Science Friday: Law et al. Paper on Prioritizing Forest Areas for Protection in 30 x 30

We’ve looked at two scientific papers in the last week,  last Friday Siirila-Woodburn et al.   “low to no snow future and water resources” as we discussed here.  Then yesterday we took a look at Ager et al. 2021. as part of a discussion about the Forest Service 10 year wildfire risk reduction plan.  Today I’d like to look at a recent paper by Law et al. that Steve brought up in a comment yesterday. It’s interesting for many reasons, not the least of which is that the journal, Communications Earth and Environment publishes the review comments and responses, and is open access. Apologies for the length of this post, but there’s lots of interesting stuff around this paper.

The first question is “what is the point of the paper?”  In the discussion, the authors say

“We developed and applied a geospatial framework to explicitly identify forestlands that could be strategically preserved to help meet these targets. We propose that Strategic Forest Reserves could be established on federal and state public lands where much of the high priority forests occur, while private entities and tribal nations could be incentivized to preserve other high priority forests. We further find that preserving high priority forests would help protect (1) ecosystem carbon stocks and accumulation for climate mitigation, (2) animal and tree species’ habitat to stem further biodiversity loss, and (3) surface drinking water for water security. Progress has been made, but much work needs to be done to reach the 30 × 30 or 50 × 50 targets in the western US.”

Basically, to put words in their mouths, they used geospatial data from various sources to help figure out how to meet 30×30 and 50×50 goals. It seems to me that they equate “preervation” to “conditions that are good for carbon stocks, biodiversity, and drinking water.”  This is perhaps fine in a non-fire environment (and we can all make assumptions about future fires on the West Side, but if we were perfectly honest we’d admit that “fires may well occur on the west side as well and possibly increase” but “no one knows for sure.”

Now if we were to raise our sights from the details of the geospatial framework, we might see that 30 x 30 is a current policy discussion about how much conservation versus protection and what practices count.  So they might have taken the same tack as Siirila-Woodburn and Ager’s coauthors.. “let’s ask the people who know about these practices and are working in the area what they would like to know that would help them. Keeping in mind that these systems are so complex, we can’t really predict and need to be open about uncertainties.” There’s also a substantial literature about these national or international priority setting analyses, and their tendencies to disempower local people. No reviewers of this paper that I could tell were social scientists.

Nevertheless, it seems like they ran some numbers, and then had a long discussion in a mode of an op-ed with citations.

Differences in fire regimes among ecoregions are important parts of the decision-making process. For example, forests in parts of Montana and Idaho are projected to be highly vulnerable to future wildfire but not drought, thus fire-adapted forests climatically buffered from drought may be good candidates for preservation. Moist carbon rich forests in the Pacific Coast Range and West Cascades ecoregions are projected to be the least vulnerable to either drought or fire in the future25, though extreme hot, dry, and windy conditions led to fires in the West Cascades in 2020. It is important to recognize that forest thinning to reduce fire risk has a low probability of success in the western US73, results in greater carbon losses than fire itself, and is generally not needed in moist forests79,80,81,82.

Biodiversity- wise, though, you don’t need a PhD in wildife ecology to think.. protecting more west-side Doug-fir isn’t as good for biodiversity as protecting some of that and some of Montana or New Mexico.. so really carbon and biodiversity don’t always lead us to the same places.  It’s interesting that the reviewers didn’t catch the claim that “forest thinning has a low probability of success” What is paper 73, you might ask?  It’s a perspective piece in PNAS (so another op-ed with citations) by our geography friends at University of Colorado.  And “results in greater losses than fire itself?”  See our California versus Oregon wildfire carbon post here.

Forests help ensure surface drinking water quality63,64 and thus meeting the preservation targets would provide co-benefits for water security in an era of growing need.

This was an interesting claim for “protected” forests, as our hydrology colleagues (who perhaps are more expert in this area?) wrote in their review..

