Note from Sharon.. I wasn’t around to post this earlier today. To restate what I’ve said before,
it’s not what used to happen that matters (vegetation fire histories). It can’t matter if climate change is really “unprecedented” as per climate scientists. Assuming that they are correct, we can’t go back- we need to move forward carefully and respectfully of the people and the land.
That’s why I think fire ecologists can debate what used to happen till the cows come home (or their permits have been bought out by conservation organizations;)) but we should be more concerned about managing for the future. Vegetation ecologists think that past vegetation ecology should drive the future (after careful study of past vegetation ecology). Other people might frame the question differently.
Should we, in the interior west, manage tree vegetation outside the WUI for defensible space?
Framed that way, many more disciplines might have something to say. Plus of course “should” is a normative (value), and not a science (empirical) question.
Academic tiff over wildfires rekindled
CYNDY COLE Sun Staff Reporter | Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 6:00 am | (0) Comments
An academic tiff over whether catastrophic wildfires can be prevented has broken out anew just as a broad-based northern Arizona coalition is getting set to try to do just that.
Two researchers at the University of Wyoming contend that stand-replacing crown fires on the order of 2002′s Rodeo-Chediski fire and last year’s Wallow fire were once the norm on the Mogollon Rim.
“It’s probably not going to be the case that you can prevent these high-severity fires,” said Bill Baker, a researcher in ecology and geography there.
Local researchers wasted no time in terming the paper “fringe” research far outside the mainstream.
“The overwhelming evidence from decades of research by scores of scientists is that ponderosa pine forests over evolutionary time have been shaped by frequent, low-intensity fires, not stand-replacing fires,” wrote Wally Covington, director of Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, in an e-mail. “Further, fires on the scale of the Rodeo-Chediski and the Wallow Fire are an unprecedented threat not only to plant and animal communities, but also to watershed stability and to the human communities that depend on frequent fire forests for natural resource values and jobs.”
BIG PUSH TO THIN
Covington and other local researchers contend that wildfires are bigger than normal now, and it’s due to unhealthy forests that have grown abnormally dense because of factors like fire suppression, logging and grazing.
The University of Wyoming researchers find otherwise, saying that thick forests and big fires are a norm here.
This is significant because the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests are now on the brink of a major push — the largest in the country — to get commercial outfits to thin about 30,000 acres per year of smaller-diameter trees as a proposal to make the forest healthier.
A decade-long contract will likely be granted in a few months with support of loggers and conservationists to begin some of this work near Flagstaff and Williams.
EVIDENCE FOR THINNING INCOMPLETE
Baker and a second researcher used data from early surveyors working in the 1880s to determine that the forest here, along the Mogollon Rim, was once a mix of wide-open parks and about two-thirds dense stands of trees.
“They actually have a little booklet that they carried with them. And they wrote as they walked along the lines … they described how dense the forests were, and they recorded information at the corners about the trees that were there,” Baker said.
The researchers appear to oppose some of the planned forest thinning.
“These efforts are expensive and have some negative ecological impacts, and evidence to support them is spatially and temporally incomplete,” Baker and researcher Mark Williams wrote in their research. “…Common management practices today include extensive, rather uniform reduction in tree density, removal of understory shrubs and small trees, and other fuel modifications to lower fire severity. Our reconstructions show that these common practices, if widespread, will move most dry forests outside their historical range of variability, rather than restore them, probably with negative consequences for biological diversity.”
APPLES VS. ORANGES
But Pete Fule, a professor and expert in fire ecology at Northern Arizona University, said the research out of Wyoming could be problematic because it groups together forests that have different fire regimes and is “not consistent with the findings of literally hundreds of other researchers.”
What used to be considered a “severe” fire is measured much differently today, he said, so to compare the two is to weigh apples against oranges.
“It is almost certainly not a straight comparison,” Fule said.
“The weight of the scientific evidence coupled with the current outlook for increasingly severe fire seasons are a call to action. These facts coupled with the historic increases in size and severity of crown-fires throughout the West, but especially in Arizona and New Mexico, point to the need for redoubling our efforts to restore landscapes on the scale of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. We have already wasted too much time with bickering over fringe ideas,” he wrote.
Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at email@example.com.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently overturned a lower court’s ruling, declaring that the Forest Service’s Adventure Pass violated the Recreation Enhancement Act (pdf). What I wonder is how the Forest Service thought that the Adventure Pass could pass a ‘red face test’ both in public and in the courts? Moreover, how did their USDA Office of General Counsel legal advisers feel that they could pass that red face test?
