PODs and the Lolo plan revision

Potential Operational Delineations (PODs) have come to the Lolo National Forest at the same time it is embarking on revision of its forest plan.  Coincidence?  Fortuitous?  Let’s revisit PODs (again).

To create PODs, stakeholders are assembled and first tasked with drawing lines on a map. The lines correspond to places where fires can often effectively be stopped, like a ridge, river, road or burn scar.

Developed by the U.S. Forest Service, the PODs approach has been growing across the West since 2017. The framework is supported by a $100 million federal investment as part of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and is now being used by an estimated 109 national forests and regional partners. Following a series of workshops, POD lines have been drawn as of late June 2023 for all units in USFS Region 1, which includes all seven national forests in Montana.

Since one of the purposes of PODs is to provide opportunities for not suppressing wildfires, this article talks about the current unpopularity of that option.   It also talks about real-world tests with wildfires on the Tonto National Forest, where buy-in from local partners led to successful management of fires for resource benefits.  As the article’s title suggests, the author seems focused on the technology, but the article also acknowledges the forest planning questions.

This is clearly a planning process:  “If we’re ever going to get over the hump in fire management of being more proactive about allowing certain fires to burn and putting other fires out, you have to think about these things and plan for them before the fire happens.”  But while the Forest Service talks about collaborating with other landowners, they don’t seem to talk about including the general public.

And PODs will not be used only for emergency situations after fires have started, but “PODs can also inform where fuels are treated, like the shaded fuel break project on the Lolo National Forest.”  If that “informing” amounts to management direction that is different for different parts of a national forest then it needs to be in a forest plan.  (See the management differences in Table 4 from this post If they stop at something like a “probability of containment” rating, that could probably be treated as “information.”)

This article recognizes the barrier that existing plans may be to managed wildfires.

In general, federal, state and tribal land management plans are the law of the land that dictate the suite of options available to a fire manager. Even if PODs have been drawn and risk assessments completed, a land management plan will override any strategy suggested via the PODs process that conflicts with the plan’s prescribed approach.

If a plan has not provided for wildfires to be used for resource benefits (like the current Lolo plan doesn’t), PODs for that purpose would not be consistent with the forest plan.  So, what about the Lolo forest plan revision?

The Lolo is currently one year into a four-year revision process for its forest management plan. Once the revision is completed, Missoula District Ranger Stonesifer said, the forest will have a plan rooted in the best available science. So far, it is unclear if the revised plan will incorporate PODs.

It’s hard for me to see how they could NOT incorporate them.  Once they open the door in the forest plan to managed wildfires, they can’t avoid talking about the details of how that would be done, and once they start drawing PODs on a map, I don’t see how they could not include the public interested in the forest plan, nor avoid integrating this with other plan decisions and talking about the effects of these designations.  That is forest planning.

(And then, whatabout all those PODs that have already been drawn on other national forests outside of the forest planning process?)



15 thoughts on “PODs and the Lolo plan revision”

  1. Thanks Jon for highlighting this topic. PODs or some other mechanism to accomodate wildfire is way overdue, and especially on the Lolo. It is ironic the USFS continually tells the public that the current overgrown forests and related problems are a result of 100 years of rather successful wildfire suppression. Then the agency continues to try to suppress almost all wildfire. Most of the Lolo is too steep, to rocky and too expensive to manage for timber. We had a successful containment strategy on a fire coming over the divide from the Clearwater into the Great Burn in the 90s. We used rocky ridges as containment lines and occasional helicopter water drops on the ridges ending with a 3500 acre burn. Cost was rather negible compared to a full suppression strategy. While WUIs and other high value areas will continue to dictate full suppression, it is time to recognize wildfire as a positive and necessary force in the revised Lolo Forest Plan.

    • Oh, Greg, that is enviro-mumbo-jumbo-heresy-speak. How could it be possible that returning the natural disturbance process to the system is necessary to restore and maintain the system? The solution to the wildfire problem is not enough logging, raking, and moistening of the forest. Too steep or too remote, that’s what helicopters and skyline/tethered systems are for. Prescribed and managed fire is way too risky, and suppression is working really well. It demonstrably less risky to rely on mechanical treatments and suppression, so the only fires are the ones that escape suppression.

      Not enough volume to pay for thinning, clear-cut or use the BIL money, we can keep doing that forever. All of the published science on even-aged management being an extreme risk for wildfire and incompatible with at-risk wildlife is hooey. Wildlife that rely on complex mature forests will be lost to wildfire if we don’t log it, and those species shouldn’t live in these forests anyway, at least that’s what the photos from the 1930s show us. And another thing, it doesn’t make any sense to risk killing trees with prescribed fire and managed fire until we’ve killed enough trees with chainsaws first.

      • I agree with Anonymous, despite having no idea who he/she/they is or their qualifications. My crews performed more than 85,000 acres of even-aged forest management in the 1970s and 1980s and I am not aware of even one acre subjected to wildfire since. “Hooey” seems like reasonable assessment of the “research” that has developed on this topic by DellaSala, Donato, their enablers, and others with a documented bias against logging and other active management projects.

        On the other hand, the PODS promotions seem like just one more excuse to hire office workers instead of foresters to manage our public lands. These convoluted exercises used to rationalize monitoring — instead of extinguishing — unplanned fires for “ecological benefits” or “firefighter safety” is just another set of government acronyms pretending to be “science.” My crews and subsequent research reports have used named subbasins for nearly 50 years that are site-specific and perform exactly the same “ridgeline-to-ridgeline” management options as the convoluted and unnecessarily complicated PODS acronym — and for $100 million less taxpayer dollars.