Changes in wildfire frequency, severity and timing are particularly catastrophic consequences of a low- to- no snow future. Indeed, alongside continued warming, a shift towards a no- snow future is anticipated to exacerbate wildfire activity, as observed169,170. However, in the longer term, drier conditions can also slow post- fire vegetation regrowth, even reducing fire size and severity by reducing fuels. The hydrologic (and broader) impacts of fire are substantial, and include: shifts in snowpack accumulation, snowpack ablation and snowmelt timing171; increased probability of flash flooding and debris flows172,173; enhanced overland flow; deleterious impacts on water quality 174,175; and increased sediment fluxes176,177. Notably, even small increases in turbidity can directly impact water supply infrastructure178,179. Vegetation recovery within the first few years following fire rapidly diminishes these effects, but some longer term effects do occur, as evidenced with stream chemistry180 and above and below ground water partitioning both within and outside of burn scars181.

There’s even a drive-by (so to speak) on our OHV friends..

Recreation can be compatible with permanent protection so long as it does not include use of off-highway vehicles that have done considerable damage to ecosystems, fragmented habitat, and severely impacted animals including threatened and endangered species37

Here’s a link to the review comments. The authors did not include fragmentation in their analysis as one reviewer pointed out, so they added

Nevertheless, our current analysis did not incorporate metrics of forest connectivity39 or fragmentation48, thus isolated forest “patches” (i.e., one or several gird cells) were not ranked lower for preservation priority than forests that were part of large continuous corridors.

To circle back to handling uncertainty and where the discussion of these uncertainties takes place (with practitioners and inhabitants or not), another review comment on uncertainty and the reply:

The underlying datasets that we used in this analysis did not include uncertainty estimates and thus it is not readily possible for us to characterize cumulative uncertainty by propagating uncertainty and error through our analysis. We recognize the importance of characterizing uncertainty in geospatial analyses and acknowledge this is an inherent limitation in our current study. To better acknowledge this limitation and the need for future refinements, we added the following text to the end of the Discussion (lines 445-447): Next steps are to apply this framework across countries, include non-forest ecosystems, and account for how preservation prioritization is affected by uncertainty in underlying geospatial datasets.

It makes me hanker for old timey economists, who put uncertainties front and center. Remember sensitivity analysis?

But the reviewers never addressed the gaps that I perceive between what the authors claim in their discussion and what the data show. I suspect that’s because “generating studies using geospatial data” is a subfield, and the reviewers are experts in that, but the points in the discussion (what’s an IRA, what’s the state of the art on fuel treatments) not so much. I think that that’s an inevitable part of peer review being hard unpaid work- at some point reviewers will use the “sounds plausible from here” criterion. And so it goes..

46 thoughts on “Science Friday: Law et al. Paper on Prioritizing Forest Areas for Protection in 30 x 30”

  1. Such ideas always seem to isolate certain aspects, while ignoring many important issues that should not be left out. In particular, the longterm benefits of thinning projects seem to be left out of the conversation, only addressing carbon impacts. No mention of reduced drought impacts, a better species composition mix and a reduction of ladder fuels. Also, this ‘westside’ idea that wildfires are benign and not an issue ignores the Biscuit Fire, and its serious longterm impacts.

    Do we also assume that Gap 1 areas are ‘just fine’ when they burn at high intensity? Same for National Parks and other areas, where human intervention is discouraged? In particular, does Yosemite National Park still have Gap 1 status, despite the felling and burning of excess snags?

  2. The full text of the paper is here.

    And an Oregon Public Broadcasting article on it is here.

    I sent a note to the OPB article’s author suggesting that they ought to have included perspectives from other scientists. The article didn’t have any other perspectives, but she later added a quote by Nick Smith, of the American Forest Resource Council, ” a trade association that advocates for timber harvests on public timberlands in the West.” I suggested that this once again pits a scientist (save forests – good) against a timber group (cut timber – evil) for many readers. I suggested that she might have held the story for a few days until she had comments from another scientist. Her response was that “…OSU put out a press release that called for urgent action. Our editors figured other news outlets would have something and we should too. When I heard about the paper, I pitched it as more of an evergreen story about the maps and the whole idea of creating reserves that could run later, but then there was a press release and I was given a daily news deadline.”

    As a journalist, I understand the need to beat the competition, but with a study like this one, the journalist failed to best serve readers by telling more than one side of the story. She may as well have simply printed a press release from the university.

