27 Nov 2009, 11:58am
Federal forest policy Saving Forests
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W.I.S.E. Objections to the RR-SNF Let It Burn Plan

In March of 2008, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest issued a notice of intent to produce a Fire Use Amendment Environmental Assessment [here]. They requested scoping comments to be submitted within 30 calendar days.

The Western Institute for Study of the Environment responded in the time allotted with a 170-page discussion [here] of the pertinent issues accompanied by 450 MB of appendices containing references.

For one and a half years the RR-SNF remained silent about this process. They did not even acknowledge receipt of our comments. Then, 17 months later, the Fire Use Amendment EA [here] was distributed with a 30-day time limit (again) for submitting official objections.

While not expressly stated, the reason that a 17-member Interdisciplinary Team spent a year and a half preparing the EA was because of the size, breadth and depth of the W.I.S.E. scoping comments.

Yet at no time during that year-and a half did the RR-SNF contact us to discuss our concerns, to ask clarifying questions, to invite our expert consultation, to hold workshops, or to encourage our collaboration in any manner.

Instead, a year and a half later and unexpectedly, we were given very few days to review an EA over 100 pages long.

We have complied. Our official Objections are [here].

In the short Objection time window we were unable to address in detail the probable significant impacts of the Proposed Action on flora, fauna, historical and cultural resources, watersheds and water quality, airsheds and air quality, recreation and scenery, and other forest resources and values. But we did address the inadequacy of the RR-SNF EA and again requested that a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be prepared.

If the RR-SNF had acted in a more open and welcoming manner, those issues could have been explored in greater depth over the last year and a half. Instead, the RR-SNF chose to shun our involvement.

Our motives throughout this process have been to improve the stewardship of our public forests and landscapes and to avert poor management and poor planning that will inevitably lead to more Biscuit Fires. We hope the RR-SNF shares those motivations.

Dr. Elaine Oneil On Forest Management to Reduce Risks of Climate Change

On Wednesday, November 18, 2009, the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, held a hearing regarding managing Federal forests in response to climate change, including for natural resource adaptation and carbon sequestration [here].

Witnesses included Tom Tidwell, Chief, U.S. Forest Service, and Dr. Elaine Oneil, University of Washington. The testimonies can be downloaded [here].

Dr. Oneil’s testimony was excellent. Some excerpts:

“…The factors central to determining optimal carbon management under climate change are:

1. Each forest site has a carrying capacity which dictates the maximum amount of fiber, wood, or carbon that can be stored in that forest. Carrying capacity is determined by site quality, climate, and to a lesser degree the current species mix.

2. Once forests reach their site’s carrying capacity there is enormous stress on the living trees which manifests itself in insect outbreaks and disease, culminating in the death of some or all of the trees on site. …

3. Wildfire ignition is random, but the consequences of wildfires are driven by climate, and prevailing weather and forest conditions. Forests that have reached maximum carrying capacity, and which contain large amounts of dead trees, produce conditions for wildfires that are uncontrollable, with devastating consequences to the forest, the adjacent communities, and the budgets of land management agencies.

4. Wildfires generate enormous releases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. From 2002-2006 wildfires across the entire US, including Alaska, released the equivalent of 4-6% of the US anthropogenic emissions for that same period. The average yearly emissions from the California wildfires alone were equivalent to the emissions of 7 million cars/year for each year from 2001-2007. Extreme fire conditions can render sites infertile or incapable of regenerating future forests, which effectively leads to deforestation.

5. If we apply the precautionary principle, the most risk adverse option we have at the present time is to thin forests that are at risk to reduce wildfire impacts, reduce insect mortality, and build health and resilience against extreme climate conditions that these forests are expected to face in the near future. The cut material can be used as biofuel feedstocks to support energy independence goals and meet renewable fuel and electricity standards. Even greater carbon benefits are possible if the cut wood is used in green building construction. Using life cycle analysis we can identify optimal carbon sequestration and storage options that include forests as part of the broader matrix of national carbon accounts; failure to account for the carbon interactions beyond the forest can lead to counterproductive policies.

