Sac Bee Editorial: “Rogue environmentalists put Californians in harm’s way by blocking forest thinning projects”

Excerpt from an editorial by The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board:

Century-old forest management practices by the Forest Service, Cal Fire and the logging industry have led to intense standoffs in recent decades among environmentalists, scientists and fire experts who believe we have managed our forests under a profit motive, not resiliency.

They are not necessarily wrong. As The Bee’s Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler noted in a recent story about this conflict, “much of the sturdy old-growth was cut down, and what grew back in its place were dense stands of small trees and brush,” they wrote. “The stage was set for an era of catastrophic fires like the sorts California is experiencing every summer.”

In addition to fighting fires instead of controlling them, the Forest Service allowed logging companies to decimate California forests for much of the 20th century, with little concern about the ecological harm they were causing. This gave environmentalists all the ammunition they needed to question the motives of an agency that oversees millions of acres of California forestland.

But now is the time for the environmental left to stand down. California’s forests are in terrible shape after decades of unchecked commercial logging and aggressive fire suppression. Conditions have only gotten worse as climate change dries our forests and reduces rainfall, aiding recent record-breaking megafires that threaten populated areas and wipe out entire habitats.

By weaponizing federal protections — such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act — to obstruct or outright kill various wildfire prevention projects, environmentalists imperil the very ecosystems they wish to protect.

Organizations like the John Muir Project, Conservation Congress and other allied groups have been accused by leading experts of spreading “agenda-driven science” that promotes specific unsupported narratives and avoids data to back up their litigious claims. At least 111 scientists have co-authored at least 41 scientific papers to rebut their dubious methods, The Bee reported, an extraordinary sign of how problematic these groups have become. Some of their disputed claims have caused the courts to delay important fire prevention projects.

 

33 thoughts on “Sac Bee Editorial: “Rogue environmentalists put Californians in harm’s way by blocking forest thinning projects””

  1. As the article, as well as judges and plaintiffs make clear the forest service has a long history of unlawful harvest plans that cumulatively harm the environment over time and as long as they insist on bundling both benign and harmful plans together into massive projects then we’ll keep dragging you into court and having the most harmful and ecologically damaging silvicultural prescriptions dropped from the plans by order of the judge/settlement.

    The delays that requires is clearly a problem for the benign parts of the plans, but treating the symptom (delays) rather than the cause (insisting on damaging ecologically vulnerable areas) nothing will change. As in the days of congressional adjudication/sufficiently language to override environmental protections pretty much ended in 1995.

    What’s also missing from the article is what happens when we go beyond adversarial positions to collaborative ones. But for some reason industry obstinance / highest priority is not about long term investment in growing future thick bark fire resilient forests with no ladder fuels, but how many of these forests need to be destroy to make money right now. As if healthy forests ecosystems only matter secondarily to making money off sawlogs, which is a false and antiquated notion that has failed to withstand the test of time.

    And when that’s your mindset it’s no longer an honest discussion of how we can do it better, there’s no longer an iterative refinement of forest practices to ensure thinning activities are less and less harmful at the landscape level over time, but instead it remains all about how can we get approval for massive thinning projects that are tens of thousands of acres in size in order to sneak in areas of thinning that are for the exclusive purpose of producing large diameter sawlogs at the expense of doing severe ecological long term damage to that rare older tree forest’s long term resiliency.

    A lack of long term investment in growing forests for future generations is why the industry has massively depleted large diameter sawlogs on private timber lands, as well as why they keep trying to sneak their unsustainable needs into thinning operation on public lands. So long as this dishonest two-faced methodology shows up in these thinning plans, we will do everything we can to shut you down.

    Reply
    • Ironically, you can’t seem to tell us what is wrong with the last 30 years of Sierra Nevada thinning projects. What is wrong with thinning out trees which average 15 inches in diameter? How would you win a lawsuit in court, against such thinning projects?

