“Counties in Crisis”: A Draft Introductory Narrative

Note from Ron:  Earlier this month, I posted an article on Shoshone County, Idaho’s 2005 documentary, “Forests in Crisis” at the “Not Without a Fight!” blog — including a field for viewing the 27-minute film.  Yesterday, by way of continuing the same theme, I posted a possible draft intro to a new and updated version of the County’s film, now titled, “Counties in Crisis.”  Sharon generously invited me to cross-post the newer article to “A New Century of Forest Planning.”  Thank you, Sharon!

U.S. national forests and grasslands
U.S. national forests and grasslands

Scene One:  Setting Up The Problem

It’s a story that, for the most part, has fallen below the national news horizon.

America’s 155 national forests cover almost 190 million acres, the great majority in the West.  This great expanse of forested land falls across and affects more than 700 American counties, roughly a fifth of the nation’s total number of counties.  Some counties host only small patches of national forest while in others national forests may cover much or even most of their landscapes.

This presence has manifold consequences for local communities.  The Forest Service owns and governs these lands, thus limiting the inputs of local citizens and governments to an advisory role only.  For many years, national forests and local communities got on tolerably well.  The Forest Service’s multi-use philosophy made ample room for the needs and economies of local communities.  But this working relationship has broken down.  Now, local communities and counties have in effect become unhappy captives of Forest Service policies and limitations –- policies that no longer serve local needs and aspirations.

There are four basic local needs that define the relationship, and thus also the breakdown:

  1. The protection and enhancement of forest health;
  2. the protection and enhancement of local forest-related economic activity;
  3. the planning and execution of hazardous fuels reduction and forest thinning to reduce threat of catastrophic wildfire; and
  4. the provision of adequate support for the functioning or operation of local governments and schools.

In better times, each of these four domains helped serve the requirements of the others, all acting in concert to keep local communities and their surrounding forests healthy, productive, and in balance.  In bad times, however, the four domains act against one another, thus exacerbating the circumstances within each domain.  Without timber harvests, for example, the increase of fuel in the forest worsens the risk of catastrophic wildfire; by the same token, the absence of revenue from such harvests weakens county government and school resources and, as well, shortchanges Forest Service efforts to manage forest health.   (continue reading)

American “Jungle”?

While I am waiting for a delivery, so I can complete the pieces of art for an upcoming show, I dug up this old picture of a dogwood tree, in South Carolina. Indeed, some parts of the South seem like jungle, especially when you include the kudzu and greenbriar. I was on assignment, back in 2003, to inspect forest inventory plots (in advance of thinning projects) on the Sumter National Forest. I also did plots, myself, when all inspections were completed. I made a species list, and it included 40 different harwdood species, including 20 different oaks, and only 3 conifers.


I had to dredge up all that 25 year old Dendrology information on trees I had never seen before. Luckily, I didn’t have to split out some of those species, including hickories. It was a challenge I welcomed, and was schooled by a patient detailer who I clicked with, right away. Yes, they still use “metes and bounds”, down there. Being from the west coast, there was some culture shock but, “Southern Hospitality” definitely isn’t a myth! However, “Barbecue” is quite a different concept there, and good pizza and Mexican food is hard to find.


Why We Need to Salvage and Replant the Rim Fire

Greg asked why we should bother with salvage logging on the Rim Fire, and I tried to explain how bear clover would dominate landscapes. He also seemed confused about modern salvage projects, here in California. Everything, here in California, is fuels-driven, as wildfires happen up to 13 times per century, in some places in the Sierra Nevada.

This picture shows how dense the bear clover can be, blocking some of the germination and growth of conifer species. Additionally, bear clover is extremely flammable and oily, leading to re-burns. This project also included removing unmerchantable fuels, including leaving branches attached. Yes, it was truly a “fuels reduction project”. You might also notice how many trees died, from bark beetles, after this salvage sale was completed. Certainly, blackbacked woodpeckers can live here, despite the salvage logging. Hanson and the Ninth Circuit Court stopped other salvage sales in this project, in favor of the BBW.


When you combine this bear clover with a lack of fire salvage and chaparral brush, you end up with everything you need for a catastrophic, soils-damaging re-burn and enhanced erosion, which will impact long term recovery and the re-establishment of large tree forests. Actually, there has already been a re-burn within this project since salvage operations in 2006. Salvage logging greatly reduced that fire’s intensity, as it slicked-off the bear clover, but stayed on the ground. Certainly, if the area hadn’t been salvaged, those large amounts of fuels would have led to a much different outcome.