6. Grassroots initiatives aimed at addressing forest health, wildfires, insect outbreaks, and sustainability on federal lands have begun. The goals of removing excess fuels and dead trees for use in bioenergy projects, while generating economically viable and sustainable jobs in rural communities and maintaining sustainable ecosystems are laudable. Policies are needed that integrate the knowledge and trust built by local initiatives, support national renewable energy goals, and recognize the inherent ecological carrying capacity of the land and how it might alter under changing climatic conditions. …

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19 Nov 2009, 1:28pm
Saving Forests
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Thompson Smith On Native Fire Regimes

Note: Thompson Smith is the coordinator of history and geography projects for the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Among other accomplishments, Mr. Smith co-directed The Place of the Falling Waters, a powerful documentary about the Salish and Kootenia tribal histories and the building of the Kerr hydropower dam on Montana’s Flathead Lake [here]. The following essay appeared today in the Missoulian.

Native fire regimes a must to return to ‘the way it was’

by Thompson Smith, Guest column, the Missoulian, November 19, 2023 [here]

Thanks to Michael Jamison for his excellent article in the Oct. 25 Missoulian, “Tracking science,” about Cristine Eisenberg’s research on the complex ecology of wolves in the Northern Rockies. Dr. Eisenberg’s brilliant, painstaking work is revealing the unexpected ways in which the wolves’ return is increasing, not decreasing, the biodiversity and ecological resilience of the North Fork.

If Jamison’s account is accurate, however, Eisenberg appears to have a major blind spot. She concludes that with the re-establishment of wolves, the North Fork, once again, is “the way it was.”

We can only reach that conclusion if we erase Indian people from our understanding of Montana’s past. For many thousands of years, tribal ways of life shaped the environment of the Northern Rockies. Guided by a profound cultural ethic of respect, the Pend d’Oreille, Salish and Kootenai people used the region intensively but sustainably; today, their vast aboriginal territories remain of great importance to them.

Tribal people, not wolves, were the dominant hunters in these areas –- as well as highly knowledgeable managers of the land and its resources. A landscape that once again includes wolves, but in which native ways of life remain marginalized, certainly differs in important respects from “the way it was.”

Jamison notes that “predators are, perhaps, something like forest fire -– highly controversial, once maligned as a controllable evil, later understood to be one of the keys to overall forest health.” He’s right, but it’s an odd disjuncture, for fire was one of the primary tools used by tribal people in managing the land prior to the arrival of non-Indians.

Over their millennia of occupancy, tribal people developed a sophisticated understanding of how, when and where to apply fire. Both oral histories and the written record relate how they carefully used fire to revitalize food plants such as huckleberries and camas; to clear trails and camp areas; to enhance feed for game, and more recently, for horses. (Some elders also stress that they regarded fires set by lightning as the creator’s way of cleaning up the land.)

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Tom McClintock on Forest Fires and H.R. 2899

Floor speech by U.S. Representative Tom McClintock, 08/31/2009 [here]

I want to thank my colleague from Utah, Mr. Bishop, for organizing this special order for the House tonight, and for the attention he has devoted to the suffering in my district caused by the lunatic fringe of the environmental movement that seems to be so firmly in control of our national policy on public lands.

A generation ago, we recognized the importance of proper wild lands management. We recognized that nothing is more devastating to the ecology of a forest than a forest fire. And we recognized that public lands should be managed for the benefit of the public. We recognized that in any living community — including forests — dense over-population is unhealthy.

And so we carefully groomed our public lands, removed excessive vegetation, and gave timber the room it needed to grow. Surplus timber and undergrowth were sold for the benefit of our communities. Our forests prospered and our economy prospered. And forest fires were far less numerous and far less intense than we see today.

But that was before a radical ideology was introduced into public policy — that we should abandon our public lands to overpopulation, overgrowth, and in essence, benign neglect.

We are now living with the result of that ideology. Forest fires, fueled by decades of pent up overgrowth are now increasing in their frequency and intensity and destruction.

One victim of this wrong-headed policy is the environment itself. Recent forest fires in my region make a mockery of all of our clean-air regulations. Anyone who has seen a forest after one of these fires knows that the environmental devastation could not possibly be more complete.

