Study: Forest Restoration Can Benefit Spotted Owls

This study, “Forest restoration limits megafires and supports species conservation under climate change” ($), by Gavin Jones et al, is described in a Treehugger article. Excerpts:

“Forest restoration often involves some removal of live trees—mostly small and medium-sized trees in the forest understory that have grown in because of fire exclusion. These smaller trees increase fire risk to owl habitat, and removal of these smaller trees will protect the rare, larger trees that owls use for nesting,” lead author Gavin Jones, Ph.D., a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service (USFS) Rocky Mountain Research Station, tells Treehugger.”

“We found the direct, and potential negative effects of forest restoration to owl habitat (that is, removal of trees in owl habitat) were small relative to the positive effects that restoration had on reducing fire risk to owls,” Jones says. “So even though in some cases we found that restoration could have negative short-term impacts to owls, it reduced the long-term impacts of severe fire. These long-term benefits led to better outcomes for owls.”

In some scenarios, the findings suggest that placing restoration treatments inside owl habitats would cut the predicted amount of severe fire almost in half compared to treating the same area outside of their territories.

This is another case of research confirming what many foresters and others have been saying for years.

8 thoughts on “Study: Forest Restoration Can Benefit Spotted Owls”

  1. Foresters have known for many years that the short term impacts from fuel reduction treatments, including thinning, are best for the environment in the long term if wildfire is a risk. However, the USFS has often been challenged (and has lost in court) with this argument. As I recall one judge saying (paraphrased) – if the action is taken there will be impacts to the owl, but there is no ‘guarantee’ that a wildfire will burn through this habitat, therefore the impacts, being certain, are unacceptable.

    • With most of the Plumas burned up, I’d say that it can be proven that there is now a much higher chance of owl habitats burning to a crisp, especially in the Sierra Nevada. Logging in CASPO PACs isn’t banned. It can be allowed, under certain conditions. I marked timber in one, and the marking prescription (for that unit) limited tree removal to the 10-14.9 inch diameter size.

    • I think that’s a good point, but it’s unlikely a judge said that “impacts” are “unacceptable,” meaning they would violate some substantive requirement, presumably in ESA. More likely, the Forest Service failed to disclose the effects of the action (certain) and the effects of no-action (uncertain) in an objective, balanced or meaningful way.

  2. The focus of this research is on the extent of treatments, but it doesn’t seem to address the nature of the treatments – other than in the quote above “removal of live trees—mostly small and medium-sized trees in the forest understory that have grown in because of fire exclusion.” I don’t believe these are the “treatments” that are often controversial. However, the “mostly” gets my attention, and I wonder why they weren’t more explicit about treatment assumptions.

  3. Two notable caveats in this study. One stated and one unstated.

    First, the fuel treatment that had the best performance on saving spotted owls from fire, did “not modify owl habitat.” The study does not explain how that happens but I assume it’s a very light thinning of small fuels, not at all typical of federal forest management which is virtually always accomplished using timber sales.

    Second, their assumptions dramatically simplified reality in a way that hides the fact that fuels treatments take time to implement over the landscape and lose effectiveness over time. “Vegetation (ie fuels) within our models were static, and treatments were introduced once at the beginning of forward simulations and assumed to be maintained when in reality treatments would take decades to implement and maintenance would be variable.”


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