2 Feb 2009, 12:16pm
Saving Forests
by admin

Is Andy Coming Around?

Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in Eugene, has written a guest column for the local dead tree press. Entitled Burning our bucks in the woods, Andy’s opinion appeared in the Oregonian Saturday [here].

He makes a few good points, eventually. After a sarcastic and stumbling intro, Andy opines:

OK, I’m only kidding. I don’t really want big forest fires this year. Firefighting is a cost, not a benefit.

That is a surprising (if not unbelievable) admission because Andy’s FSEEE has sued to ban the use of fire retardant [here, here, here, here], lawsuits which if not rejected would make firefighting much more difficult and dangerous and expand burned acreage enormously.

Andy notes that some effort has been made to reduce fuels on Federal lands:

The Forest Service is slated to receive from Congress $300 million to pay for hazardous fuels reduction projects on federal land. Hazardous fuels reduction includes removing small trees from forests, mowing brush and prescribed burning.

The National Fire Plan created the hazardous fuels reduction program. The Forest Service says the fuels program is intended “to help save the lives of firefighters and citizens and to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire to our communities, forests, and rangelands.” Since its adoption in 2001, the NFP’s hazardous fuels program has treated fuels on 29 million acres at a cost of $2 billion.

That’s not quite accurate. Ninety percent of the claimed acreage was burned in wildfires. The USFS want credit for “fuels reduction” via burning forests down. It’s a fine point I suppose, but burning down forests to prevent them from burning down is a little bit counter-productive (if not a honking lie).

But Andy is no fan of hazardous fuel reduction per se. He points out that the National Fire Plan has been a catastrophic failure, and we have to agree about that:

Under the NFP, fires have burned an average of 7 million acres each year. In the seven-year period before the NFP, fires burned 4 million acres a year. In the last seven years, firefighting costs averaged $1.4 billion a year. In the preceding period before the NFP, costs averaged half that amount. Under the NFP, 1,482 houses have been lost annually to wildfires (most are in Southern California), compared to an average 563 houses lost yearly in the two years (for which I have data) before the NFP.

Unfortunately Andy does not offer any solution, other than to bash Keynesian economics (he sounds just like Ronald Reagan in that regard).

We, on the other hand, have been as vocal and detailed as possible about the real solution to our forest fire crisis: restoration forestry. W.I.S.E.  has an entire Colloquium devoted to the subject [here], and numerous essays about restoration forestry have been posted at SOS Forests as well [here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here] to cite a few.

Restoration forestry is a lot more than hazardous fuel reduction. Restoring forests involves describing the historical reference conditions and then implementing active management to achieve fire resiliency, restore old-growth development pathways, preserve wildlife habitat, protect watershed functions, and enhance public health and safety, all based on the lessons learned from history.

Restoration forestry is self funding. It will save forests and the lives of firefighters while providing significant economic productivity (from the bottom up in Reaganesque fashion, not from the top down ala Keynes).

All of which Andy Stahl probably knows. He certainly hints at it. Now if he could only state it directly and steer his organization towards support for restoration forestry, we all might benefit. It is always better to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.

2 Feb 2009, 12:31pm
by Bob Z.


The big problem with Andy’s problem — after confusing forest fires with fuel reduction, of course — is that he defines fuel reduction as mostly “kindling reduction.”

That is one more reason why the federal program costs so much and fails so often. Major fires consume large fuels, not just “small trees and brush.” LARGE trees, snags, and downed logs are the real BIG problem.

The other problem is economics. Not only do removing small trees and mowing brush have little or nothing to do with reducing wildfire damage or spread — it costs a lot of taxpayer money to do these types of leaf-raking projects.

Thinning large trees and removing snags and downed logs (and perhaps converting them to liquid fuels, firewood, and electricity) not only is an effective strategy to manage wildfires — it is far, far more likely to create tax revenues (and stable, meaningful employment), rather than waste even more taxpayer dollars.

Andy Stahl is stating things half-right. That is known, technically, as going off half-cocked.

2 Feb 2009, 1:08pm
by Hilary Clinto


Note: this comment is lifted from the Oregonian online:

Public land management agencies have been hamstrung in any effort to manage forests by the likes of non-profits and the country’s Andy Stahl’s. His group is currently involved in an attempt to end the use of air dropped retardants on wildland fire, by lawsuit. He is an active litigant against effective fire fighting methods.

No project that cuts a tree, and is therefore considered “logging”, can get from the design stage to the bid stage and be offered to the public for sale or contracting. The “paralysis by analysis” use of the courts to parse every word in contracts, to doubt every decision, to demean all science and evaluation has taken a toll on the Federal land management agencies.

The efforts to stop management of any kind on public lands by organizations like Stahl’s has the unintended consequence of budget reduction in the USFS, BLM, and the loss of senior employees to early retirement, job disgust, and private sector opportunity or parallel transfers to other govt. agencies to finish careers. The USFS jobs today are law enforcement, recreation, and human resources. A third of their jobs are related to managing the other two thirds of their work force. That they do not have “shovel ready” projects to utilize Stimulus Package money is by design, and the result of NGO pressures and lawsuits over two decades.

