Sequoia and Sierra Forest Plans- E&E News Story

This is a long and comprehensive story but I can only quote excerpts, sadly, due to the paywall. I’ll highlight a few points..

The title of the article is “In California forest plan, a hint of climate fights to come.” They seem like the same old fights to me, but with climate issues as a new set of arguments (carbon sequestration, leave them alone vs. if we leave them alone lots of good things, including them, will burn up). Can you imagine a forest plan that says “since most people who recreate on the national forests currently use oil and gas products to get there, or charge their vehicles using electricity at least partially sourced from fossil fuels, we are ceasing recreation except for those who can prove they charge with their own solar panels”.. now that would be a real “climate” fight. Not “let’s thin trees or not.”

For all the rhetoric politicians and policymakers throw at the nation’s growing wildfire crisis, real-life changes in managing the nation’s fire-prone forests are about to play out in a series of dry documents found on the Forest Service website.
These are the land management plans federal law requires the Forest Service to update every 15 years — a deadline that’s rarely met — across the nation’s 175 national forests and grasslands. Two recently completed plans in California reflect the agency’s growing emphasis on climate change as it revises the plans, as well as the hurdles the federal government faces in tackling changing conditions throughout the landscape.
Drafted over the course of a decade, the updates for the Sierra and Sequoia national forests took so long that wildfires tore through some of the areas in question and severe drought killed trees in others, forcing further revisions by forest managers.
“Scientists estimate, based on data collected between 2012 and 2019, that there are now approximately 60.2 million dead trees in the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests killed by drought, insect, and disease,” said Forest Supervisor Dean Gould in the agency’s record of decision in May.

How many times have we pointed out that the plan revision process can’t keep up with real-world changes? It’s too grandiose and unwieldy. Even the Committee of Scientists suggested a loose-leaf notebook approach instead in 1999.

The Forest Service has a total of 128 management plans. Of those, 99 are more than 15 years old, meaning they’re overdue for revision, according to the Forest Service.
Worsening drought and wildfire are pushing the Forest Service toward a more intensive approach, through cutting and removing trees and increasing the use of fire as a tool to naturally reduce potential fuel. The plan update embraces letting some naturally occurring fires burn with monitoring, for ecological benefit — a practice that’s drawn criticism from some groups and Republican lawmakers.

What all sides appear to agree on is that the updated plans in California carry broader lessons for forests throughout the West.

I think the use of managed fire or WFU is a broader policy than what’s in forest plans, since it occurs in many places. And I don’t know any forest plans that don’t allow fuel treatments.  And the GMUG did a fire use amendment so it doesn’t seem necessary to revise to update. Does anyone know exactly what the SS plans do differently specifically on Managed Fire/WFU?

The forest plans for the Sierra and Sequoia, as well as the nearby Inyo National Forest, were among the earliest to go through a process spelled out in a 2012 federal forest planning rule that was supposed to make the process faster and in collaboration with the communities around them. The Sierra and Sequoia updates have good provisions, said Susan Jane Brown, a principal attorney with Silvix Resources, an Oregon environmental law firm specializing in forest issues — but they weren’t in place to deal with the fires and other challenges that arose during the drawn-out revision.

“The fact that it still took the Forest Service more than a decade to get these forests across the finish line is pretty hard to stomach, especially given that part of the selling point of the 2012 rule was to get plans done in two to three years,” Brown told E&E News.

Whoa! Let’s see if we think of the FS as a pack mule, the 2012 Rule was loading the mule up with more weight, assessments, analyses of NRV, and so on.  I don’t know exactly where optimism becomes untruth, but many of us thought that that statement (that plans could be done in two to three years) was quite a ways over the untruth line.  I don’t believe anyone believed that you could put more weight on the pack mule and somehow magically it would move faster.

The revisions in California illustrate the need for regular updates to forest management plans, Brown said. But the Forest Service is slowed by staff turnover, and Congress for years has freed the agency of a legal requirement to update plans every 15 years, through a provision that appears in annual appropriations bills.
“In my experience at the collaborative table, stakeholders are desperate for updated, science-based plans: Most of us are working with plans written in the late 1980s or early 1990s, which were based on information gathered in the 1970s,” Brown said.

My experience, living next to a Forest with a very old plan, is that they are not hindered from doing what needs to be done. Because each plan for actually doing something on the land requires updated info.    It seems after 11 years, the Admin could set up a new Planning FACA Committee to review 2012 Rule implementation, something like the EADM effort with partners who had been involved in plan revisions.  Responding to climate change, both mitigation and adaptation,  requires flexibility. Forest planning is a relic of the planning mindset of close to 50 years ago.

