Here’s a link to a short article (and video) about the new study, “Hot fire, cool soil,” with a brief excerpt below. The American Geophysical Union demanded that we remove a copy of the actual study, which they provided me earlier in the day, from our website….so I’ve done that. Sorry folks.
When scientists torched an entire 22-acre watershed in Portugal in a recent experiment, their research yielded a counterintuitive result: Large, hot fires do not necessarily beget hot, scorched soil.
It’s well known that wildfires can leave surface soil burned and barren, which increases the risk of erosion and hinders a landscape’s ability to recover. But the scientists’ fiery test found that the hotter the fire—and the denser the vegetation feeding the flames—the less the underlying soil heated up, an inverse effect which runs contrary to previous studies and conventional wisdom.
Rather, the soil temperature was most affected by the fire’s speed, the direction of heat travel and the landscape’s initial moisture content.
And here’s the abstract:
Wildfires greatly increase a landscape’s vulnerability to flooding and erosion events by removing vegetation and changing soils. Fire damage to soil increases with increasing soil temperature and, for fires where smoldering combustion is absent, the current understanding is that soil temperatures increase as fuel load and fire intensity increase. Here, however, we show that this understanding that is based on experiments under homogeneous conditions does not necessarily apply at the more relevant larger scale where soils, vegetation and fire characteristics are heterogeneous. In a catchment-scale fire experiment, soils were surprisingly cool where fuel load was high and fire was hot and, conversely, soils were hot where expected to be cooler. This indicates that the greatest fire damage to soil can occur where fuel load and fire intensity are low rather than high, and has important implications for management of fire-prone areas prior to, during and after fire events.
This paper is designed as a briefing paper. Future revisions and additions will periodically occur. It will be available on the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community website. It is the sole product of J.R. Mehrkens and is based primarily on Tongass information collected since 1977 and organized into a series of Excel Spreadsheets.
Introduction: It is well known that the Tongass timber program is a real money loser. The GAO (federal Government Accountability Office) found in the late 1990s that the Tongass timber program lost 80-94 cents on every dollar spent. The loss is far worse today – especially with the new wrinkle where the Forest Service uses old-growth timber sale revenues to finance even greater money losing activities, e.g., stewardship/restoration contracts. In essence, this means more old-growth is logged to ostensibly repair past old-growth logging and to create more potential restoration projects.
While forest restoration is a good goal, there are far superior ways to pay for it. However, first it’s important to revisit some of the basic underlying issues of Tongass timber economics such as taxpayer losses, the steep decline in timber demand and the high costs for logging roads (the greatest contributor to taxpayer losses).
In economic analysis there are two primary tasks: (1) identifying the stream of costs and benefits over time to determine if benefits exceed costs, and (2) identifying who benefits from and who pays for the project. To date all of the Tongass restoration projects (proposed or in-progress) have done neither.
NOTE: Joseph R. Mehrkens is a retired resource economist residing in Juneau, Alaska. He has B.S. in Forestry from the University of Minnesota and a M.S. in Forest Economics from Michigan State University. Since 1979 he has worked as an economist for the U.S. Forest Service, The Wilderness Society, the Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development and as a private consultant. Past work assignments include assessments of the timber trade between Alaska and the Pacific Rim countries, Congressional reports on the annual supply and demand for Southeast Alaska timber, lobbying for the passage of the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990, testifying before Congress on taxpayer subsidies for Tongass NF timber, and recommending changes to the President’s Budget for the Tongass NF for consideration by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.
The following piece was written by Joe Mehrkens, a retired Forest Service economist and a former alternate member of the Tongass Futures Roundtable. We’ve discussed the Sealaska bill on this blog previously. – mk
Back in the heydays taxpayers paid a subsidy of $12,000-$36,000 per Tongass timber job. Based on more recent Forest Service accounting information, this subsidy has grown during the last decade to a staggering $224,000-$510,000/job, a nearly 1,400% increase. How can this be? Simply, the Forest Service kept spending like the industry was in its heyday while the industry was in a persistent long-term decline.
To the Forest Service’s credit the Tongass timber program expenditures have decreased in recent years, but the fact remains that the Forest Service is still chasing after fewer and fewer timber jobs. The result is that the subsidy/job remains extraordinarily high. However, the current subsidies will be pale in comparison to those to support a 2nd-growth industry. The 2nd-growth subsidies will be from cradle to grave: for mill construction, raw material procurement, manufacturing, transportation, and perhaps even marketing & sales.