Now, if we apply these lessons to the Rim Fire, we can see how a lack of salvage in some areas within the Rim Fire will lead to enhanced future fires, and more soils damages and brushfields. When the Granite Fire was salvaged in the early 70’s, large areas were left “to recover on their own”, in favor of wildlife and other supposed “values”. When I worked on plantation thinning units there, those areas were 30 year old brushfields, with manzanita and ceanothus up to eight feet high. Those brushfields burned at moderate intensity, according to the burn severity map. Certainly, there were remnant logs left covered by those brushfields, leading to the higher burn severity. It was the exact same situation in my Yosemite Meadow Fire example, which as you could see by the pictures, did massive damage to the landscape, greatly affecting long term recovery. Here is the link to a view of one of those Rim Fire brushfields, surrounded by thinned plantations.


I’ve been waiting to get into this area but, I expect the fire area will remain closed until next year. The plantations were thinned and I hear that some of them did have some survival, despite drought conditions and high winds, during the wildfire. In this part of California, fuels are the critical factor in wildfire severity. Indians knew this, after thousands of years of experience. They knew how to “grow” old growth forests, dedicating substantial amounts of time and energy to “manage” their fuels for their own survival, safety and prosperity. Their preferred forest included old growth pines, large oak trees, very little other understory trees, and thick bear clover. Since wildfires in our modern world are a given, burning about every 20 to 40 years, we cannot be “preserving” fuels for the next inevitable wildfire.

We need to be able to burn these forests, without causing the overstory pines to die from cambium kill, or bark beetles. That simply cannot be done when unsalvaged fuels choke the landscape. We MUST intervene in the Rim Fire, to reduce the fuels for the next inevitable wildfire that WILL come, whether it is “natural”, or human-caused. “Protected” old growth endangered species habitats may now become “protected” fuels-choked brushfields, ready for the next catastrophic wildfire, without some “snag thinning”.  We cannot just let “whatever happens”, happen, and the Rim Fire is a perfect example of “whatever happens”. Shouldn’t we be planning and acting to reduce those impacts, including the extreme costs of putting the Rim Fire out, and other significant human costs? Re-burns are a reality we cannot ignore, and doing nothing is unacceptable. Yes, much of the fire doesn’t have worthwhile salvage volumes, and that is OK but, there are less controversial salvage efforts we can and should be accomplishing.

Here is an example of salvage and bear clover, six months after logging with ground-based equipment. This looks like it will survive future wildfires. You can barely even see the stumps, today! The bear clover has covered them.


Plantation Thinning Success on the Rim Fire

Derek tipped me off about the new BAER fire severity maps, yesterday, and I was happy to see that the efforts to thin plantations has resulted in lower fire intensities. Here is the link to both high and low resolution maps. It is not surprising that fire intensities outside of this thinning project I worked on were much higher, and I doubt that there was much survival in the unthinned plantations. Those plantations were the within the 1971 Granite Fire, and is yet another example of forest re-burn. This part of the fire has terrain that is relatively gentle, compared to the rest of the burned areas. To me, it is pretty clear that fuels modifications reduced fire intensities.

This photo below shows a boundary between burn intensities. The area east of road 2N89 was thinned and burned much cooler than the untreated areas to the west. The areas in between the plantations had moderate to high burn intensities, due to the thick manzanita and whitethorn. Those areas were left to “recover on their own”. The SPI lands did not fare as well, as they didn’t thin their plantations.


The highest burn intensities occurred in the old growth, near the Clavey River. Activists have long-cherished the areas around this river, and I am assuming that these were protected as spotted owl/goshawk PACs. As you can see, this area has very thick old growth, and it shows on the map as high intensity. This same scenario is one that Wildlife Biologists have been worrying about for many years, now. These wildlife areas have huge fuel-loading issues and choked understories. Prescribed fires cannot be safely accomplished in such areas, without some sort of fuels modifications. Last year, I worked in one unit (within an owl PAC) on the Eldorado where we were cutting trees between 10″ and 15″ dbh, so that it could be safely burned, within prescription.


Nearly all of the Groveland Ranger District’s old growth is now gone, due to wildfires in the last 50 years. What could we have done differently, in the last 20 years?