        This is expensive government busywork and mostly useful to rationalize poor wildfire management outcomes. In my opinion, based on experience and documentation.

        • Yet inadvertently accurate, mostly. It’s hard to take snarky people who hide behind a fake identity seriously, but I try.

          [Note: I’m guessing that there are occasional contributors that have just reason for posting anonymously or with a pseudonym — and often make useful observations — but that shouldn’t give them the right to ridicule others or call people names. I think that people who use their real names that can be Googled shouldn’t be publicly heckled or belittled by others in hiding with fake identifications. Only cowards and trolls do that kind of thing.]

  2. I meant to connect this discussion of planning for fire to one of the lawsuits mentioned in the last litigation update:

    “Bridger-Teton NF Roosevelt Fire damages
    New lawsuit
    Thirty-two Wyoming residents and organizations are suing the Forest Service for allegedly choosing to not suppress the 2018 Roosevelt Fire on the Bridger-Teton National Forest during “red-flag” fire conditions. The fire consumed more than 65,000 acres and burned 55 homes. Using an unplanned fire to achieve natural resource benefits isn’t authorized by federal law and violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the complaint says. The document also accuses the agency of failing to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act and failing to harmonize the act with the Forest Plan.”

    These plaintiffs have found the flaws in treating wildfire as a “project” to accomplish resource objectives without complying with the forest plan, NEPA or ESA.

  3. I agree Bob, just a fancy new name that takes the place of the old MAP (Management Action Point), or, for Heaven sakes “trigger points”! Like you, I’ve managed tens of thousands of acres of NF lands, in six States, from commercial thinnings to clearcuts!

    A truly managed Forest is certainly fire-resilient. For all the arm chair silviculturists out there, letting fires now burn where generations of built up fuels, overstocked stands and WUI is just asking for trouble. They truly are in a changed condition, and letting wildfire naturally burn will only end in disaster…..

    But, let’s coin a new term for an old management practice, gather around and give ourselves an incentive pay bonus…..🤣

    • PODS are simply a method for mapping the current fuel condition on the landscape. There are millions and millions of acres that are overstocked where it is impossible to suppress fire. POD boundaries are a representation of that current reality. We need to stop pretending that we can stop fires at political boundaries or that agencies firefighters can save certain towns if a fire gets going near them. If you don’t like the boundaries it means we need to do some significant forest management to alter the fuel configurations. PODS are also an admission that we have lost forestry infrastructure in a lot of the country that isn’t coming back and we need to use fire to get some of the work done. There will never be enough subsidies to fund the work that needs to be done in areas where loss of infrastructure and long haul distances prevent using onsite material to pay for thinning work.

      • For me the importance of PODs is that everybody (fire suppression folks, homeowners, local fire departments) are all on the same page about priority places for treatments to be useful in fire suppression. Regardless of “getting the work done”; identifying places and priorities in advance is key to developing understanding, acceptance and ultimately support. Local people have helpful information; fuels practitioners, and others. It needs some modeling to underpin it, but mostly people with knowledge and experience talking to each other.

      • Hi Patrick: Before PODS and the current plague of expensive catastrophic wildfires there was zero need for “subsidies.” This is a direct — and predicted — result of trying to turn our public forests into “critical habitat” and allowing taxpayers to pay wealthy environmental “nonprofits” to file lawsuits against continued active management of our public lands. This was an avoidable mess and took about 35 years to create. A return to active management of our public resources would reverse this problem — and at little or no cost to taxpayers — but would also likely take decades of concerted effort to fix. In my opinion, based on facts.

        • You can’t return to active management if there isn’t the infrastructure to support it. In many places the Mills closed and they are not coming back. I would love to hear stories of folks investing in new mills that can support the work that needs to be done but it isn’t happening. Instead, you have in many places in CA and beyond where beautiful 20″+ Douglas-fir and PP logs are being burnt on the landing or sold for a loss because the haul times to the nearest mill are so long.

          • Hi Patrick: Full agreement. The forest management infrastructure has gone broke in nearly all rural communities — and again, almost entirely due to gross mismanagement of our public forests during the past 35+ years.

            The 1897 Organic Act resulted in the creation of the USFS for the primary purposes of: 1) forest protection, 2) watershed protection, and 3) timber production for the benefit of the citizens of the US. I think those people would be horrified at the current results of their efforts and vision of the future. What a mess.

            • We’re not in 1897 any more Bob, and what “those people” would have thought doesn’t matter. Since then Congress, in the Multiple-Use Sustained Act gave other purposes equal status, including wildlife (e.g. spotted owls), and the National Forest Management Act put a limit on how much their habitat could be impaired (plant and animal diversity, defined as viable populations).

              • Thanks Jon: How about the US Constitution or the Holy Bible? Both written before 1897 and still valid. Galileo, Ben Franklin, Darwin, etc. Do those words “not matter,” either, because they were written before you were born??

                So far as all of the regulatory deference to native plants and animals — just more fuel for the predicted massive wildfires that have resulted from “preserving” their “critical habitat.” Plus unhealthy air and greatly reduced food options for the survivors.

                I greatly favor the viewpoint of the 1897 forest management folks over the nonsense we are dealing with today on our public forests.

                • You are welcome to your viewpoint, but factually the original Constitution is not entirely valid because it has been amended, similar to the amendments to the Organic Act, changing or replacing the original. (I don’t know the process for amending the Bible.)


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