    • Steve, this is a terrific illustration of the challenges of reporting on complex topics with the recent attrition in the working journalist world. This sense of urgency “better to get it out fast than to get it right” seems like a structural problem with journalism. It also illustrates the “university press release to journalist to story” quagmire.

      the press release says: “The United States should immediately move to create a collection of strategic forest reserves in the Western U.S. to fight climate change and safeguard biodiversity, according to a scientific collaboration led by an Oregon State University ecologist.”

      I can’t blame anyone along the line, writer of the press release or the journalist at OPB, for not knowing that in fact many folks inside the USG and outside interests are thinking about and working with interest groups to figure out the best and most acceptable ways to implement 30×30.

      IMHO there’s at least a tiny bit of hubris about suggesting that this information supplants or should supplant all those discussions taking place. It’s simply a policy advocacy paper. And there is no, IMHO, and has never been much of a hurry about public forest policy. But I can’t expect any journalists to know that.

      • Sharon, I agree, but a competent journalist — and his/her editor — ought to have seen that this isn’t urgent. An interesting story, sure, but any proposal involving 25.5 million acres should be seen as one meriting more in-depth reporting. For contrast, they might have included mention of this paper published a few days ago: “Innovative wood use can enable carbon-beneficial forest management in California.”

        The UC Berkeley PR headline is “Want to limit carbon and curb wildfire? Create a market for small trees.” I bet OPB doesn’t cover it — well, it’s not an Oregon university. But if OPB wants to cover forests and carbon, they’ll need to look at other research.

        • Steve: I have had this problem with OPB for many years. They are selling propaganda, not journalism. I am a forest scientist with a PhD, same as Bev Law — the big difference is that I also have more than 25 years of practical forest management history working with some of the greatest forest managers and forest scientists on record, and Law does not. She has zero forest management experience and is totally unqualified to make forest management plans — and OPB has no interest at all in noting that glaring deficiency. And they definitely don’t want to hear about actual scientific challenges to this type of political activism. In my opinion.

          • The false equivalency of what makes someone a subject matter expert is a significant issue in all aspects of life but particularly in natural resources. I can call myself a lot of things but that doesn’t make it so.

            Bob, you have a history degree. Your CV is pretty light on scientific publications for a forest scientist. In fact, I can’t find a single publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal that you are an author on in over 20 years. If you are a scientist, you should try publishing some science.

            I find issues with some of Bev Laws lab’s work, especially where I think they stray from science into advocacy for pre-held positions but I respect the folks within the lab and their work. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”

            • Patrick: I usually don’t engage with people that hide behind pseudonyms, but you seem to have a few delusions that should need correction.

              First, I don’t have a “history degree.” My PhD degree from OSU (Law and I were classmates) is in Environmental Sciences, with a lead in Forest Science. My technical title, as a credentialed and practicing scientist, is “historical ecologist.” You’re welcome.

              Next, my peers are forest managers, loggers, road builders, hunters, fishermen, etc., and that is who I write for — not whatever journals you are looking through. During the past 20 years I have written and published more than 80 articles and editorials, more than a dozen research reports, and created dozens of websites and videos. Try Google this time.

              Here are 30+ article/editorials I’ve written for a single magazine during the past 10 years that has a circulation of 10,000 — and which I usually have knowledgeable people review before publishing:

              Here is a report I wrote regarding the topic of “peer review” (I recommend pp. 9-15) that was transparently peer reviewed by 17 others — most with PhDs and several with national reputations:

              Here is my dissertation, that I had published for people just as you:

              I am doing writing and research on topics important to working people and rural people, not for the Latin, acronyms, polygons and metrics people. And no modelers pretending to practice science. Most of my work is with retired people and K-12 students. So who are you, and what are your credentials for being so judgmental while remaining hidden?

                • Folks, let’s stick to the Law paper itself and the reporting on it. For instance, I’m interested in opinions on what it would take, legally, policy-wise, and otherwise to designate 25.5 million acres — an area larger than the Northwest Forest Plan area — as de facto wilderness.

                  • Well, you could designate it as a Monument. Or you could pass Wilderness legislation. Otherwise (not a lawyer) it seems like there would be lawsuits about de facto Wilderness. I seem to remember that for Roadless litigation.

