Emergency Declared in Forest Recovery

The following article appeared in the Plumas News today. It has some lack of clarity, and some details are missing, so I will insert those I deem important:

U.S. Forest Service declares emergency for Moonlight, Wheeler fires restoration

by Traci Bue, Plumas County News, July 30, 2009 [here]

The Chief of the U.S. Forest Service has declared an “emergency situation” in the Moonlight and Wheeler Fires restoration project area, which calls for the immediate implementation of the recovery and restoration project.

Tom Tidwell replaced Gail Kimbell as Chief in June. This is Tidwell’s call.

The Moonlight Fire burned 65,714 acres (47,174 acres of public lands and 18,540 of private lands) in September 2007, mainly in the Plumas National Forest. Private forest landowners have removed dead trees and planting seedlings, but USFS has not, as yet.

Some concurrent and post-fire photos of the Moonlight Fire are [here]. The USFS Rapid Assessment of Vegetation Condition after Wildfire (RAVG) stats are [here]. An excellent report, Fire Behavior and Effects in Fuel Treatments and Protected Habitat on the Moonlight Fire by Scott Dailey, JoAnn Fites, Alicia Reiner, and Sylvia Mori is [here, 3.03 MB].

The Wheeler Fire made up the bulk of the Antelope Fire Complex which burned 23,420 acres, also in 2007. Another excellent report, Fire Behavior and Effects Relating to Suppression, Fuel Treatments, and Protected Areas on the Antelope Complex Wheeler Fire by Jo Ann Fites, Mike Campbell, Alicia Reiner, and Todd Decker is [here, 4.98 MB]. (Note: many thanks to Linda Blum of the Quincy Library Group for sending us these reports).

Plumas National Forest Service Supervisor Alice Carlton approved the Record of Decision July 20, which entails recovering valuable fire-killed trees before natural deterioration occurs, removing hazardous trees and planting native conifers to recover forested conditions in the 41,290-acre project area.

The Moonlight and Wheeler Fire Recovery and Restoration Projects have been in process for almost two years, begun when the fires were still smoking.

Personally, I don’t like the use of the word “restoration” in reference to post-fire treatments. “Recovery” is good, and so is “rehabilitation,” but I reserve the use of “restoration” to mean treatments undertaken before fire destroys the forest. This is one of my pet peeves, but it helps to differentiate between pre- and post-fire activities. Not everyone is such a stickler for this fine point of terminology, however.

An emergency situation was determined in this case to avoid a substantial loss in economic value to the federal government and the local community and to mitigate the risk to human health and safety according to Leeanne Schramel-Taylor, public affairs officer for the Plumas National Forest.

She said delays to the project would cause an estimated loss of $6.25 million or more in timber value if the project were forced to wait for the appeals process, which could mean delays until the spring or summer 2010.

The government stands to lose over $3 million by the delay-$1.8 million in value currently lost to natural deterioration, plus $1.5 million if the sale of the timber receives no bids and must be put out to service contracts.

Declaring an emergency situation allows the Forest Service to bypass the automatic stay of the appeal process and implement the project while the administrative appeal is pending.

“We don’t want to wait until the end of our administrative appeal process because it’s the difference between $3.3 million and $6.25 million. We need to start work immediately,” said Schramel-Taylor. The harvest of fire-killed conifers will occur on approximately 10,000 acres.

The difference in timber value between treating the snags now or a year or two from now is $3 million. Already that much has been lost to decay. There are other costs, though. Damage was done to heritage, wildlife and habitat, soil, waterways and aquatic life, downstream water users including hydro-power, irrigators, and domestic users, recreationists and recreation businesses, and to local and regional economies. That damage is ongoing. The longer rehabilitation is delayed, the more damage is inflicted.

The fire hazard was increased, not abated. The rotting logs are emitting CO2, and will eventually produce four times as much greenhouse gases as were emitted during the fire [here].