Ironically, the need for these vertically integrated subsidies is very well documented in a letter from Senator Murkowski to USDA Secretary Vilsack, dated March 13, 2013. In her letter Senator Murkowski asks the federal taxpayers to build two biomass plants, three lumber mills, and even help start a guitar factory. But Senator Murkowski also relays a very big ask made by the Viking mill owners: Most recently Kirk Dahlstrom has made a new proposal saying that he could remodel a current small log processing line for a grant of just $1.5 million to cover some equipment costs, if the Forest Service would enter into a true partnership with his mill to prove the economics of young growth. He is now proposing that the Forest Service cover the costs of logging and transporting young growth to his mill . He [Mr Dahlstorm] is asking the Forest Service to cover his actual costs of processing, sawing and kiln drying of the timber and provide him a 20 percent profit on just those operations the Forest Service then keeping any profits from shipping and marketing the timber. That is about as cradle to grave as you can get. But in all honesty, reading between the lines indicates little confidence in transition to 2nd-growth any time soon.
There are, and will be, small and sporadic opportunities for 2nd-growth, but not supporting a new region-wide integrated timber industry. Like old-growth the limiting factor will be the inability to sustainably compete against the many other global suppliers. This means the Alaska Transition simply has no clothes.
Nonetheless, the Forest Service is even going one step further by proposing policy changes to accelerate the Transition . Not surprisingly, there are no predicted dates except perhaps when the old-growth will be cut-out in about 30 years. If the Transition has no clothes than an accelerated Transition is wishing makes it so . Yet, the Transition is very much alive and well.
In fact, provisions for an accelerated Transition are now part of the political horse trading surrounding Sealaska Corporation’s expanded settlement under ANCSA (S.340). Sealaska’s S.340 is now conveniently bundled with a wider set of lower 48 lands/wilderness bills known as the Omnibus bill.
S.340 is viewed as the last legislative train leaving the station for environmentalists who want to salvage what little lands protection S.340 has offered them to date. To boost their meager take, especially in light of giving up gems they once described as most worthy of protection, some environmental groups are now supporting the legislative provisions for an accelerated transition — not for Alaska — but for the timber industry in the PNW. In the PNW, immature 2nd-growth is already economic.
Nonetheless, the provisions for an accelerated transition are far reaching in terms of changing long-standing National Forest management polices sets a major precedent.
So the grand deal may works like this. The lower 48 Senators who want their Omnibus bill will have to capitulate to Senator Murkowski s quid pro quo of including S.340. In Alaska, opposition to Sealaska’s lands legislation has been prolonged and widespread. So the bundling of S.340 in the Omnibus bill gives Senator Murkowski much needed cover.
Moving on, environmentalists are hoping to get more Tongass wilderness beyond the meager amount provided in S.340 — and its five previous versions. But, environmentalists have relatively little leverage, except perhaps for supporting the provisions for an accelerated transition. Not for Alaska industry, but really for PNW s timber industry. Note, that Oregon is the home state of the Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources.
In my opinion, it is age-old backroom politics — cover-for-cover, deal-for-deal. Unfortunately, the subsidies and other economic losses due to taking federal timber before it’s time (an accelerated transition) could certainly mean that the taxpayer will be the biggest loser.
Earlier in the week the owners of the Rough and Ready Lumber mill south of Cave Junction, Oregon announced they were closing their doors for good. There was one reason cited by the owners: A lack of logging on Forest Service and BLM lands in southwestern Oregon. Jennifer Phillippi even went so far as to describe the situation this way, “It’s like sitting in a grocery store not being able to eat while the produce rots around you.”
Well, if you wander away from the timber mill’s talking points even a little bit and talk with actual neighbors in southwestern Oregon who have witnessed Rough and Ready’s handywork over the years, you get a much different story – a story of over-cutting, mis-management, toxic contamination and political manipulation.
Jennifer Elliott with the NBC station in Medford has the other side of the story (click here to watch the news segment):
Today, as the last saw mill in Josephine and Jackson county announces it’s plans to close, some residents are sharing the other side of the story: one they say includes political manipulation, mis-management, and contamination. For some, the news that Rough and Ready Lumber in Cave Junction is going out of business threw up a red flag. Residents fear the threat to close is a ploy to gain access to more timber.
Residents say they’ve seen this happen before. “It’s been some years back the Rough and Ready mill was up for sale,” says South Cave Junction Neighborhood Watch member, Guenter Ambron.