These policies also carry a serious economic price. Timber is a renewable resource — if properly managed it is literally an inexhaustible source of prosperity. And yet, a region blessed with the most bountiful resource in the state has been rendered economically prostrate. A region that once prospered from its surplus timber now is ravaged by fires that are fueled by that surplus timber.

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10 Nov 2009, 5:48pm
Saving Forests
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Deplorable conditions in Umpqua National Forest deserve active management

By Bob Devlin, Guest Columnist, the Oregonian, November 10, 2023 [here]

A proposed timber sale in the Umpqua National Forest deserves serious public attention. Located close to Crater Lake National Park, this popular recreation area has forest conditions as bad as they get in our national forests.

Named “D-Bug,” the proposed project is located in thick stands of spindly, stressed trees. Its purpose is to slow the spread of bark beetle infestation and to create conditions such that, when wildfire does come to this forestland-as it will one day- many larger trees will remain alive and the area will continue to be a forested landscape.

This lodgepole pine forest, high in the North Umpqua River drainage, is very much like the forest that once existed along the Santiam Pass between Salem and Sisters. During the hot, dry August 2003, the Booth and Bear Butte fires merged into a giant fire known thereafter as the B&B Complex Fire and burned into the fall. Nearly 100,000 acres of scenic forestland were scorched raw. The fire killed almost everything along the Santiam Pass and left the landscape denuded and vulnerable to erosion and landslides.

To help avoid this, the Umpqua National Forest staff proposes to actively manage this forest to avoid a similar outcome.

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The Genesis of Old-Growth Forests

Note: due to the crush of work I have accepted recently, I do not have time to prepare new posts for the next week or so. The following is a repost from May, 2008 [here, here, here].

by Mike Dubrasich

Iain Murray, the author of The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Won’t Tell You About - Because They Helped Cause Them, [here], wrote in Chapter 4 of that book:

With wildfires burning, it is useful to turn to the wisdom of the ancients. When the pioneers first entered the great forests of America, they found that the Native Americans had managed the forests for centuries. Their woodlands contained very few big trees—maybe fifty such trees per acre.

Apparently the Indians had set regular, low intensity fires which burned away accumulations of undergrowth, deadwood, dying trees and particularly small trees growing between the big trees. The larger trees were unharmed, because of their thick fire-resistant bark.

That in a nut shell is the way our old-growth forests developed. Frequent anthropogenic fire gave rise to open, park-like forests, largely uneven-aged at large-area scales. Forest scientists refer to such trees as “older cohort” because they are quite different than the even-aged thickets of trees (younger cohort) that arose following elimination of anthropogenic fire (aka “Indian burning”).

True old-growth forests contain older cohort trees. Those trees are remnants of the the former open, park-like forests that covered much of forested North America, and they may also be viewed as relics of our ancient culturally-modified landscapes.

In this 3-part series, I discuss in greater detail how our old-growth forests came to be here. The issue is important, because we must understand how old-growth forests arose in order to protect, maintain, and perpetuate them. If we value old-growth, and that seems to be a widely-shared value, then it is vital to understand their development.

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USFS Opens Forest Landscape Restoration Website

We reported three days ago [here] that Title IV - Forest Landscape Restoration of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 has finally been funded by Congress, to the enormous tune of $10 million (the Act called for $40 million per year). Considering that they spend $2 billion a year on wildfires, and $trillions in God knows what, $10 mil is pretty paltry, but it’s a small step in the right direction.

The US Forest Service has now set up a website for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) Program [here].

Congress, under Title IV of Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (PDF, 40 KB), established the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) Program.

The purpose of the CFLR Program is to encourage the collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack articulated his vision for America’s Forests in a speech given in Seattle in August 2009. The Secretary underscored the overriding importance of forest restoration by calling for “complete commitment to restoration”. In this same speech, the Secretary highlighted the need for pursuing an “all lands approach to forest restoration” and called for close coordination with other landowners to encourage collaborative solutions through landscape-scale operations. The CFLR Program provides a means to achieve these aims and to also:

* encourage ecological, economic, and social sustainability;

* leverage local resources with national and private resources;

* facilitate the reduction of wildfire management costs, including through reestablishing natural fire regimes and reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire;

* demonstrate the degree to which various ecological restoration techniques achieve ecological and watershed health objectives; and,

* encourage utilization of forest restoration by-products to offset treatment costs, to benefit local rural economies, to and improve forest health.