                    • I researched the lawsuits around the roadless rule recently. Ultimately the folks challenging it lost because roadless areas weren’t required to be managed 100% identically to wilderness. That set up a legal standard that allowed agencies to circumvent the Wilderness Act’s requirement that Wilderness could only be designated by Congress, allowing them to administratively designate de facto wilderness as long the management of those areas differed from designated Wilderness in even a tiny way.

                      Since then, the Forest Service has come up with “recommended wilderness areas” and the BLM has invented “lands with wilderness characteristics” as ways to administratively designate de facto wilderness in land management plans that are managed 98% identically to designated Wilderness. Then of course there are WSAs, which are managed 99% identically to Wilderness.

                      Between all those things, I bet there’s already over 25 million acres of de facto wilderness out there. If not, there soon will be, since every new forest plan or BLM resource management plan designates more.

                    • You’re right, Patrick.. you could plan these Reserves so that they were different from Wilderness in .0025% and luck out with a helpful judge. I don’t think it’s politically feasible but then I don’t agree with the science behind it either.

  3. Law and her colleagues call for establishing 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres, an area roughly the size of Kentucky) in Strategic Forest Reserves, where management is similar to wilderness areas. I think of this proposal as “pie in the sky.”

    There are, of course, many practical problems with the proposal. Many of the areas of federal land the authors suggest setting aside are already covered by federal resource-management laws that would have to be repealed or revised by Congress, and new laws passed to implement the level of preservation that Law et al envision. The BLM’s O&C lands in Oregon, for example, and the O&C Act.

    In addition, both this and the Lat et al 2018 paper base emissions projections rely on the “representative concentration pathway 8.5 emissions” model (RCP 8.5 and its new iteration SSP 8.5), which are widely known to be highly unlikely “worst case” GHG emissions models. If I had been a peer reviewer, I would have flagged this. A recent Scientific American article notes that “The most severe climate scenario of the bunch [RCP 8.5] might be so extreme that it’s no longer a likely outcome.” Roger Pielke Jr., a professor in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of The Honest Broker newsletter, called the SSP 8.5 scenario “undeniably implausible.” And as the BBC reported in 2020, it is an “exceedingly unlikely” emissions scenario.

    I’d like to see Law et al use a more realistic range of emissions models.

      • Conservation, yes, if it is complaint with the O&C Act. District of Columbia District Court Judge Leon recently ordered the BLM to sell the “sustained yield capacity” annually.

        • BLM has set the ASQ at 205 mmbf/year, but that wasn’t enough for the industry.

          And, I think you mean, “compliant,” but there are many complaints about the O&C Act too! 🙂

          • Susan:

            You are showing your bias by blaming “the industry” for challenging BLM “ASQs.” The question is: “how many mmbf/year (total) are actually growing on BLM timberlands?”

            Do you know the answer? Isn’t that the actual starting point for considering “sustained yield?” We can debate the meaning of “conservation” at another time. These are local jobs, wildlife habitat, recreation, and wildfire mitigation concerns by most accounts. “Industry,” too.

            • I’m not biased: I can just read AFRC’s and AOCC’s Complaints where they take issue with BLM’s ASQ because in industry’s view, BLM didn’t set the ASQ “high enough.”

              While the O&C lands are highly productive and are growing more than 205 mmbf/year, that doesn’t mean that more volume than that can be sustainably harvested in perpetuity. Indeed, the years when the target was set higher (or disregarded and exceeded) gave us a demonstrable decline in wildlife viability, water quality, and intact forestland. The public has many expectations for these public lands, not simply maximum timber production.

              • There are, of course, county governments, mill and woods workers, and others who would like to see increased harvests. I’ve heard some BLM folks say that the O&C lands can produce ~700 MMBF per year.

                • Susan: I was hoping for something more substantive than “more than 205 mmbf,” because I think you know that it is a LOT more than that.

                  You also say that when BLM cuts more than its average sales volume (?) that there is a “demonstrable decline in wildlife viability, water quality, and intact forestland.” Those are all highly subjective and debatable terms, of course, but when have these somehow logging-related “problems” actually been “demonstrated?”

                  Cause and effect? Or just biased and baseless claims? My experience suggests the latter. Citations?

                  • Bob, you can review BLM’s analysis and calculation of the sustained yield for the O&C lands in volume 1 of the 2016 RMPs available here: (pages 307-369).