“It’s just wrong,” says a neighbor of Rough and Ready, too scared to identify herself on camera for fear of retaliation. She tells us there’s more than meets in the eye in the company’s announcement to close. “I think it’s being used as a tool to push our representatives and governor into giving them O&C lands,” continues the neighbor.
She says at one point, Rough and Ready was considered a self sufficient company with private logging lands, but she says it’s their own fault they’re out of wood.”If they actually maintained their resource lands and had not clear cut and sprayed with poisons they would actually have a constant supply of timbers to harvest.”
“Now they go in and take this land and bio massed it, all of money they’ve done combined could not pay for the damages it’s done for us, ” says Orville Camp, who lives below a 60 acre area he says was clear cut and sprayed by a group he claims has ties to Rough and Ready Lumber.
“You can see it’s all dead down here,” he remarks.
He tell us that’s part of the reason the wood can’t grow back for this company as well as other timber groups with the same plight.
“They say the land is no longer sustainable for growing trees, which is kind of true.”
Plus, he says it’s destroyed his personal watershed, created a fire hazard, and contaminated his ponds.
We contacted Rough and Ready owner Jennifer Krauss Phillippi for her thoughts on these accusations. She was unavailable for comment.
“For the Phillippi’s to think they’re entitled to our public lands is wrong,” says the anonymous neighbor.
We do know Oregon’s governor is in contact with Rough and Ready owners, but we do not have any information as to the details of that communication.
The following press release is from PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility). One has to wonder if any of the information and facts below concern Senator Murkowski in the least. Also, I assume since some commenters on this site regularly rail against any and all lawsuits from environmentalists that these same commenters will take the state of Alaska to task for these fruitless lawsuits that are costing taxpayers so much money. – mk
Washington, DC — The State of Alaska is forfeiting substantial public dollars pursuing fruitless lawsuits against federal wildlife and forestry laws, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The lawsuits highlight the lack of independent legal analysis prior to the state charging off to litigate against political windmills.
Documents obtained in public record requests filed by Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER Board member, indicate that the state’s attempt – instigated by Governor Sarah Palin, and then continued under Gov. Sean Parnell – to roll back federal protections for the polar bear cost the state budget approximately $1.5 million, the bulk of which came from retaining an outside law firm. Not only was the state utterly unsuccessful but it duplicated a suit already filed by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and other industry groups.
Similarly, Alaska’s recently dismissed lawsuit seeking to invalidate the federal Roadless Rule governing more than 14 million acres of the Tongass and Chugach National Forests cost the state another $200,000. These state cost numbers reflect only costs incurred by the state Attorney General. The U.S. Department of Justice likely spent comparable amounts of taxpayer funds successfully defending these state lawsuits, thus doubling the ultimate cost to public treasuries both in Alaska and the nation.
In addition, state costs are currently being calculated for Alaska losing its 2010 case seeking to conduct aerial wolf control in the federal Unimak Island wilderness, filed against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; and in losing its 2011 case to overturn the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s endangered species listing for Cook Inlet beluga whales.
“Alaska would have had more environmental impact by dumping a couple of million dollars into a pit on the Governor’s residence front lawn and setting it on fire,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Gov. Parnell has not been shy about decrying “reckless lawsuits by environmental groups” while filing his own. “Public funds should not be used to subsidize political tantrums played out in court.”
A 2008 public records request by Steiner had revealed that the state’s own marine mammal experts agreed with the federal position that polar bears were in fact threatened due to shrinking Arctic sea ice. The Alaska legislature then appropriated $2 million to convene a “scientific” conference to gin up support for its stance against all federal ESA listings, but the conference was canceled.
Political intimidation in Alaska state service is not limited to scientists, however. In Alaska, the state Attorney General is a gubernatorial appointee. Thus, attorneys inside the state Department of Law are not in a position to exercise independent legal judgment about the soundness of arguments pressed by their employer. Gov. Parnell, a former ConocoPhillips executive, has been especially aggressive in pushing lawsuits against the federal government.
“These misguided lawsuits are making the State of Alaska into a legal laughingstock,” said Steiner, who also revealed that Gov. Parnell halted state planning for the effects of climate change. “In the polar bear listing case, the experts for the plaintiff (the State of Alaska) agreed with the experts for the defendant (the U.S.), and it was clear the state case was bound to fail,” he said. “These expensive episodes underscore the need for an independent, elected Attorney General to ensure that our state’s future legal filings are truly in the interest of citizenry of Alaska, and not simply the political interests of the current governor.”