Sierra Nevada Framework Injunction Denied

Today U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England, Jr. (Eastern California District) denied a Renewed Motion for Injunctive Relief that would have set aside the 2004 Sierra Nevada Framework in its entirety and replaced it with its 2001 predecessor.

Instead, Judge England ordered the U.S. Forest Service to prepared a supplemental EIS, to be completed not later than May 1, 2010, to address the NEPA violation previously identified by the Ninth Circuit Court [here]. He also ruled that existing projects already evaluated and approved may continue while the USFS progresses through the supplemental EIS process.

Judge England’s decision is [here].

The Plaintiffs, a coalition of environmental groups led by Sierra Forest Legacy, formerly known as Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, the Center For Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society, had demanded the Court permanently enjoin implementation of the entire 2004 Framework in any of the eleven forests subject to the Framework. That demand was denied.

Background: In January 2001, the Pacific Southwest Region adopted the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment (SNFPA) for managing 11 national forests and 11.5 million acres of national forest land. In November 2001, the Chief of the Forest Service affirmed the decision. In 2003, the Region prepared a draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) to document new information. After considering and incorporating public comment on the draft SEIS, a final SEIS was completed. A new Record of Decision (ROD) was signed January 21, 2004. The program is now referred to as the Sierra Nevada Framework.

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Forest Landscape Restoration and FLAME Act Funded

Last March the Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009 was passed by Congress and signed by the President. Hidden in the package of 170 or so bills is Title IV — Forest Landscape Restoration [here].

Last week funding of (a paltry) $10 million for Title IV was approved by the House and Senate conference committee as part of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Act for 2010, H.R. 2996 [here].

Title IV — Forest Landscape Restoration calls for landscape-scale “ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes”. Each project must be:

(i) at least 50,000 acres;

(ii) comprised primarily of forested National Forest System land, but may also include land under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, land under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or other Federal, State, tribal, or private land;

The funding language of H.R. 2996 is obtuse; the Forest Landscape Restoration funding is highlighted below:

WILDLAND FIRE MANAGEMENT (INCLUDING TRANSFERS OF FUNDS)

For … forest fire presuppression activities on National Forest System lands, for emergency fire suppression on or adjacent to such lands or other lands under fire protection agreement, hazardous fuels reduction on or adjacent to such lands, and for emergency rehabilitation of burned-over National Forest System lands and water, $2,103,737,000 …

Provided further, That, notwithstanding any other provision of law, $8,000,000 of funds appropriated under this appropriation shall be used for Fire Science Research in support of the Joint Fire Science Program …

Provided further, That of the funds provided, $350,285,000 is for hazardous fuels reduction activities, $11,600,000 is for rehabilitation and restoration, $23,917,000 is for research activities and to make competitive research grants pursuant to the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Research Act, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1641 et seq.), $71,250,000 is for State fire assistance, $9,000,000 is for volunteer fire assistance, $20,752,000 is for forest health activities on Federal lands and $11,428,000 is for forest health activities on State and private lands …

Provided further, That no less than $75,000,000 in prior-year wildfire suppression balances shall be made available in addition to amounts provided in this Act for that purpose …

Provided further, That of the funds provided for hazardous fuels reduction, $10,000,000 shall be deposited in the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Fund for ecological restoration treatments as authorized by 16 U.S.C. 7303(f) …

Provided further, That up to $15,000,000 of the funds provided under this heading for hazardous fuels treatments may be transferred to and made a part of the “National Forest System” account at the sole discretion of the Chief 30 days after notifying the House and the Senate Committees on Appropriations …

Provided further, That up to $15,000,000 of the funds provided herein may be used by the Secretary of Agriculture to enter into procurement contracts or cooperative agreements, or issue grants, for hazardous fuels reduction activities and for training and monitoring associated with such hazardous fuels reduction activities, on Federal land, or on adjacent non-Federal land for activities that benefit resources on Federal land …