      Reply
  2. Looking at the elevated fire weather risk for the last several days reveals millions of acres of Republican ranch land in red states and eastern Colorado going without fuels abatement yet one newspaper cries interference from laypersons concerned that nothing is being to slow a six mass extinction.

    It’s an apocalypse of the ridiculous.

    Reply
  3. There’s a lot more nuance here that the Bee isn’t covering. Outside of extremist views, there is a lot of consensus about Sierra Nevada thinning projects. Those rarely get litigated, as the Forest Service finds it easy to comply with the rules, laws and policies, currently in effect. While Hanson’s ilk would love to halt those thinning projects, they have mostly focused on salvage projects (which is another issue, altogether).

    I’m sure that eco-groups would take a fresh look at litigation if the amount of commercial thinning triples. That is what Sierra Nevada National Forests need, however, these megafires are reducing the areas that need thinning. Add that to the serious losses of forests due to bark beetles and you have a bigger picture of the ‘tipping point’, where all remnants of old growth ecosystems are in harm’s way.

    Regarding salvage logging, there is going to be a HUGE battle over salvage plans for these megafires. I’m not seeing any Congressional concerns for dealing with millions of acres of dead forests. (You can bet local Republicans will propose ridiculous bills to bypass all environmental laws, but the bills will never get anywhere in the House)

    Reply
    • i agree that they only really portrayed two groups in the environmental camp, but I found the article fairly good at portraying the issue, as owl, fire, and cultural experts found their stance extreme. Beyond that, there is a fairly broad consensus that the forests need active management, but the level of thinning and the ability to conduct prescribed burning remain complex issues. In the meantime, a lot of good, non-controversial thinning projects have been implemented, but the fuels treatments always lag way behind.

      Reply
      • The facts show that ALL Sierra Nevada thinning projects are “non-controversial” and unaffected by any litigation, for most of the last 3 decades. (Of course, there were those 4 years when diameter limits were ‘Presidentially’-reduced down to 20 inches in diameter.) With all the extra money, eventually coming when the infrastructure bills are passed, there should be plenty of cash for non-commercial projects. Will the Forest Service be able to hire more timber staff (for service contract implementation and monitoring)? Remember, service contracts require firm documentation of measures of success and contract compliance.

        Also, with the big hiring of more 26/0 fire folks, they will be expected to do fuels work when not fighting fire, even after fire season, and into the winter.

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  4. Lot’s of buzzwords being tossed around here; “extremists,” “agenda driven science” to name a few.
    We’re in a very complicated situation that has been MANY YEARS in the making! Simple solutions might sound good but will they work? Is our silvicultural knowledge a match for what’s happening in forests as result of climate change?
    I got my BS in forest management in 1973 and MS in ’78; worked for the USFS as a forester and was a staffer for an environmental advocacy group and did lots of other interesting work in the woods in the past 50 years. I did a number of summers on fire crews and was Red Carded as a Crew Boss; also was the Fire Info Officer on a USFS Overhead Team in Region 6 so I’ve been around fire. Worked as a faller and cat skinner too so I’ve seen that aspect of things.

    The timber industry funded a lot of science (and probably still does) so the talk of “agenda driven science” seems a bit bogus to me! I bet that much of the research prior to the 1980’s was industry driven or industry friendly before we started thinking more holistically about forest ecosystems.

    Besides that the industry put LOTS of $ into the wooden palaces that were the main classroom buildings, for the forestry schools, at the Univ. of Maine Orono and Univ. of Washington in Seattle. Weyco and others have left their fingerprints on lots of forestry programs and graduates!

    I don’t know how we’re going to find enough common ground on the science and management practices to move forward together but for the sake of our forest ecosystems I hope we can get together sooner rather than later.

    Reply
    • “I don’t know how we’re going to find enough common ground on the science and management practices to move forward together but for the sake of our forest ecosystems I hope we can get together sooner rather than later.”