Note also that only 10,000 acres of the 70,600 acres burned on the Plumas NF are going to be treated. That’s 14 percent. Eighty-six percent of the burned area is not going to be treated with snag removal.

Hopefully the entire 70,600 acres will receive rehabilitation of some kind. The USFS has been awarded $116.75 million in two recent court cases [here] stemming from fires on the Plumas NF, and they indicated that money was to be spent on forest recovery.

The Forest Service must disclose hard data, per the National Environmental Policy Act, to support the emergency determination and why it thinks immediate implementation is necessary to avoid economic loss to the government and local community.

Yes, the USFS must obey NEPA and complete the NEPA process. They have done so. That’s why this planning took two years. But court appeals could delay the recovery projects; hence the declaration of an “emergency.”

Interestingly, the USFS does not implement NEPA procedures when they declare fires to be of “resource benefit.” That would delay those fires (e.g. force their suppression). Since NEPA is quite clear in stating that any major Federal action that will have significant effects and impacts on resources and the human environment requires an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to implementation of that action, the eschewing of NEPA procedures prior to “fires used for resource benefit” is illegal [here].

In this case, however, the fires have already occurred, and rather than inflicting damage the USFS aims to repair the damage. And they have completed the NEPA process. There is always the possibility lurking, however, that certain litigious groups will sue to halt forest recovery.

Interestingly, those litigious groups never sue to halt the damaging fires.

The project also calls for the immediate harvest of dead and or dying fire-killed “roadside hazard trees,” on about 4,300 acres. This area is widely used by the public for recreation, mining, grazing and has many private holdings.

Hazard tree removal was planned for summer 2008, but the project was stalled by litigation, said Schramel-Taylor. Smaller trees, “posing the most in the moment significant risk” have already been removed after mapping, photographing and approval from litigators.

Schramel-Taylor said the larger decayed trees burned in the Moonlight and Wheeler fires two years ago have deteriorated more and their stability is an unpredictable and unacceptable risk that exceeds the Forest Service’s ability to safely and cost-effectively remove them using the current method of manual chainsaws and limited road maintenance funds.

That’s a good example of how certain groups employ litigation to exacerbate damage. They sued to halt the removal of hazard trees — one surmises because they wish those trees to fall and kill someone. That kind of malicious lawsuit is what the emergency declaration is intended to avoid.

The merchantability of the trees is also an important consideration in the tree removal said Schramel-Taylor, adding if a tree is merchantable, it has value and can be sold or milled, which helps defray or cover the costs of removal.

Up to 19 miles of temporary roads and about 30 acres for 14 helicopter landings will be constructed, then decommissioned after use.

Funding is not the only reason to remove dead trees. The dead and cured logs are fuel for another severe reburn. Return fires are a common occurrence after major fires [here]. Fueled by deep brush resprouted after the first severe fire, combined with the abundant large dead and dry wood, return fires convert forests to fire-type chaparral.

Post-fire logging salvage is a hotly debated issue pitting environmentalists against loggers and the timber industries whose livelihoods timber supports.

Environmentalist groups argue post-fire salvage causes significant and irreparable harm to the environment, increases fuel hazard and wildlife risk.

Those paragraphs repeat a common media obfuscation. The litigious groups are not “environmentalists” since they advocate No Touch, Let It Burn, Watch It Rot. That kind of un-management is hugely destructive to the environment.

Nor are the advocates of forest recovery “loggers and timber industries.” In truth the real environmentalists are those of us who promote the protection, maintenance, and perpetuation of our heritage forests. We advocate healthy forests, abundant wildlife, clean air and water, outdoor recreation and stewardship of our priceless and precious forests.

We wish to recover and rehabilitate burned forests, and to return them to health and fire resilience before they burn again. Those are environmental goals. I am not affiliated with “the timber industry.” I don’t work for them; they work for me, when I need their assistance, which is rarely.

The Media is stuck on stupid. They wish to simplify issues for the lowest common denominator reader. In doing so they insult the intelligence of the other 99 percent of us who are not stuck on stupid.