Provided further, that the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture may authorize the transfer of funds appropriated for wildland fire management, in an aggregate amount not to exceed $50,000,000, between the Departments when such transfers would facilitate and expedite jointly funded wildland fire management programs and projects:

Provided further, That of the funds provided for hazardous fuels reduction, not to exceed $5,000,000, may be used to make grants, using any authorities available to the Forest Service under the State and Private Forestry appropriation, for the purpose of creating incentives for increased use of biomass from national forest lands …

In addition, H.R. 2996 funded the FLAME Act:

FLAME WILDFIRE SUPPRESSION RESERVE FUND (INCLUDING TRANSFERS OF FUNDS)

For deposit in the FLAME Wildfire Suppression Reserve Fund created in title V, section 502(b) of this Act, $413,000,000, to remain available until expended. …

Two FLAME funds were established, one for the Department of the Interior funded at $61 million and one for the Forest Service funded at $413 million in FY2010.

These two funds are intended to reduce the need for agencies to transfer funds to wildfire suppression from other agency programs.

31 Oct 2009, 12:16pm
Federal forest policy Saving Forests
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Fire Use NEPA Test Case on the RR-SNF

In March 2008, officials of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest issued a Notice indicating that they intended to alter the RR-SNF Fire Plan by incorporating WFU (wildland fire use) and AMR (Appropriate Management Response). The Notice was intended as a first step in preparation of an EA (Environmental Assessment) as required under NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act).

W.I.S.E. prepared and submitted (within the designated 30 days) a 170-page scoping comment [here] as requested and authorized under NEPA process guidelines .

The RR-SNF went silent and did not respond. In June of 2008 W.I.S.E. requested the RR-SNF Fire Plan under the Freedom of Information Act. The RR-SNF refused to comply and did not sent their Fire Plan to us as required by federal law.

Then yesterday, after year and a half of silence on their part, I unexpectedly received in the mail the brand new RR-SNF Fire Use Amendment Environmental Assessment. I checked their website, and the (150-page) document is posted [here].

This is the test case for whoofoo. The RR-SNF did not sidestep the NEPA process, as the USFS has on so many other NF’s. Nor did the RR-SNF prepare their EA in a cursory manner; it is an extensive report. All indications are that the USFS wants this issue tested in court. I hope we can give them the worthy opposition they deserve.

Please peruse all the docs mentioned, compose your reactions, and email them to me. Your insights will be most appreciated.

Thank you.

Mike Dubrasich, Exec Dir W.I.S.E.

Apache Burning in Lightning’s Epicenter

The Chiricahua Mountains in SE Arizona are one of the Madrean Sky Islands [here], volcanic massifs that rise above the Southwest desert basins and which include the Pinaleño, Pedragosa, Peloncillo, Baboquivari, Santa Catalina, and Santa Rita Mountains among others. The higher elevations harbor diverse ecological assemblages, such as pine and fir forests that are quite different from the Sonoran desert vegetation that surrounds them.

The Sky Islands are lightning magnets. Summer thunderstorms ride the Mexican Monsoon and punctuate the Sky Islands with the densest frequency of lightning bolts in the U.S. And yet, despite all that loose electricity and resulting fires, the vegetation of the Chiricahua Mountains has been dominated by anthropogenic (human-set) fire for millennia.

That historical fact is explored by Dr. Stephen J. Pyne, World’s Foremost Authority on Fire, in a new essay, Rhymes With Chiricahua [here].

There is little question that lightning is adequate to kindle copious fires and that the extent of burning aligns smartly with the ebb and flow of atmospheric moisture. Connect the sky island dots with the volcanic edge of the Colorado Plateau, and the resulting circle will trace the epicenter for lightning-caused fire in the United States. Like a rocky outlier that catches the first swells of an approaching storm, the bulky, border-hugging Chiricahuas make first contact with the Mexican monsoon, the signature onset of the southwestern fire season. …

But if the obvious beguiles, it is the second-order reasoning that proves treacherous. If you look at such data by itself, you might well conclude that climate alone “drives” the fire regime. Such analysis reduces a complex poker game to a game of solitaire: you can only play the cards nature hands you. The reality, however, is that there is another player at the table, and he is the dealer.