      In the Sierra Nevada National Forests, they have moved beyond those awful “C-Words” of Collaboration, Consensus and Compromise. For almost 30 years, the 30 inch diameter limit and the ban on clearcuts have remained in force, in favor of the California Spotted Owl. That is why there is so little litigation against projects which thin out trees averaging 15 inches in diameter, using a “thin-from-below” harvesting method. Larger trees (20-29.9 inches in diameter) are only cut when they are crowding bigger and better trees. In a clump of larger trees, you might be able to pluck out a suppressed 24 inch pine, and a few intermediate white firs, leaving the older pines with more room and water to grow, with more fire resilience.

      It will be interesting to see how well my final project weathered the Caldor Fire. One of my thinning units appears to have burned, along the fireline. Judging from the aerial Google maps images, my guess is that the thinned unit burned at a very low intensity. 90% of what was thinned was flammable white fir and incense-cedar.

      Reply
    • This is one of my favorite replies of all the comments I’ve read on Smokey Wire. It demonstrates on the ground experience, objective intelligence and most important of all: honesty. We’d be so much further along in the practice of ecologically based forestry if OldWoodsman had way more folks thinking the same way as him.

      But as always the case on SmokeyWire and other industry-oriented discussions online the 1970’s timber industry dogma that OldWoodsman was trained in is the only thing that’s right and everything else is wrong and worthy of caustic disdain, projection and resentment. But OldWoodsman, he’s way smarter than that!

      What’s more, so little of of the cut and run harms being done ever makes it into the court. Only the most absolute egregious violations of environmental laws end up in court. However if you worked in the industry you’d think the only reason the timber industry is unsustainable is because delusional enviros use fake science to win in court. Truth is the exact opposite on all points.

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  5. The danger in this editorial is that rightwingers will use it as proof that the left is blocking thinning projects. For them, it is a foregone conclusion that the environmental ‘terrorists’ have ‘blocked all forest management since the 80’s’. Their slogan continues to be; “Log It, Graze It, Or Watch It Burn”. Sadly, members of Congress subscribe to these conspiracy theories. (There are many other conspiracy theories out there, regarding forests)

    Didn’t the Sacramento Bee just change ownership?….

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  6. The environmentalists held the FS to actually analyzing and making public the potential effects of projects as required; they fought to get consistent management for some of the rare species and to get them listed; and even Chad Hansen was able to make the case that burned forest has value to wildlife and forest ecology. As a result, most current projects do a better job of properly addressing and sometimes mitigating impacts to resources so that hydrology, plants, weeds, cultural sites, and wildlife are better protected, while many thinning projects move forward without a hitch.

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  7. The referenced article has lots of interesting perspectives in it, e.g. Hanson is a racist and akin to a climate change denier. And how “elite” the Conservation Congress is with their one employee that doesn’t get paid enough to live in California. But I think it still seems to come down to this:

    **”Hanson argues that thinning removes a lot of thick, old-growth trees that are fairly resilient to fire. What’s left is small trees, saplings and seedlings that ignite like kindling.”

    Kolden said “the logging industry has co-opted the word ‘thinning’ ” to describe its desire to “cut down big trees that don’t burn much” in the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest. “Fuel treatments for restoring forest health and resilience are completely different,” she said.

    Indeed, lawsuits against the Forest Service are rare. Of the 126 thinning projects approved in the past three years in California, “the vast majority of our vegetation and fuels projects are at various stages of successful implementation and are not involved with lawsuits,” said agency spokeswoman Regina Corbin in an email.**

    (There also seems to be an important distinction between thinning with and without burning, so maybe you should only thin where you can expect to regularly burn.)

    Reply
    • ”Hanson argues that thinning removes a lot of thick, old-growth trees that are fairly resilient to fire. What’s left is small trees, saplings and seedlings that ignite like kindling.”