Is this yet another example of the Forest Service pushing forward with an initiative without much regard for the law, with both ‘professional arrogance’ and ‘budget protection/maximization’ motivations as backdrop? Finally, where does the Forest Service go from here?
In my book, given the austerity that the American people now face, and will face more squarely in the future, I think it time to talk seriously about what ought the Forest Service to manage for and at what cost, both in terms of direct cost to the US taxpayer and in terms of environmental costs. For me there are plenty of programs to prune, both within what the agency calls recreation and elsewhere. I believe it past time to take a careful look at Forest Service cash flows, sources and uses. Let’s then try to figure out what more and what less to do, and what to do differently.
Fee Demo and Adventure pass discussions are not new to the Forest Service. The Forest Service had a chance to respond to critics of both way back in 1999-2000 on Eco-Watch [Note this link provides a flat file readout of a forum that was largely devoted to fee demo discussion/criticism]. The Forest Service chose to be silent, just as they did with the recent forest planning rulemaking process. See, e.g my Earth to Forest Planning: Get a Blog. In 1999 I could understand their silence, their reluctance to engage in social media discussion. Social Media was brand new and the Forest Service was toying with it.I no longer have patience with their reluctance to engage.
Evidently the Congress did listen, passing the Recreation Enhancement Act in 2004,to replace the Recreation Fee Demo Program of 1994. But the Forest Service somehow thought that it could evade the clear language of the latter Act.
My question is broader than to allege that the Forest Service routinely ignores the Congress and the Courts. My question is, When will the Forest Service engage in public discourse, in public deliberation? And I’m not taking about the many, mostly facilitated, highly spun so-called dialogue efforts that the Forest Service too often employs. [Note: I am a champion of dialogue, when used for deep inquiry. But I'm afraid that the Forest Service is now in the process of turning "dialogue" into another "inform and involve" spin mechanism.]
Footnote on Framing, Blaming
I threw this post together in response to Sharon’s earlier post on this subject. Both posts are examples of what I call The Frame Game and The Blame Game. Sharon’s post frames this as “a problem if the FS can’t charge fees and doesn’t get funding from Congress.” The Forest Service is framed as the victim and the Congress or those who block general fees/contributions are framed as villains. This remains true (or not) whether or not the frame was imposed innocently. My post frames the issue as one where the taxpayer and/or the public interest are victims and the Forest Service is villain. Neither frame does justice to the problem at hand. But, hey, this is a blog and things are “thrown together” quickly.
In both cases—in every case—we ought not to forget that these twin forces, framing and blaming, are almost always at work. And we must never forget that there are plenty of victims (real and imagined) and plenty of us who can rightfully be viewed as villains from time to time. What remains a challenge and an opportunity is to be able to work together toward betterment of the public interest as best we can when we mostly see only our own shadows playing in reflection off the walls of caves that keep our thoughts narrowly confined.
[Note: 2/24/8:23 AM -- I updated this post slightly, in response to a comment]
(Below is the press release from the Center for Biological Diversity. Click here to download a copy of the appeal. Photos of the Jacob Ryan project area, including old-growth trees aged by the Center and previously marked for logging by the Forest Service, can be seen and downloaded here. – mk)
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.— For the third time in a decade, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club today administratively appealed a 25,000-acre timber sale that is slated to log old-growth trees and forests on the Kaibab National Forest near Grand Canyon’s north rim.
Approved in January, this is the Forest Service’s fifth iteration of the Jacob Ryan timber sale since 2003, each plan seeking to log old-growth trees and forests. The Center and Sierra Club blocked two earlier iterations of the sale; the Forest Service voluntarily withdrew two others.
“This forest needs a limited amount of small-tree thinning to safely reintroduce natural fires, but for a decade the Forest Service has rejected common sense and opted instead to cut down old trees,” said Jay Lininger, an ecologist with the Center. “The Jacob Ryan timber sale makes a mockery of forest restoration and exposes the need for leadership and reform within the Forest Service.
” Today’s appeal challenges logging of old-growth trees and argues that logging will not retain sufficient forest canopy to support the rare northern goshawk — a woodland raptor. A source population of goshawks lives on the Kaibab Plateau, where Jacob Ryan is located. According to a Forest Service report, goshawks are “vulnerable to extirpation or extinction in Arizona.”