                    Like many land management issues, the question of “how much CAN we take” (versus leave) is not just about “how much is the forest growing,” but rather “how much SHOULD we take.” I understand you feel we should take more, whereas I feel we should take less.

                    There have been a slew of threatened and endangered species listings (spotted owl, marbled murrelet, steelhead, salmon, coho, etc.) under the Endangered Species Act as well as water quality-impaired waterways under the Clean Water Act since the 1980s. These are facts, not “baseless claims.” Those listings were precipitated by federal land management decisions.

                    • Susan: Thanks for the response. My argument regarding all of these listings is that they were made possible by federal funding and may or may not have been/will be effective in achieving desired results (which usually vary over time and between individuals and organizations.

                      But my question remains the same: How do these listings have anything to do with a “demonstrated decline” in populations and water quality in relation to BLM logging history?

                      And yes, I think the 205 mmbf/year is way too low and will likely lead to catastrophic wildfires again at some point. Versus jobs, clean air, recreation, and wildlife safe from wildfire. In my opinion.

    • Steve, I am not a fan of 8.5 or any climate model when it comes to trees. For me, I can skip the land use and economic and other inputs to the models. I can go straight to the predicted concentrations and physical models and say… we have no clue about how trees will respond to any of those numbers… even if they were modeled accurately at the microclimate scale through time that a given tree (or population with genetic diversity in adaptation traits) would perceive. Let alone changes to microflora, soils competitors and predators from climate change and invasives and the interaction. Plus a variety of unknown unknowns. So I would say: “to be honest really we have no clue and should deal with it via monitoring and adaptation.”

      • So I would say: “to be honest really we have no clue and should deal with it via monitoring and adaptation.” That seems to sum up your approach to just about anything; we have no clue, what will happen, so apparently we should do nothing. But today (like any point in time), we must “dealt with it” with whatever we know now. Why is monitoring the only thing that counts? Doesn’t that have to be evaluated using some scientific process, which often includes projections into the future like modeling? (Though I would agree that doing nothing ought to be our default position until we know enough.)

        • Jon, let’s do thought experiments.. I think ours might be different.

          The question is “will Doug fir continue to grow on the Chetco Bar Ranger District or be burned up?” or perhaps “burn up and then not grow back?” If we say, we don’t know, we might monitor it and if it seems to be dying out or burning up, do something.
          If we evaluate the situation using a “scientific process” what is that? Asking scientists what might happen? What scientists? What disciplines?
          Or we ask scientists to model what might happen?
          This is really science epistemology stuff, but what makes something “scientific”? And are “scientific” and “useful” the same thing? If not, should we pick “scientific” or “useful” in management? I think that this is what the “no snow ” paper was grappling with for hydrology.

          • So you are saying that past monitoring doesn’t count either. Just do what your gut/bias/lobbyists tell you and see what happens. I guess I interpret your arguments as being against any attempt to analyze what is likely to happen, and ultimately against planning. We can’t know the future, but we must act based on what we think (“best available science”) will happen. NEPA requires us to disclose what we think will happen. (And there is a legal definition of “science” in this context.)

            • No, I don’t think that’s what I’m saying.

              I’m not against “any attempt to analyze what is likely to happen,” I’m for being as honest as we can about uncertainties around what could happen. Let’s do another thought experiment. What is good habitat for the BFF? We have some good ideas and that’s all laid out in the reintroduction program. What’s going to be good BFF habitat in 50 years.. well it depends on climate change, development, and so on. Maybe the good habitat will have moved to Canada. We don’t know. Maybe ferrets will adapt to changed conditions. Maybe prairie dogs will succumb to an introduced virus. What’s going to be good habitat in 100 years… we could start buying land in Canada now, or wait 50 years to check on the trajectory of climate change, or admit we don’t know.

              What we can do is put ferrets where they can live now, and monitor pops and habitat. And think about what changes are predicted by climate models or knowledge of development patterns or local or Indigenous knowledge or whatever, and try to favor areas, when we have a choice, that we think will be around in the future as good habitat.

              My point being, any scientific models have uncertainty around them. Decision makers should take that into account as well as the predictions themselves. And that’s relatively easy to put in NEPA documents.