Humanity is the Earth’s keystone species for fire, not only as a source of ignition but as a sculptor of landscape fuels. It is significant that this second source was present from the onset of the Holocene, or what is more aptly being called the Anthropocene. There has been no time since the end of the last glacial when the region lacked an ignition source both more promiscuous and more prescribed than lightning.

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21 Oct 2009, 10:37am
Forestry education Saving Forests
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Choking Smoke From Catastrophic Fires Unhealthy, A-historical, and Unnecessary

The latest issue of California Forests (Fall, ‘09), the official publication of the California Forestry Association, is entitled “Forestry Clears the Air” [here].

Some quotable quotes:

From “Cause and Effect Meet in California’s Forests” by CFA President David A. Bischel:

… California experienced a 300 percent increase in severe wildfire in 2007 and a 315 percent increase in 2008. High-intensity wildfire can sterilize soils and lead to mass-erosion that washes sediments into would-be spawning gravels for fish. They are expensive to fight, too –- taxpayers spend more than $1 billion dollars annually to fight wildfire in California and only a fraction of that to reduce fuel-loads to prevent it.

Managing more of our public forestlands can help reduce wildfire severity and mitigate the health risks that come with wildfire and smoke. Northern California registered more than 90 unhealthy-air days due to wildfire in 2008. Wildfire smoke is filled with particulates that can lodge in people’s lungs, cause asthma, aggravate heart conditions and irritates the eyes, nose and throat. It suffocates wildlife and
releases greenhouse gases like carbon monoxide and methane.

Last year, one-third of the fuel-reduction efforts planned by the U.S. Forest Service in California were blocked by activist lawsuits. High-intensity blazes that ripped through untreated areas subsequently destroyed owl nesting sites and tens of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. They spewed great smoke plumes that settled on California communities rural and urban alike.

The Forest Service spends about 40 percent of its resources on administrative planning, litigation and appeals. Harvesting on California’s federal lands has decreased 90 percent in the last 20 years while firefighting costs have skyrocketed and our state has become increasingly dependent on imported wood.

While litigation has tied up our public lands, forests and the infrastructure to take care of them have taken a beating. In southern Sierra forests, for every tree growing, nearly three are dying. More than 500 trees per acre often stand where roughly 50 did before the Gold Rush and 8 million acres are at “very high” risk of severe wildfire. …

From “Does Anyone Care About Our Air?” by Rod Mendes, director for the Office of Emergency Services for the Hoopa Valley Tribe in Humboldt County, California. Full text [here].

For nearly four months last summer, thousands of Northern Californians sat shrouded in thick, brown smoke. Lots of people got sick. Many still have trouble breathing.

Smoke from wildfires that burned more than 200,000 acres blanketed Trinity and Humboldt counties and smothered roughly 4,000 people who live on and around the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation.

No tribal lands burned, but lightning strikes ignited fires all over the national forests that surround Hoopa land. Those forests were dangerously overgrown, overstocked and choked with dead and dying trees. There was little effort made to extinguish the fires despite the public health threat. Instead, fires were encouraged to burn toward and into designated wilderness areas.

The smoke observed no such boundaries. It settled everywhere. …

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The Roots of Our Forest Health Crisis

The latest addition to the W.I.S.E. Colloquium Forest and Fires Sciences is The Forest Health Crisis: How Did We Get In This Mess? by Charles E. Kay. 2009. Mule Deer Foundation Magazine No.26:14-21 [here].

Dr. Charles E. Kay, Ph.D. Wildlife Ecology, Utah State University, is the author/editor of Wilderness and Political Ecology: Aboriginal Influences and the Original State of Nature [here], author of Are Lightning Fires Unnatural? A Comparison of Aboriginal and Lightning Ignition Rates in the United States [here], co-author of Native American influences on the development of forest ecosystems [here], and numerous other scientific papers.

In this essay, written for a general audience, Dr. Kay recognizes that our forests are in crisis from fire, insects, and disease. He explains that the common cause is too many trees! — which may be surprising to some but is well-known to most forest experts.