“It is just outrageous that the Forest Service is proposing for the fifth time to log these old growth and large trees, when we have so little remaining,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. “The old growth and large trees make up less than 3 percent of our forests and are a critical component of healthy forests and essential for wildlife species such as the northern goshawk. In a real restoration project, they would be the centerpiece, not slated for logging.”
In its last failed attempt to implement the timber sale, the Forest Service in 2009 admitted violating its own management plan in response to a Center appeal. Center staff documented old-growth trees marked for cutting, despite bogus claimsby the Forest Service that it would protect old growth.
(Below is a press release from the researchers. A copy of the study is available here. – mk)
New research shows that western dry forests were not uniform, open forests, as commonly thought, before widespread logging and grazing, but included both dense and open forests, as well as large high-intensity fires previously considered rare in these forests. The study used detailed analysis of records from land surveys, conducted in the late-1800s, to reconstruct forest structure over very large dry-forest landscapes, often dominated by ponderosa pine forests. The area analyzed included about 4.1 million acres on the Mogollon Plateau and Black Mesa in northern Arizona, in the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon, and in the Colorado Front Range.
The reconstructions, which are based on about 13,000 first-hand descriptions of forests from early land surveyors along section-lines, supplemented by data for about 28,000 trees, do not support the common idea that dry forests historically consisted of uniform park-like stands of large, old trees. Previous studies that found this were hampered by the limitations inherent in tree-ring reconstructions from small, isolated field plots that may be unrepresentative of larger landscapes.
“The land surveys provide us with an unprecedented spatially extensive and detailed view of these dry-forest landscapes before widespread alteration” said Dr. William Baker, a co-author of the study and a professor in the Program in Ecology at the University of Wyoming. “And, what we see from this is that these forests were highly variable, with dense areas, open areas, recently burned areas, young forests, and areas of old-growth forests, often in a complex mosaic.”
The study also does not support the idea that frequent low-intensity fires historically prevented high-intensity fires in dry forests.
“Moderate- and high-severity fires were much more common in ponderosa pine and other dry forests than previously believed ” said Mark Williams, senior author of the study and recent PhD graduate of the University of Wyoming’s Program in Ecology.
“While higher-severity fires have been documented in at least parts of the Front Range of Colorado, they were not believed to play a major role in the historical dynamics of southwestern dry forests .”
Some large modern wildfires, such as Arizona’s Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002 and the Wallow fire of 2011 that have been commonly perceived as unnatural or catastrophic fires actually were similar to fires that occurred historically in these dry forests.
The findings suggest that national programs that seek to uniformly reduce the density of these forests and lower the intensity of fires will not restore these forests, but instead alter them further, with negative consequences for wildlife. Special-concern species whose habitat includes dense forest patches, such as spotted owls, or whose habitat includes recently burned forests, such as black-backed woodpeckers, are likely to be adversely affected by current fuel-reduction programs.
The findings of the study suggest that if the goal is to perpetuate native fish and wildlife in western dry forests, it is appropriate to restore and manage for variability in forest density and fire intensity, including areas of dense forests and high-intensity fire.
• Only 23-40% of the study areas fit the common idea that dry forests were open, park-like and composed of large trees.
• Frequent low-intensity fires did not prevent high-intensity fires, as 38-97% of the study landscapes had evidence of intense fires that killed trees over large areas of dry forests.
• The rate of higher-severity fires in dry forests over the past few decades is lower than that which occurred historically, regardless of fire suppression impacts.
The study was published online last week in the international scientific journal, Global Ecology and Biogeography. The published article can be accessed online here. The title is: Spatially extensive reconstructions show variable-severity fire and heterogeneous structure in historical western United States dry forests.
The authors are Dr. Mark A. Williams and Dr. William L. Baker, who are scientists in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Mark A. Williams is a 2010 PhD graduate, and Dr. William L. Baker is a professor, both in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography. In Dr. Williams’s PhD, he developed and applied new scientific methods for reconstructing historical structure and fire across large land areas in dry western forests. Dr. Baker teaches and researches fire ecology and landscape ecology at the University of Wyoming and is author of a 2009 book on “Fire Ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes.”
Dr. Mark A. Williams, Program in Ecology and Department of Geography, Dept. 3371, 1000 E. University Ave., University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. William L. Baker, Program in Ecology and Department of Geography, Dept. 3371, 1000 E. University Ave., University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071. Phone: 307-766- 2925, Email: BAKERWL@UWYO.EDU.