      If that were true, then Hanson would have that precious loophole he would need to block all Forest Service logging projects in the Sierra Nevada (one of his lifelong goals). With statements like this, Hanson continues to be an unreliable source of information. The thinning units I worked on never turned out like he says. Yes, it IS a good thing to take out a mistletoe-infested 28 inch diameter white fir that is crowding a larger ponderosa pine. However, there is a requirement to leave a base amount of canopy cover, too. Most people would also not be concerned if a suppressed 100-year old white fir (some might consider that tree to be “old growth” ) gets cut, in favor of dominant and more vigorous trees. The intent of CASPO rules doesn’t support old growth liquidation. Hey, some thinning units actually have LOWER diameter limits than 30 inches, due to ‘Agency discretion’.

      Is Hanson’s ‘Plan B’ a collection of conspiracy theories about thinning projects? This looks more like a plan to gather more donations from a trusting fan base. (Sound familiar?!?)

      Reply
      • ”Hanson argues that thinning removes a lot of thick, old-growth trees that are fairly resilient to fire. What’s left is small trees, saplings and seedlings that ignite like kindling.”

        If that were true, then Hanson would have that precious loophole he would need to block all Forest Service logging projects in the Sierra Nevada (one of his lifelong goals). With statements like this, Hanson continues to be an unreliable source of information.

        Howdy Larry. Sorry, but that is not a statement made by Dr. Chad Hanson. That passage was written by the reporters and is not a direct quote from Hanson. The passage was written by the same reporters who, according to Michael Dotson, the executive director of the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center:

        Really interesting to see how KS Wild was portrayed when it seems the Bee glossed over the impacts the Pumice timber sale would have on Nesting, Roosting and Foraging habitat. I thought our Cons Dir did a good job giving context to the writer but that failed to make print.

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        • However, the article is all about thinning projects in California National Forests. Hanson opposes these projects, but appears to have no actual legal reason why active forest management should be halted.

          “Despite our irrefutable photographic evidence, the Forest Service would not budge. It was intent on proceeding with its clear-cutting project in these lightly burned old-growth forest stands within spotted owl nesting territories.”

          We’ve seen his pictures of private logging practices, and how he cannot tell where he is on a map. He continues to not tell the truth to his donors. Just like an orange-haired liar we all try so hard to ignore. He may still file lawsuits over salvage logging, but he hasn’t been winning them in the last several years. He has probably made a million dollars litigating salvage sales. He’s desperate to return to those days of wealth and victory. So desperate that he will lie to get there, again.

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          • I have no idea why Sharon tolerates your obsessive treatment of Dr. Chad Hanson on this blog Larry. Well, then again, I do have an idea why it is tolerated, even if your statements, allegations, and claims about Dr. Hanson border on libel.

          • The questions remain. My question is; If he has actual evidence, why doesn’t he bring it to court? I laugh at your angst. I must have hit a nerve, eh? You want to censor me, too?

            I’m just happy that the rest of America is catching up to this ‘snake oil salesman’.

          • The framing of this “simple question” doesn’t really align with how public lands litigation plays out. Judicial review looks at the administrative record “considered” by the agency at the time of the decision. A potential plaintiff usually must submit any relevant science to the agency during the public comment period for a proposed project. But during judicial review, courts generally decline to weigh in on which science is more persuasive and grant agencies substantial deference so long as their determinations are deemed “reasonable.” So even if a plaintiff included relevant science that counters the agency’s findings and decision, that does not mean the plaintiff will overcome the built-in deference courts give to agencies.

            Quotes from 2008 9th Circuit opinion in Lands Council v. McNair (reversed on other grounds): “our law [] requires us to defer to an agency’s determination in an area involving a ‘high level of technical expertise.’”; “We are to be ‘most deferential’ when the agency is ‘making predictions, within its [area of] special expertise, at the frontiers of science.’”; “[w]hen specialists express conflicting views, an agency must have discretion to rely on the reasonable opinions of its own qualified experts even if, as an original matter, a court might find contrary views more persuasive.”

            I do not know which cases you are referring to in order to determine what science plaintiff(s) submitted during public comment periods. Regardless, the quotes above underscore the high bar plaintiffs face when challenging any agency decision.