Today’s overstocked forests are a-historical; in the past* forests were open and park-like, maintained in that condition by frequent, seasonal, light-burning ground fires. Dr. Kay explains that most of those fires were anthropogenic (human-set).

* By the “past” I mean the entire Holocene and the tail end of the Pleistocene, before which there were very few forests in North America. Instead there was mostly ice or tundra, going back 100,000 years or so.

(Extra: Between 110,000 and 100,000 years ago there was another interglacial, the Eemian. Little is known about the forests of that warm interlude in the Ice Ages. The Ice Ages go back 2.5 million years. For roughly 90 percent of that time, North American forests have been mostly non-existent.)

(Extra Extra: the Ice Ages aren’t over. We passed the peak temperatures about 10,000 years ago. The Earth is headed, inexorably, for another glaciation.)

Human beings arrived in North America at least 13,000 years ago, before the climate had completely shifted and before the great migration northward of plants and animals. Hence humanity preceded most North American forests. Humanity brought fire with them, as well as 150,000 years of practice in how to make and use it. Holocene forests developed under the influence of landscape-scale, human-set fire. Dr. Kay explains that human-set fires, whether intentional of accidental, outnumbered lighting fires by many orders of magnitude.

The forests that arose under the influence of anthropogenic fire were open and park-like, with few trees per acre. Individual trees grew to phenomenal ages; old-growth development pathways were human-induced via frequent burning.

In the absence (over the last 150 years) of frequent, seasonal, anthropogenic fire, rapid “in-growth” has occurred. Thickets of new trees have seeded into the formerly open stands. The increase in tree density has fueled the crisis in forest health. Forests in the past (see * above) were healthier. By healthier I mean less prone to catastrophic fire, insect infestations, and disease epidemics. Today old-growth as well as young-growth trees are rapidly dying from all three factors. Forests are being converted to brushfields.

Restoration forestry does not seek to replicate the past but to learn from it. One lesson of history is that open and park-like forests are healthier. Another is that human stewardship via serious thinning, fuel removal, and subsequent frequent, seasonal, prescribed fire is required to abate our forest health crisis.

The first few paragraphs and some excellent forest photos (click for larger images) from Dr. Kay’s essay are appended below. W.I.S.E. invites you read the entire essay [here]. It is all that and much more.

From The Forest Health Crisis: How Did We Get In This Mess? by Charles E. Kay. 2009. Mule Deer Foundation Magazine No.26:14-21.

THE WEST is ablaze! Every summer large-scale, high-intensity crown fires tear through our public lands at ever increasing and unheard of rates. Our forests are also under attack by insects and disease. According to the national media and environmental groups, climate change is the villain in the present Forest Health Crisis and increasing temperatures, lack of moisture, and abnormally high winds are to blame. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Sahara Desert, for instance, is hot, dry, and the wind blows, but the Sahara does not burn. Why? Because there are no fuels. Without fuel there is no fire. Period, end of story, and without thick forests there are no high-intensity crown fires. Might not the real problem then be that we have too many trees and too much fuel in our forests? The Canadians, for instance, have forest problems similar to ours but they do not call it a “Forest Health Crisis,” instead they call it a Forest Ingrowth Problem. The Canadians have correctly identified the issue, while we in the States have not. That is to say, the problem is too many trees and gross mismanagement by land management agencies, as well as outdated views of what is natural.

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6 Oct 2009, 9:10pm
Saving Forests
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Tending Fires

By Roger Underwood

(First published in The Forester Volume 52(2) 2009. The Forester is the newsletter of the Institute of Foresters of Australia.)

IN THE WAKE of the 2009 Victorian fires there have been the usual claims by the Canberra intelligentsia that fuel reduction by prescribed burning is valueless as a bushfire mitigation measure. The assertion is that bushfires result from high temperatures and drought, and that heavy fuels are not a factor.

I am nonplussed by these views, because they fly in the face of simple physics, of fire behaviour research and of the personal observations of firefighters. These all confirm that when a bushfire burns out of an area of heavy fuel into one of light fuel (for example an area burned only two years previously) the fire  intensity drops, the crown fire becomes a ground fire, flame height and flame length decrease and heat output falls.