Ironically, Sarah Palin’s Attorney General Talis J. Colberg, who filed the polar bear suit in 2008, recently expressed reservations as well about the political appointment of Attorney Generals in Alaska, writing: “I think it was a mistake to make the chief law enforcement officer of the state an at will employee of the governor…I believe Alaska would be better off with an elected attorney general.” Forty-three states now have elected Attorneys General.
Brooks Hays, a reporter with GIMBY, recently wrote an article that should generate some interest here, especially in context of some of the comments related to recent black-backed woodpecker articles. Below is a snip from the opening lead, which features some quotes from forest ecologist Chad Hanson. The article also includes perspectives from Richard Hutto, forest ecologist and director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana, and from myself. You can read the entire article here.
Last summer, talk of wildfires filled newspapers and dominated the headlines. Wildfires were “trending,” as they say.
Blazes were burning the western forests in record numbers, announced policy officials and reporters. Every news and science organization from USA Today to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was calling 2012′s fire season one of the worst on record.
“Records maintained by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) and NASA both indicate that 2012 was an extraordinary year for wildfires in the United States,” NOAA wrote in a year-end review.
Weather Underground co-founder Jeff Masters blamed the growing threat of wildfire on “rising temperatures and earlier snow melt due to climate change” and added that “fire suppression policies which leave more timber to burn may also be a factor.”
In August, as fire season continued to rage in most of the West, National Public Radio ran a five-part series calling mega-fires the “new normal.” This new reality was attributed to excess forest growth — an overly abundant accumulation of combustible materials – all resulting from an overzealous Forest Service that put out too many fires. NPR dubbed it the “Smokey the Bear effect.”
But a growing body of empirical data suggests these superlatives might be more storytelling than science. “Those terms, ‘mega-fire’ and ‘catastrophic fire,’ are not scientific terms,” says forest ecologist Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project. “And such hyperbolic and extreme terms are not going to lead us to an objective view of the evidence.”
An objective view of the evidence, Hanson argues, reveals that the vast majority of wildlands and forests aren’t burning hotter and faster. They’re actually starved for high-intensity fires — fires Hanson says are more ecologically valuable than they’re given credit for.
As Hanson argues in his most recent study, The Myth of “Catastrophic” Wildfire, high-intensity fires are the exception in the U.S. today, not the norm. And he finds no correlation between increased fire-suppression activity and high-intensity fire. Hanson says the opposite is true: the longer a forest goes without fire, the more mature it becomes, the higher its canopy grows, and the less susceptible it is to fire damage.
Click here to read the entire article.
This is a guest post from regular commenter John Persell. -mk
Here’s the link to the Oregonian story: “Federal judge in Idaho agrees with skiers, says snowmobile excemption is arbitrary.”
The meat of the court’s decision is in the last several pages, but the intro provides good background on how travel management came about on public lands.
This is a very satisfying victory for many who have advocated for management of snowmobiles and motorized travel in general on national forests, and is the result of great work by Advocates for the West on behalf of the Winter Wildlands Alliance. It is not clear yet whether the Forest Service will appeal to the 9th Circuit or comply with the 180-day timeframe ordered by the judge.
The judge’s straightforward decision highlights some truly head-scratching plain language twists the Forest Service attempted to use. The case also raises questions as to why the current administration chooses to defend some of the previous administration’s actions (as here) but not others (the 2008 NFMA planning rule).
What follows is a press release from conservation groups John Muir Project, Center for Biological Diversity, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project. – mk
SAN FRANCISCO— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it will conduct a full status review to determine whether genetically distinct populations of black-backed woodpeckers — which thrive in forests where fires have burned — will get protection under the Endangered Species Act in two regions, California/Oregon and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Today’s decision that protection may be warranted for these birds comes in response to a scientific petition submitted by four conservation groups last May. Black-backed woodpeckers are threatened by logging that destroys their post-fire habitat.
“This is the first time in the history of the Endangered Species Act that the government has initiated steps to protect a wildlife species that depends upon stands of fire-killed trees,” said Dr. Chad Hanson, an ecologist and black-backed woodpecker expert. “We are pleased to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognize the naturalness and ecological importance of this post-fire habitat.”
