter trees, Higuera said. Exceptions may include areas where a lot of large-diameter trees are clumped together.

    “In general, treatments that aim to modify fire behavior meet a very specific goal that doesn’t necessarily overlap with extracting trees with value for timber, Higuera said. Ultimately, for people to trust the agency’s work, managers need to propose projects sincerely based on the goals and intentions laid out in the plan.”


    Seems to me like the plan should tell everyone the criteria they would use for removing large/old trees for fuel reduction.

  10. (Whom do you think?) I looks like you are right.

    Table 7 in the revised plan shows the existing and desired amount of “large” trees ≥15″ dbh by potential vegetation type.
    Cool = 1% vs 5-20%
    Cool moist = 3% vs 10-25%
    Warm dry montane = 3% vs 30-60%
    Warm dry pine savannah = 8% vs 55-95%

    There are similar shortages evident in Table 12 regarding “large live tree structure.” Table 13 addresses old growth, but does not quantify desired conditions, stating only, “The amount of (desired) old growth is generally similar to or greater than that of the existing condition.”

    It’s hard to imagine removing any of these scarce remaining trees would be consistent with the plan. However, the consistency language for desired conditions allows actions that do not “foreclose” achieving the desired condition over the “long term,” which for a deferential judge could exempt any vegetation management from meaningful consistency evaluation. To me this creates an even stronger need to include further language in the standards and guidelines regarding when this would be allowed.

    The relevant guideline for old growth is FW-GDL-VEGF 01:

    “To contribute to plant and animal diversity and landscape heterogeneity, as well as provide habitat for old-growth-associated plant and animal species, vegetation management activities in old growth should retain old growth characteristics to the extent practicable. Vegetation management (including timber harvest, fuels treatment, or prescribed fire) in old growth should be used only to achieve one or more of the following purposes:
    1. To maintain or restore old growth habitat characteristics and ecosystem processes.
    2. To increase resilience to disturbances or stressors (such as drought, high severity fire, bark
    beetles) that may have negative impacts on old growth characteristics or abundance at stand or landscape scales.

    Exceptions to this guideline are allowed in old growth lodgepole pine forests or where needed to address substantial concerns for human safety or infrastructure that is essential to community welfare (such as utilities and communications).) See glossary for definition of old growth forest.”

    They specifically include fuel reduction, and this does provide criteria for old growth (so it must be addressed in project documentation).

    For large trees, FW-GDL-VEGF 05 applies:

    “In order to maintain forest structure that provides future seed source, structural diversity, wildlife habitat and future snags and downed wood, vegetation management projects should retain at least the following minimum number of large live trees:
    • Warm dry broad potential vegetation type: 50 trees greater than 15 inches dbh per 10 acres
    • Cool moist or Cold broad potential vegetation types: 80 trees greater than 15 inches dbh per 10 acres”

    So they did provide the criteria; I even would call this a good example of appropriate specificity. Substantively, I would question whether the large tree guideline allowing their removal where there are lots of them is consistent with achieving the forest-wide desired conditions of increased numbers. (And why are these guidelines rather than standards?)

  11. Hi,
    While searching for dad’s monument information in the Bly National Forest, I came upon this thread. Michael Panelli was my dad. He and my sister, Lena, were killed in a crash when a trucker crossed over into their lane. My mom was in the car, was awake the whole time, and survived. I wasn’t in the car. Dad loved his Forest Service career and believed passionately in planting trees for the future. It was nice to read about someone who worked with him. Thank Jim Z for your kind words.
    Maria Daly (Panelli)


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