There are qualifications. Although the benefits of fuel reduction can last for 15 years, the most effective areas are those where fuels are 2-3 years old or less.  Fuel reduced areas need to be of sufficient size and depth, or a fire will go over the top, or burn around them.  And in a situation where a fire has developed such intensity as to generate its own wind, it will throw spotfires miles ahead, resulting in a situation where many fires coalesce into one fire. Nevertheless, the general rule always applies: fires burn less intensely and spread more slowly in bushland with light fuels compared to those with heavy fuels, other things being equal.

Why is this principle denied, or so misunderstood or seriously misrepresented?  How is it possible for educated and intelligent people to believe, and keep saying, that fuel reduction makes no difference, denying both science and real-world observation?

One explanation is that they argue from a false premise. This is the oft-heard assertion that “there is no evidence that fuel reduction burning prevents bushfires”. Of course it does not, and no-one claims that it does. Forests subjected to fuel reduction programs will burn again, a fact recognised by the necessity for burning cycles, quite apart from simple observation. The proposition that “fuel reduction does not prevent bushfires and is therefore useless” is classical crooked thinking, and cannot be debated since it is true.  What fuel reduction does is to make fires easier and safer to control, and ensures they do less damage – both to the environment and to human values.

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The real cost of wildfires

by Bob Zybach, guest opinion, the Oregonian, 09/14/2009, [here]

The tab for U.S. wildfires as commonly reported by the news media is only a fraction of the full costs experienced by the public.

Darrel Kenops’ recent commentary in The Oregonian (”Balancing protection with beneficial use,” Aug. 25) makes the point that we export our environmental impacts to international destinations when we cannot find ways to locally meet our nation’s needs for forest products. Excellent point. But lost in this discussion are the year-in-and-year-out costs that citizens must bear each time a wildfire scorches mile after square mile of Oregon’s forests.

Real costs for wildfires are stupendous and insidiously invisible. It isn’t just the billion dollars or more diverted each year from other useful programs in federal and state budgets to stamp out fires as typically reported by the media. Most expenses are never assigned to the bottom-line costs of wildfire.

For example, less tangible values such as damaged wildlife habitat, degraded soil and lost recreational opportunities are difficult to value monetarily; yet, these are greatly valued by the public, as are clean air, clean water and beautiful scenery.

With co-authors Michael Dubrasich, Gregory Benner and John Marker, we have published a one-page checklist of real costs [here] that also should be tallied when the news media covers wildfire.

On this list are property costs, including damage to federal, state, private, utility and municipal facilities; public health, including asthma, emphysema and coronary disease; indirect firefighting costs, including crew training, equipment and inventories of supplies; and post-fire costs, including timber, agriculture and home losses. The checklist goes on to detail air and atmospheric, soil-related, recreation, aesthetic and energy effects, plus the loss of cultural and historic resources.

We estimate that, nationwide, the true costs of wildfire, over and above seasonal fire-fighting expenses, range between $20 billion and $100 billion a year — or between ten to fifty times what is typically reported to simply put out fires.

So what can be done? There are those who think that passive management of our publicly-owned forests is the correct path: those that espouse the “naturally functioning ecosystem” and “let-it-burn” school of forest management.

I doubt the public has much appetite for the kind of fires that occurred in the past, as described by Kenops, before we began excluding fire from the landscape. The massive fires of the past - extinguished only when winter weather arrived - are not acceptable today. Also not acceptable is the status quo. In effect, public policy for the past 20 years has been to fight nearly every fire that ignites, yet do nothing to manage the consequences of insect-infested, diseased, wind-thrown and overstocked forestlands.

There are successfully tested alternatives to passive management. Actively removing excess woody biomass, thinning stands of trees for beneficial use, and selectively employing prescribed fire are among them. These activities all have costs but some can be done profitably: creating long-term jobs, reducing risks for severe fire, beautifying our forests, protecting our resources, and offsetting our international dependence on energy and forest products.

These activities will have their own environmental impacts. But then, so does doing nothing. And, in the long haul, doing nothing is proving to be much, much more expensive.

Bob Zybach is the program manager for Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project Inc. [here]. Also see the U.S. Wildfire Cost-Plus-Loss Economics Project website [here].

 
  
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