              • I agree with where you ended up in the last paragraph. I don’t think that necessarily means put the ferrets where they can live “now,” if we expect that habitat to decline based on what we know or think now. (Of course, the ferret situation is not about climate change, but about NOT putting ferrets where they can live now because private interests don’t want them there.)

  4. “Lands used to meet preservation targets should have the same level of protection as Wilderness areas without grazing, and be permanently protected from roads, logging, and other development. Wilderness areas are cost-effective cornerstones of intact landscapes that provide clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, and climate change mitigation, while also supporting sustainable recreation economies worth billions of dollars annually28,30.”

    Well that pretty much proves what I’ve been assuming since I first heard of the 30×30 agenda. It’s basically just a rebranding of the age-old wilderness maximalist agenda. Or at least many environmental groups dearly want it to be. To its credit, the Biden administration at least so far seems to be considering a broader definition of protected land beyond just wilderness equivalent lands. But obviously that’s getting tons of pushbacks from groups that want it to mean only wilderness, so that the official 30×30 agenda gives its imprimatur to their exclusionary views regarding acceptable uses of public lands. Same-old same-old.

    • Patrick .. I was going to critique the “billions of dollars” argument that includes RVs, OHVs, boats and so on to argue for Wilderness where none of those are allowed. But when I read the citations they didn’t actually go back to any of those estimates. ???

      • Oh yeah, they always lie about the economic benefits of wilderness. I don’t have the specific studies at hand at the moment, but I’ve seen studies specifically on the economic impacts of wilderness areas and they have generally found a negative impact on the local economies from wilderness designation. On the other hand, other studies have found that OHVs have the largest positive impact on recreation economies of any sector.

        • Patrick, it seems logical that buying more expensive things (OHVs or RVs) that use energy (which costs) would have a greater economic impact. Someone could look at economies where those are sold, versus local economies at the trailhead.

          However, I think we could study it till the proverbial cows come home, but it’s not really about that. I don’t think engaging preferential battles with studies as weapons every really solves anything. But I could be wrong.

        • To your comment above: “That set up a legal standard that allowed agencies to circumvent the Wilderness Act’s requirement that Wilderness could only be designated by Congress, allowing them to administratively designate de facto wilderness as long the management of those areas differed from designated Wilderness in even a tiny way.” I don’t remember it this way, so a cite would be helpful. I think the only distinction that would be necessary is that they not call it “Wilderness” because that is a term of art in the Wilderness Act.

          • The specific case I’m referring to is State v. Department of Agriculture, (10th Cir. 2011),

            In that case, the 10th Circuit overturned an earlier ruling by the Wyoming District Court which held that the Roadless Rule violated the Wilderness Act by creating de facto wilderness. The Circuit Court disagreed and held that that the Roadless Rule did not create de facto wilderness because its specific restrictions were different and less restrictive than those for Wilderness:

            “These distinctions clearly demonstrate that wilderness areas governed by the Wilderness Act and IRAs governed by the Roadless Rule are not only distinct, but that the Wilderness Act is more restrictive and prohibitive than the Roadless Rule. Accordingly, we conclude that the IRAs governed by the Roadless Rule are not de facto administrative wilderness areas; therefore, the district court erred by holding otherwise.”

            The decision hinged on a qualitative comparison between the specific restrictions imposed by wilderness vs. roadless and not the names. The Circuit Court never questioned the District Court’s ruling that creating de facto wilderness is prohibited by the Wilderness Act, but just disagreed with its factual analysis of whether the restrictions in the Roadless Rule were similar enough to qualify as de facto wilderness. I think the Circuit Court implied that if the restrictions in the Roadless Rule had been exactly the same or more restrictive than Wilderness, it would violate the Wilderness Act as de facto wilderness regardless of the name used.

  5. We basically got “wilderness” designation on most of our Westside forests with the Northwest Forest Plan. Even though some lands were designated for multiple use including timber harvest, the environmental community through their ability to sue were able to turned these lands into areas that mostly eliminated any active management.
    We could just look at the results of making most of FS lands “wilderness” over the last 30 years or so.
    In my observations there are many but the most obvious, besides the social economic degradation of our rural communities, is the lost of our forests, especially old growth forests, to fire. Its like we are pretending to protect our forests and their attributes while spending billions each summer burning them up. I don’t understand how designating more lands as “wilderness” will improve this.