The “environmentalists vs. loggers” gloss is a fairy tale with roots in a desire to inflame political passions. The Media is all about inflaming hatred and promoting divisiveness. They suck the blood out of community consensus and cohesiveness like vampires.

The real struggle is between responsible citizens who wish to be good stewards of our natural resources and a stuck-on-stupid Media with a penchant for conflict and disaster.

Timber advocacy groups argue post-fire salvage is necessary for fuels reduction in the forests and to capture the economic value of fire-damaged timber before delays make the projects unprofitable.

Delays in the project would be a loss of value to the local community and in the larger picture of forest management, said Schramel-Taylor. “We need [wood processing] infrastructure for fuels reduction in the future.”

Overlooking the “timber advocacy groups” remark (Traci, get a clue please), forest recovery is not easy or cheap, but doing nothing will lead to return fires and expanding environmental disaster. Fuel treatment is and will be an ongoing need. Leeanne Schramel-Taylor is exactly right about that. The larger picture is the vision of healthy forests, watersheds, and landscapes that will provide natural resource values in perpetuity. Some of those values are commodities, which pay for the stewardship of non-commodity values like abundant wildlife, clean water, and other ecosystem services.

We are not apart from nature. We are the caretakers of the planet. We cannot shirk from that duty; we cannot deny our responsibilities. It is incumbent on human beings to tend nature, or nature will degrade into megafire, tick brush, and battered ecosystems.

The Plumas Plan is a small but important part of living up to our heritage and leaving a worthy legacy. Let us engage in stewardship — it is the best way to save forests and in this case, to rehabilitate them.

31 Jul 2009, 7:57am
by Larry H.

Once again, it’s Chad Hanson and his eco-lawyer wife monkeywrenching the legal system and making big bucks at the expense of our forests. I’ve crossed paths with this guy several times in the past.

On one of my old projects, he stopped harvesting of dead timber, only after he went to the 9th Circuit. He also stopped the process of removing hazard trees along all roads, including roads serving recreational areas. He eventually let us cut those hazards, but only if they were completely dead. He secured the power to accept or reject the marking of hazard trees to be cut. He also got the judges to allow the cutting of large hazard trees over 40″ dbh but, those trees must not be sent to the mill.

On the Moonlight fire, the Forest Service decided to separate the hazard tree project from the fire salvage project, in order to get that emergency situation taken care of, independent of lawsuits against the timber salvage. This is what should be done on ALL fire rehabilitation projects. Unfortunately, somehow, the Forest Service lost the lawsuit against the Hazard Tree Removal project, as well.

The Hanson’s somehow have the attention of the media and his ideas always seem to get published by the print media.

3 Aug 2009, 7:38pm
by John Marker

I would think people living in the Plumas area would be running out of patience with the legal system, and the apparent endless legal actions to stop rational, peer reviewed science based management of the public’s forests.

People often refer to these public lands as Forest Service lands, they are not. They belong to all of us. The public in the Plumas area, as well as downstream citizens as far as Los Angeles and those of outside the Golden State, are allowing a few individuals to control the future of our land.

The loss to the communities from this never ending legal blockage will not only continue to damage people’s ability to have a living, but also reduce the water available for domestic use and downstream food production. And, of course, there are the issues of carbon release and public health during fires along with the loss of the “critters” habitat.

I would think it is time for the people of California, as well as us outside the state, to politely but very firmly tell the obstructionists to stop this mindless, myth driven effort to destroy the people’s forests.

It makes absolutely no sense when water shortage is a major problem, carbon release a worry, the economy in the pits and wildfires growing larger and more intense because of lack of forest management, to allow a small group of people to continue to stop the stewardship of the people’s forest lands.

There is also no sense to this “stop the world” attitude when our population is nearing 300 million people and showing no sign of decreasing the consumption of wood fiber, water, oxygen, food and other natural resources.



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