          • He says that he has “irrefutable photographic evidence” of clearcutting in spotted owl nesting areas, within fire salvage projects. Surely, that would yield at least a temporary injunction to the ‘offending’ active project. (Ironically, clearcuts are the preferred method of harvesting burned timber on private timberlands.)

            The mere presence of spotted owls, maybe roosting in a surviving tree, inside a burned area, really doesn’t mean much, science-wise. Owls hunt and roost in a very wide variety of areas, and they don’t need every burned tree, for their very survival. It is their unburned nesting habitats that owls need to survive and propagate. Remember, also, that owls are territorial, and there are only so many available habitats that are suitable. I highly doubt that any kind of study can definitively-prove that modern Forest Service fire salvage projects harm CASPO.

            Back to Hanson. He claims that the Forest Service is clearcutting CASPO nesting areas in fire salvage projects. WHERE is the evidence?!? If he can produce an actual ‘Sale Area Map’ showing an actual Clearcut Unit, then I will believe him. Otherwise, it didn’t officially happen.

          • Replying to Larry below, the bar for a plaintiff to secure preliminary injunctive relief is even higher than simply succeeding on the merits alone. A plaintiff must show a likelihood of success on the merits (in light of the substantial deference courts grant agencies), a likelihood of irreparable injury if preliminary injunctive relief is not granted, that the balance of equities tip in the plaintiff’s favor, and that injunctive relief is in the public interest.

            I haven’t kept track of all the back and forth about what Dr. Hanson supposedly said when, but the only instance I found where he asserted he had “irrefutable photographic evidence” was in his book Smokescreen. In an excerpt I found online, he described having “irrefutable photographic evidence” that there were “large areas of live, old forest where the Forest Service and the logging industry claimed none existed” within the Star Fire Restoration Project on the Eldorado NF. He then said the Forest Service “was intent on proceeding with its clear-cutting project in these lightly burned old-growth forest stands within spotted owl nesting territories.”

            Earth Island Institute sued the Forest Service and sought a preliminary injunction, which the district court denied. EII appealed and won before the 9th Circuit in 2003, which ruled EII had shown a likelihood of success on at least a couple claims, and that the district court applied an improper standard for irreparable injury.

            The preliminary injunctive relief case law landscape has changed a bit since that opinion, raising the bar even higher for a plaintiff.

            But what “active” project are you referring to, Larry, where Dr. Hanson supposedly should be able to present evidence? What is the specific context for those trying to understand your perspective?

          • Since Hanson files lawsuits on all significant fire salvage projects, if this clearcutting ‘commonly happens’, he should have been able to get an injunction on every one of those projects that employs these violations of rules, laws and policies. Does Hanson not monitor active projects, where he assumes that unplanned clearcutting is happening? OR, was 2003 just a single time that it happened, 18 years ago?

            Plus, there is also the well-documented (by me) troubles that Hanson has with photographs and maps. In the Rim Fire, EII published a picture claiming clearcutting by the Forest Service salvage projects. In truth, the picture was of Sierra Pacific Industries lands, and simple logic tells us that it wasn’t Forest Service land, surrounded by vast amounts of dead old growth.

            https://forestpolicypub.com/2015/12/10/will-a-pro-logging-rider-bill-in-congress-bring-clearcuts-for-christmas/

            The ‘proof’ that Matthew posted was also proven to be false. Judge for yourselves! Look at the pictures! Another example of eco-groups showing private logging practices, and attributing them to the Forest Service.

          • I don’t understand your comment at all – What is your objection? Does Chad Hanson not want to stop all logging projects on USFS lands? If not why does he keep saying that? A direct quote from Chad Hanson: “In my view, we need to get the USFS out of the logging business… we need to protect these forests much more like national parks..”