    • Well in Wilderness you can’t do fuel treatments, regardless of where suppression folks think might be a good spot for a POD treatment. So… I would tend to get the fire folks out and delineate PODs before any more Wilderness bills get passed.

      • Sharon: Or we could change the rules managing Wilderness areas. I testified to Hatfield and others regarding the Oregon Wilderness proposals in the early 1980s as Vice-President of Associated Reforestation Contractors — a significant trade organization at that time that was ultimately replaced by spotted owls and “low bid” migrant labor.

        Our position was that additional Wilderness designations were okay — just so long as they were actively managed. We were experienced professionals and knew that unmanaged lands would become cesspools for wildfire, disease and insects if they weren’t taken care of (check out their subsequent wildfire histories as a starting point), and would only be accessible to a privileged few otherwise.

        My subsequent degree in forest recreation looked at Wilderness use surveys that indicated white, mostly male, mostly employed, young and middle-aged adults made up almost all Wilderness visitors. Very few older people, infants, or young children, and virtually no minorities at all. Looking for adventure and for solitude and having the public — especially the local public — pay for the privilege.

        With current concerns regarding catastrophic wildfires and social equity, would now be a good time to seriously reconsider the methods and results we have been using and getting to manage existing Wildernesses?

  6. “forest thinning has a low probability of success” And “results in greater losses than fire itself”

    These are well-supported.

    The 2018 US Forest Service Northwest Forest Plan Science Synthesis concluded that fuel reduction is unlikely to be an effective climate mitigation strategy.

    Some studies from other regions in the Western United States (i.e., the Southwest and Sierra Nevada) suggest that thinning and fuel reduction can mitigate carbon loss from fire. Fuel reduction may reduce losses of carbon at stand levels compared with the consequences of high-severity wildfire burning in stands with high fuel loads (Finkral and Evans 2008; Hurteau and North 2009; Hurteau et al. 2008, 2011, 2016; North and Hurteau 2011; North et al. 2009, Stephens et al. 2009). However, because the probability of treated areas burning is generally low (Barnett et al. 2016), and most biomass is not consumed by fire, slight differences in losses resulting from combustion in fire compared with losses from fuel reduction are unlikely to make fuel reduction a viable mitigation strategy (Ager et al. 2010, Campbell et al. 2012, Kline et al. 2016, Mitchell et al. 2009, Restaino and Peterson 2013, Spies et al. 2017).

    USDA 2018. Synthesis of Science to Inform Land Management Within the Northwest Forest Plan Area. General Technical Report. PNW-GTR-966 Vol. 1. June 2018.

    Law & Harmon (2011) conducted a literature review and concluded …

    Thinning forests to reduce potential carbon losses due to wildfire is in direct conflict with carbon sequestration goals, and, if implemented, would result in a net emission of CO2 to the atmosphere because the amount of carbon removed to change fire behavior is often far larger than that saved by changing fire behavior, and more area has to be harvested than will ultimately burn over the period of effectiveness of the thinning treatment.

    Law, B. & M.E. Harmon 2011. Forest sector carbon management, measurement and verification, and discussion of policy related to mitigation and adaptation of forests to climate change. Carbon Management 2011 2(1).

    Campbell and Agar (2013) conducted a sensitivity analysis and found robust results indicating that fuel reduction does not increase forest carbon storage.

    … we attempt to remove some of the confusion surrounding this subject by performing a sensitivity analysis wherein long-term, landscape-wide carbon stocks are simulated under a wide range of treatment efficacy, treatment lifespan, fire impacts, forest recovery rates, forest decay rates, and the longevity of wood products. Our results indicate a surprising insensitivity of long-term carbon stocks to both management and biological variables. After 80 years, … a 1600% change in either treatment application rate or efficacy in arresting fire spread resulted in only a 10% change in total system carbon. This insensitivity of long-term carbon stocks is due in part by the infrequency of treatment/wildfire interaction and in part by the controls imposed by maximum forest biomass. None of the fuel treatment simulation scenarios resulted in increased system carbon.