If the updates in California are any indication, forest plan revisions aren’t about to resolve some of the thornier debates about how best to manage forests in the face of climate change. Two questions continue to challenge forest managers: Are relatively frequent high-intensity fires normal in the region, and does thinning and logging forests pose a greater, or lesser,
risk to spotted owls than wildfire?

This is kind of my Pandora’s box argument; a plan revision is an opportunity to open Pandora’s Box of all the disagreements people have, and are working on, project by project. And, does the fact that Chad Hanson disagrees make something a “thorny” debate?

And yes, the Forest Service has a new planning implementation model to speed things up which I described here in 2021. I was never able to access any write-ups describing it, so if anyone has those, please email me.

Last but certainly not least, here’s a big shout-out, congratulations and thank you (!!!) to the folks on the Sierra and Sequoia Forests for having completed their plan revision!
And to those stakeholders, partners and plain old members of the public who kept with it, especially those who weren’t paid, and read those documents anyway.

3 thoughts on “Sequoia and Sierra Forest Plans- E&E News Story”

  1. This is from Andy Stahl (he of the KISS Rule, which would have actually have much weight off the planning mule)

    “For the Sierra NF:

    2018: Sold 11,508 mbf for an average price of $14/mbf

    1991: Sold 53,000 mbf for an average price of $88/mbf.

    These $ values are not corrected for inflation.

    Doing so just makes the picture worse: $88 in 1991 has the same consumer purchasing power as $162 in 2018.

    In sum, the value of Sierra NF logs sold in 1991 was 11 times more than logs sold in 2018.

    Today’s numbers probably understate the fiscal bath the FS is suffering in its post-timber era.

    The Tahoe’s recent stewardship contract with NFF calls for the FS to PAY over $2k/acre to “commercially” thin. I don’t know about you, but when I contracted to thin my woodlot (back in my sheep farming days), the logger paid me for my trees; I didn’t have to pay him to remove them.

    OTOH, when I remove biomass from my 1/4-acre suburban lot, I pay a garbage service to remove limbs, brush, and grass clippings. I have no idea what they do with this “carbon,” but whatever its fate, the commercial value the garbage hauler receives is insufficient to cover the transportation cost of pick-up and delivery to whatever local biomass-burner or lawn&garden mulch producer they take it to.

    That’s the Forest Service’s predicament in today’s western dry forests. For 50 years, the FS high-graded its valuable trees, left the crap (which continued to grow dense & thick 😳), and now is having to clean up its 20th-century created mess.

    Bottomline: Landscaping tens of millions of remote national forests acres is damn expensive. Thanks goodness we have a Treasury that can print borrowed money.”

    • Someone please correct me if I am wrong, but I think a proportion of the MBF counted as being sold by the Sierra lately is biomass, not actual saw timber, and is why the average price is so low. With all the beetle kill, there’s a lot of hazard tree biomass in the area. Counting it as MBF goes toward the region/forest meeting its targets, but a few low numbers drive down the average price.

  2. I would summarize your arguments as “Forest plans are too hard to do and take too long,” and “It doesn’t matter that much because they do not stop the Forest Service from doing what it needs to do.” Maybe the second point is a reason why the Forest Service isn’t all that concerned about the first point?

    “Forest planning is a relic of the planning mindset of close to 50 years ago.” Yes, one embedded in the National Forest Management Act. In particular, the requirements for integrated management of all multiple-uses and including the public keep it from being “simple.” I don’t think it’s clear the the 2012 Rule necessarily “loaded” more onto the process, since it got rid of the “analysis of the management situation,” and focused the diversity requirements on species of conservation concerns, as well as other attempts to lighten the 1982 requirements. I also don’t think that going back to the “trust the Forest Service to do the right thing” that prevailed pre-NFMA is going to be an attractive option today.

    These national forests have included the concept of “fire management zones.” “The boundaries of the fire management zones are determined by conditions on the ground and have the potential to be influenced as the result of development or natural disturbances. The zones are mapped based on current conditions and are displayed in appendix A, figure 12. Adjustments to the fire management zone maps may be made with an administrative change to the plan to reflect changes on the ground. Within all zones, active management through fuel reduction treatments such as thinning and prescribed fire reduces fuels and fire hazard while mitigating safety hazards for firefighters within all zones.” (pp. 88-89)

    The zones are:
    Community Wildfire Protection Zone
    General Wildfire Protection Zone
    Wildfire Restoration Zone
    Wildfire Maintenance Zone

    I very much like the idea of recognizing different fire management emphases as management areas in the forest plan. Unfortunately they don’t highlight that is what these are, maybe because you can’t change management area designations without a plan amendment. These zones should be based on relatively permanent values at risk rather than current conditions, and then they wouldn’t need to change them often. As long as they stick with the maps in the forest plan, they should be ok, but changing those without the public amendment/NEPA process could be a problem.


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