  8. FWIW, I sent a letter to the Sac Bee, and they published it, except for the line about “a breath of fresh air”:

    Your October 21 editorial, “Rogue environmentalists put Californians in harm’s way by blocking forest thinning projects,” is a breath of fresh air, but one that has been a long time coming. I’m a forester who participated in the overzealous timber harvesting in the Sierras decades ago. Current practices are aimed at restoring balance to these ecosystems while also helping to reduce the likelihood of large, destructive wildfires, as the Bee and other news media outlets have reported. However, members of the news media ought to ask themselves why the “rogue environmentalists” have been given so much prominence in news articles over the last few years, and why views that are so far outside of mainstream science and practice have been accepted by apparently credulous reporters and editors.

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      • My pleasure, Sharon. But I had to shake my head at the letter published just below mine:

        Conflict of interest
        “‘Self-serving garbage.’ Wildfire experts escalate fight over saving California forests,” (sacbee.com, Oct. 17)

        The U.S. Forest service is under the Department of Agriculture, which considers forests a crop to harvest, like corn or apples. Its budget relies on selling trees for part of its funding, which creates a conflict of interest. This is why the Forest Service promotes commercial logging and uses euphemisms like “fuel reduction,” “thinning” and “forest health.”

        Criticism of this policy is not “self-serving garbage,” as the headline implies. Financial considerations intercept sound forest policies, and readers never gain an accurate understanding of why vast policy differences exist.

        Read more at: https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/article255368201.html#storylink=cpy

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        • I’m shaking my head. Do you disagree that the Forest Service has a financial interest (based on revenues and/or budgets) in active management? And you believe this could never be a factor in their decision to log?

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          • Yep, I had the same exact reaction as you Jon.

            As much as I love the fact that we were talking about an LTE from Fred Krueger right around Halloween, it might be helpful to know that Fred Krueger has been active on these issues for many decades.

          • Jon, I think the USFS has in the past placed revenue higher on its list of priorities than social or ecological goals and objectives. In the 1980s, when I worked for the agency, the USFS was accused on “timber mining,” driven by presidential and congressional directives intended in part to stimulate the US economy with cheap timber for building houses. I marked my share of old-growth timber in places that I thought ought not to be harvested, and I was highly disenchanted with the agency as I knew it at the time.

            Today, however, I think the balance shifted to the triple bottom line: economic, social, ecological/environmental. There may be districts or forests that are exceptions, but as Larry often tells us, forests in the Sierras have focused on thinning for the last couple of decades or more. Forest health/restoration and fuels projects can make money, but usually they don’t. On its website, the agency says, “Forest management objectives have evolved and are broadly captured in the USDA Forest Service Strategic Plan FY 2015-2020 goals to sustain our Nation’s Forests and Grasslands and deliver benefits to the public. More specifically, timber sales and other removals of forest products support agency strategic objectives to foster resilient, adaptive ecosystems to mitigate climate change, mitigate wildfire risk, and strengthen communities.”

            There is nothing wrong with the agency realizing a profit from timber sales, and with stewardship contracts, for example, those profits can be plowed back into the forest.

            But this is my opinion as an interested observer who hasn’t worked for the agency for almost 40 years. What do Smokey Wire denizens who are working for the agency or have recently retired have to say? Is the agency focusing on revenue at the expense of the other two elements of the triple bottom line?

          • When I tried googling this question it came up with us:
            https://forestpolicypub.com/2018/08/14/how-are-forest-service-timber-targets-set/

            It was focused on timber volume targets, and here is basically where we ended up (from Jim Furnish): “But for a long time masters of the game were rewarded for figuring out how to get targets and associated money, then produce consistent sales and harvests. Does anyone doubt this? I’m uncertain if this is still the way it is. I kinda hope not…” (So maybe answering Jim’s question in an update is needed.)

            This discussion did not specifically address the revenue question, but to the extent revenue can help meet targets, and volume targets are still important, then it’s not hard to imagine money-making being a priority for line officers’ careers. Timber volume (at least in board feet) is certainly not a proxy for achieving the ecological bottom line.

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