The NFP [National Fire Plan], the overarching document and committee that provides policy to wildland fire fighting, is dominated by non-resource use people operating without any historical sense of how and why forests are as they are. Reforestation after logging was purposefully exuberant, and many more trees per acre were planted that need be there in even 10 years. That creates a need to precommercial thin, and that job has not been funded for 15 years. Therefore, most logging sites of yesteryear on public lands are choked with overabundant young trees, stagnating, not growing, and robbing the ground of water and nutrients in unison, as they crowd around the soil dinner table. That has made a weak, young forest of fire-prone trees. That could be managed, and forests released of that crowding by spending money in a defensible way. However, since a tree is to be cut, the NGO lawsuits begin at the inception of projects, and few make it to contracting. Andy knows that, and actively participates in it.

Pre-Columbian aboriginal burning shaped forests, determined tree survival, and selected for trees helpful to aboriginal survival, which by their being here, in robust numbers prior to exposure to European diseases, must have been a successful management plan. That we cannot begin to replicate their effort is a black mark on our ability to govern and manage.

Now that we have two decades of affirmative action that replaced job qualifications with gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual preference as substitutes for academic achievement and post graduate studies for hiring and promotion in the USFS and BLM, you will not find enough engineers to plan projects, or experienced contract administrators enough to carry out the Stimulus Plan. The land management agencies no longer can do the job. As I write, Region 6 is trying to come up with a way to contract with retired employees with experience and skill, with agency in-house certification, to do the work of a Stimulus Package. How many unemployed people are retired? That is insane in and of itself. By the time the Region 6 human resources people hire, train, and certify the needed people to create and administer the Stimulus Package work, the recession will be long over, and the lawsuits to stop the projects will be in appeal stages. In Region 6, National Forests and Ranger Districts no longer have contracting officers. Those all are Regional Office employees, who work more than one Forest and BLM Districts. It is how they work in a greatly downsized bureaucracy now being called on to do something they used to be able to do, but no longer are qualified, staffed, or even wanting to undertake. And, the USFS does not have “stop loss” on their retirees. Can’t make them come back.

As to fighting fire with gusto and purpose, that will greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save some watersheds from incineration, and maybe even a designated Wilderness. Two were almost totally burned over last year, in a low fire incidence year. The NFP allows fire fighting management with little apparent oversight and no real requirement for experience (see the Humboldt NF review of their Jarbidge Wilderness fire review of last summer) to decide NOT to fight a fire, and let it burn in a decision called WFU, wildland fire use. There is a scathing in-house review by the Regional Forester that is very critical of the lapses of judgement and the lack of qualified managers on the Jarbidge fire, and the decisions to allow it to burn in the heat of summer in an area of great local pride and use.

The attempt to allow fires to burn and remove fuel rather than removing fuels by humans is not always the prudent decision. Save the village by letting it burn. Rural renewal by fire. Don’t want to improve the ghetto, let it burn when a building catches fire and let it burn others. That is present NFP policy. They have a modification coming, whereas they can fight fire on one side and not on the other. Only fight it where it borders private lands or can spread to occupied land. Let the other side go to wherever it wants.

Those are your lands, and those are your public policy makers. The Federal lands group that makes that policy has no lumbermen on their board, but does have The Wilderness Society and other sitting in and giving advice. I imagine Andy has a seat at times.

2 Feb 2009, 1:59pm
by Larry H.


Hmmm, a lot of that wording seems kinds familiar… The reality of losing 3 million acres of forest to insects is finally hitting home for some. They are realizing that inaction has lost those millions of trees now. They realize that any fix for global warming isn’t going to be in time to save their forests.

However, some “deniers” still cling to the notion of “preservationism” saving our forests. More and more they will be looked upon as idealistic extremists with only their “faith” to defend their views.

Great find, Mike!

2 Feb 2009, 3:56pm
by John M.


It is very difficult after 50 some years of working for the forests to watch these once magnificent forests destroyed by mythology and ideology. Hilary, I am sorry to say, summed the situation up very well.

It will be sad to watch the six o’clock news this summer and see the smoke clouds of our forests being burned back to the start all over again stage of bare rock, fried soil, and tainted water.

2 Feb 2009, 7:27pm
by YPmule


I regard the counting acres burned in a mega fire as fuels reduction is criminal. Just down the road from us is a whole drainage of dead standing trees from the 2007 fires. Some of it was slated for fuels reduction, but the fire season came first. There is enough standing dead timber to build several homes and heat them for years, too. It is an eyesore and probably a deterrent to tourism (which our village depends on.) And I also think it’s even more of a fire hazard now.

As far as the beetle infestation, I saw this news story today. From the Idaho Statesman [here]

Idaho study shows promise for slowing pine beetle infestation

A natural substance used in herbal teas could prove effective in slowing the devastation of lodgepole pine stands across the West by mountain pine beetles, according to a recent study conducted in Idaho and California.

U.S. Forest Service scientists used helicopters to drop verbenone-laden flakes on two sites, one in Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains and another near Mount Shasta in Northern California. The sites had similar tree densities and existing rates of infestations. Verbenone is a natural plant oil that also is released by the insects to prevent overcrowding.

The treatment resulted in a three-fold reduction in insect attack rates, compared to untreated areas, said Forest Service officials in a press release.

“Verbenone flakes gave significant protection from mountain pine beetles when applied to low to moderate beetle populations,” said Nancy Gillette, a Forest Service scientist at the Pacific Southwest Research Station and one of nine researchers involved in the study. “Higher beetle populations will probably require higher application rates.”

Scientists have known for more than a decade that one of the safest strategies for deterring pine beetle infestations was through application of verbenone, but manual application of the substance is difficult where infestations cover thousands of acres in remote, steep terrain.

Next, the researchers will work on creating biodegradable flakes.

How about corn flakes? This is silly; they have known for more than 10 years and just let it go.

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