    Campbell, J, Agar, A (2013) Forest wildfire, fuel reduction treatments, and landscape carbon stocks: A sensitivity analysis. Journal of Environmental Management 121 (2013) 124-132

    John L Campbell, Mark E Harmon, and Stephen R Mitchell. 2011. Can fuel-reduction treatments really increase forest carbon storage in the western US by reducing future fire emissions? Front Ecol Environ 2011; doi:10.1890/110057 (Results suggest that the protection of one unit of C from wildfire combustion comes at the cost of removing three units of C in fuel treatments.)

    Chiono, L. A., D. L. Fry, B. M. Collins, A. H. Chatfield, and S. L. Stephens. 2017. Landscape-scale fuel treatment and wildfire impacts on carbon stocks and fire hazard in California spotted owl habitat. Ecosphere 8(1):e01648. 10.1002/ecs2.1648. (“We used a probabilistic framework of wildfire occurrence to (1) estimate the potential for fuel treatments to reduce fire risk and hazard across the landscape and within protected California spotted owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis) habitat and (2) evaluate the consequences of treatments with respect to terrestrial C stocks and burning emissions. Silvicultural and prescribed fire treatments were simulated on 20% of a northern Sierra Nevada landscape in three treatment scenarios … [A]ll treatment scenarios resulted in higher C emissions than the no-treatment scenarios.”)

    • Using spotted owl nesting habitat to ‘project’ fuel treatments into seems biased. Since most kinds of USFS fuels treatments wouldn’t be allowed inside protected nesting habitats, Chiono’s study doesn’t seem valid for discussion. Study areas should be in places where such treatments are actually allowed.

      (Now, if they are lumping both nesting AND foraging habitats together, then that is even worse. Foraging ‘habitat’ is plentiful and needs minimal protections.)

    • Other researchers have differing results. Which is the “best available science’?

      “Fuel treatment impacts on estimated wildfire carbon loss from forests in Montana, Oregon, California, and Arizona,” by Scott L. Stephens et al, Ecosphere, May 7, 2012.

      “Carbon loss from modeled wildfire-induced tree mortality was lowest in the mechanical plus prescribed fire treatments, followed by the prescribed fire-only treatments. Wildfire emissions varied from 10–80 Mg/ha and were lowest in the prescribed fire and mechanical followed by prescribed fire treatments at most sites. Mean biomass removals per site ranged from approximately 30–60 dry Mg/ha; the median lives of products in first use varied considerably (from 50 years). Our research suggests most of the benefits of increased fire resistance can be achieved with relatively small reductions in current carbon stocks. Retaining or growing larger trees also reduced the vulnerability of carbon loss from wildfire. ”

      “High-severity wildfire effects on carbon stocks and emissions in fuels treated and untreated forest,” by Malcolm P. North and Matthew D. Hurteau, Forest Ecology and Management, January 2011.

      “Increasing carbon density in existing forests has been suggested as a mitigation strategy to help offset rising anthropogenic CO2 emissions (Canadell and Raupach, 2008; Keith et al., 2009; Hudiburg et al., 2009). In fire-prone forests, however, fire season length (Westerling et al., 2006) and severity (Miller et al., 2009) may be increasing, putting high-density forests at risk for larger wildfire emissions. Our study suggests that fuels treatments to reduce wildfire severity can be effective, but in the short term are a net carbon loss when compared with untreated/burned forest. However, the untreated forest’s high rate of tree mortality shifted most of the carbon into decomposing stocks suggesting a long-term increase in emissions and a significant reduction in live-tree sequestered carbon.”

    • Even seen a thinning sale after it was completed, or a few years later?
      Most of them, here in Southwestern Oregon, actually result in a healthier and more robust and diverse forest growing and storing carbon like crazy. Not to mention the social economic benefit from the sale itself.

  7. In my experience, it all depends… on forest type (P Pine vs Lodgepole, vs Doug Fire vs mixed fir, etc), weather on the day of fire ignition, and on and on etc. I’ve seen beautifully thinned sites that burned thoroughly (Jasper Fire: Black Hills)… or not (areas of Hayman outside Denver), doghair LPP that mysteriously didn’t burn at all or got torched (all on view in Y”stone NP). I conclude there is no simple formula that consistently and reliably works. To me what works is spending money in WUI and implementing fire-wise with structures, doing the best you can hoping for the best result when fire hits. You might get lucky. Or not.


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