Democrats Comment Against Forest Thinning

Here is an early July LA Times article that, apparently, says that only Republicans are seeking to thin our forests, as we watch our forests burn. Clearly, this is a tactic to rile up their mostly Democratic readers.



Yes, it did rile them up, as evidenced by the wild comments. Here are a few examples:

As a logger in Susanville, California said at a Forest Service public comment session (1997), “But Trees are Dying in the Fiorest”!!!! (and therefore NOT making a profit for him).

My response, People are dying in the streets, so what is YOUR point.

The aLand Raping Logger coundn’t answer, because the only thing he cared about was turning a PUBLIC RESOURCE into his own private profit.

Dead trees in a dorest serve as nesting sites for birds and other animals and eventually fall to rot, providing food foe grub eating bears, light spaces for juvenile trees to start and replenishing the forest soil, for the next generation of trees.

When a person dies, what good do they do the Planet?

This commenter doesn’t realize that clearcuts have been banned in the Sierra Nevada for over 20 years.

The logging companies will only clear cut…not select cut, making for the ugliest scars and worse…ecological destruction of forest habitats.  This is not a good idea.  The problem is not the density of trees…it’s the residential areas built near thick forests.  Bad planning is a result of homes destroyed in forest fires.

Ummm, I think it is the wildfires that are causing “deforestation”, bud!

Is that what the GOP is calling deforestation for profit these days, as they bend over for their lumbering lobbyists?

Was this supposed excessive harvesting done in THIS millennium??!?

They have a point, but the GOP has a history of letting “thinning” evolve into excessive “harvesting” by lumber companies.

This person is in denial about current forest management practices that have eliminated high-grading AND clearcutting, while reducing fuels in the form of trees in the 10″-18″ dbh size class. The last 20 years of active management has not resulted in adverse effects. On the other hand, wildfires lead to MORE insects, as they kill the fire-adapted pines, through a combination of cambium kill and bark beetle blooms.

Much of the GOP have forest management/preservation for the past 40 years. While some may see forests as natural resources to be preserved and cherished, others see them as purely economic resources to be exploited. Timber interests in California have utilized the same pretext to no avail. Note that thinning the forests would have little effect in preventing or curtailing wild fires. Let nature take its course becasue fires are a natural occurance; and are necessary for killing insects, spreading new seeds and burning away dead wood.

Really, though, THIS is a big part of what we are up against. Loud-mouthed partisan politics, not based in fact, is harming our ability to do what is right for the “greatest good”. Shouldn’t we be “thinking globally and acting locally”, regarding forests? Is this mindset fitting into “If you are not part of the solution, then you are a part of the problem”?? It looks like commenters will say ANYTHING to bash the GOP, even if it is hyperbole and rhetoric. Sadly, this ignorance of forest facts continues to have a harmful and hazardous effect on our forests.

New Study Shows the Value of Active Forest Management

Yes, we have already seen what happens with a hands-off, “whatever happens” strategy.


I haven’t read the article all the way through but, this appears to solidify the importance of managing our forests, and the fire dangers within. The are four entire pages of citations, plenty of pictures and some very convincing common sense recommendations that use site-specific science. The picture above is from a roadside treatment along the local Highway 4 corridor. This treatment extends for many miles along the highway, making this “ignition zone” much more fire resistant than it was. Also evident in this picture is the lack of old growth beyond the “Roadside Zone”, a remnant of logging practices in the last millennium.


Let us hope that the warnings are heeded and solutions are implemented with site-specific science. However, I would VERY much like to see a current view of that picture of fire intensities near Alpine, Arizona. I’m sure it would show increased amounts of bug trees outside of the firelines. Certainly, wildfire effects persist for MANY years, even outside of the firelines. I have seen it happen multiple times, in multiple places.

Thinning in the Sierra Nevada

I tried my hand at some “digital thinning”, with a picture of the Stanislaus National Forest, above the Mokelumne River. I couldn’t really remove as many of the bigger trees as I should, without sacrificing photorealism. I did “enhance” some of the oaks, which is a keystone of the new paradigm of ecosystem wildlife values. I am sure there are some home habitats of ESA birds, here. There would also be some pockets of undisturbed forest, and maybe some bigger openings around the oaks.

Below is the original picture

I think we can all say that there is, indeed, some excess trees to thin out, in this stand.