Black-backed woodpeckers rely on what is known as “snag forest,” high-diversity habitat that’s extremely rare and ephemeral because it is only created when either fire or beetles kill the majority of trees in an area. These standing dead trees — called “snags” — then become a virtual bed and breakfast for black-backed woodpeckers by providing nesting space as well as large amounts of wood-boring beetle larvae for the woodpeckers to eat.
Post-disturbance forests are only livable for the species for a short time — roughly 7-10 years — which means the woodpeckers need newly burned or beetle-killed forests to continually appear on the landscape. Unfortunately, that habitat is often destroyed by post-disturbance logging that removes the very trees the birds rely on. Because of logging, suppression of the natural fire regime and large-scale forest “thinning” to prevent fires in backcountry areas, there is now an extremely limited amount of usable habitat available to black-backed woodpeckers.
“The black-backed woodpecker is so highly adapted to burned forests that it’s almost impossible to spot when perched on a fire-blackened tree,” said Duane Short, a zoologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “Its black back and wing feathers protect it from predators as it forages for beetles, some of which have themselves evolved in concert with burned forests.”
“These birds desperately need the lifeline of the Endangered Species Act,” said Justin Augustine with the Center for Biological Diversity. “There are likely only a few hundred pairs left in South Dakota’s Black Hills, and about a thousand pairs in Oregon and California — these birds could wink out of existence if we don’t stop razing their habitat as soon as it appears.”
With dangerously small populations of fewer than 1,000 pairs in Oregon/California and only about 400 pairs in the Black Hills, the birds depend on habitat that’s likewise extremely scarce: Just 2 percent of the forests within the woodpeckers’ range from the Cascades of Oregon through California’s Sierra Nevada are currently likely suitable for them to live in, and only about 5 percent of forests in the Black Hills are suitable. The great majority of this limited habitat is unprotected and therefore open to logging.
“Over my 22 years of field-checking proposed timber sales in eastern Oregon national forests, I have been privileged to observe black-backed woodpeckers but have increasingly noticed their scarcity as the Forest Service has been implementing ever larger timber sales aimed at artificially reducing natural fire and insect occurrence, as well as numerous post-fire logging projects eliminating black-backed woodpecker habitat,” said Karen Coulter of the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project. “This status review is a good first step toward reversing that trend”
The groups that filed the petition to protect the birds were John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.
Missoula’s Roseburg Forest Products to pay $130k for repeated air pollution violations, mill manager fired
People are always somewhat surprised when I tell them that the air quality in Missoula, Montana – especially during the winters months – is right up there with the worst air in the nation. To say Missoula has a fragile ‘air-shed’ would be a significant understatement.
In fact, a 2011 American Lung Association “State of the Air” report, gave Missoula’s air quality a D grade, which doesn’t sound too great, except that the grade for the previous few years was an F. From time to time the air gets so bad in Missoula that the Missoula City-County Health Department has to issue a Stage 2 air pollution warning, alerting the public that particulate pollution in Missoula’s air exceeds national limits. Yep, this is basically Missoula’s ‘dirty’ secret, as Missoula ranks 59th among the 230 most-polluted American cities for short-term particle pollution.
Clearly the geography of the Missoula Valley and our wintertime weather patterns are a big reason why our air is so bad. The valley is prone to some pretty severe inversions, which can last for weeks, and weeks.
Today, the Missoulian is reporting that Roseburg Forest Products – one of the more vocal supporters of Senator Tester’s mandated logging bill, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act – will be paying $130,925 for “numerous permit violations over the previous five years at its Missoula particleboard plant.” Here’s more information from the article:
“State officials say that in 2011 Roseburg submitted revised air pollution monitoring reports that revealed numerous permit violations over the previous five years at its Missoula particleboard plant. Violations included improperly certifying that the company was in compliance with its air quality permit, failing to inspect equipment and not using gasoline vapor control equipment.”
Apparently, the $130,925 will go towards a wood-stove change-out program up in community of Seeley Lake, which sits an hour north of the Missoula Valley and during the winter-months may have even worse air quality than Missoula.
Finally, it should also be pointed out that while Roseburg Forest Products was repeatedly violating air pollution standards, they were also part of a $30,000 statewide newspaper ad campaign calling for more logging of our national forests by exempting many Montana timber sales from judicial review and the citizen appeal process.
UPDATE: The Missoulian is reporting that the mill manager was fired as a result of these air pollution violations.
Ken Cole over at The Wildlife News pointed out that Sally Jewell, nominee for Secretary of the Interior, has provides her written answers to about 200 questions asked of her by Senate ENR committee members. Download Jewell’s written responses here.