29 Oct 2009, 3:46pm
Federal forest policy The 2009 Fire Season
by admin

Mission Creep at the Willamette National Forest

An unusual Guest Viewpoint was printed in the Eugene Register Guard yesterday. Kim Titus, USFS BLM, shared some “insights” from her short (4-month stint) as acting supervisor of the Willamette National Forest.

GUEST VIEWPOINT: Wildfire and forest strategies changing with the times

By Kim Titus, Eugene Register Guard, Oct 28, 2009 [here]

Monday was Meg Mitchell’s first full day as the new supervisor for the Willamette National Forest. As I finish my short assignment on the Willamette as acting supervisor, I wanted to share a few insights from my experience.

In the last two months, most of my time has been in support of fire suppression efforts on both the Canal Creek and Tumblebug fires.

The latter will be the third-largest fire ever fought on the forest, and it grew exponentially in just a few days. It required 1,200 firefighters and associated support services and burned almost 15,000 acres. As I write, the Tumblebug complex is still not contained, but the rains have stopped the progression of the fire.

When a fire starts on federal land, our first priority is always firefighter and public safety, and secondly to protect important structures and natural resources.

But this time we didn’t try to put the entire fire out. We strategically put our resources into the north and portions of the east and west sides of the fire, to protect the Middle Fork of the Willamette River and private land, and to provide a buffer from the east winds that were driving the fire. The other side of the fire was simply monitored. …

Despite the weak justifications given, Let It Burn on the Willamette NF represents a significant shift in policy and is not consistent with their Land and Resource Management Plan or their Fire Management Plan.

Many other national forests have adopted WFU (wildland fire use) or similar Let It Burn language into their Plans; the Willamette NF has not, nor have other westside Oregon NF’s. When and how did their policies change?

Titus stated, “There may be times when letting a portion of a fire burn makes sense ecologically, economically and morally (since protecting firefighters is a moral issue).”

Without addressing the merits of that statement, if such times are foreseeable, then it would be reasonable to plan for them with a proper NEPA process. The decision to let the third largest fire in WNF history burn away should not have been made with zero public input, especially since it was not a spur-of-the-moment decision but part and parcel of “an evolving fire strategy within the U.S. Forest Service.”

Some questions arise:

Why has the public been excluded from the evolving strategy?

Who specifically changed the policy, and under whose authority?

Who made the decision to let the Tumblebug Fire burn?

How many acres were consumed by the Let It Burn portion of the fire?

What environmental and other damages ensued, and what were the total costs-plus-losses from that fire?

Will the new fire policy be placed into the WNF LRMP?

Personally, I don’t get a warm fuzzy from this letter. It’s not an outreach to the public. It’s the temporary supervisor using the local newspaper to create a defacto mandate for the incoming supervisor. And the policy change is without proper (legal or scientific) foundation.

My email has been full of comments about this. Here are a few:

My guess is that the temporary Supervisor’s qualifications to manage a forest or fire would be an embarrassment to the USFS, and that she was acting on orders or pressures from others — in part to justify her own “decisions.” I’m not sure what the experiences of the incoming Supervisor are.

Does anybody remember the ash fall and heavy smoke from this fire that inundated Eugene and Cottage Grove this summer? Did any field burnings of the past few years even compare? What — exactly — were the “ecological” benefits of this event? What were the true (cost-plus-loss) costs to taxpayers and local citizens? Suppression costs are only the tip of the iceberg for measuring the actual damages done to the environment; why weren’t those damages even mentioned?

So far as “moral” reasons for “protecting” firefighters (did they even know risk and flame would be involved when they signed up for employment?), how about the moral reasons for protecting our citizens, watersheds, and forests?

We need to manage our forests better. There is no excuse for letting wildfire do our “fuel management” and “forest thinning” for us. The “ecological benefits” and “worker safety” arguments have worn thin. What a waste of taxpayer dollars, public health, and forest resources. All of the superficial excuses and self-congratulations in the world are just one more smokescreen.

It is interesting that the Willamette and other Westside NF’s do not mention WFU in their LRMPs. The Payette, Sawtooth, and Boise do in their 2003 LRMPs. The coverage in those plans is very weak from a NEPA standpoint, but it is mentioned and they do have a little bit of basis to say that WFU is covered in their Forest Plans. The Willamette has no basis for WFU from a NEPA standpoint. Hence the only basis they have to let a wildfire burn is that the fire was not “safe” to fight.

I have to wonder what qualifications a Forest Supervisor has to make that determination? And what are the standards that make a fire unsafe to fight? What training are the Forest Supervisors given to make that determination? What training are Forest Supervisors given to decide what the “Appropriate Management Response” should be? How many of today’s Forest Supervisors have actually been on a fire? How many have attended the two week Fire Behavior for Forest Managers course that used to be given?

I was on my first wildfire in 1955 and long ago lost track of the number of fires I was on. I have never seen one that I would have said was so unsafe that all crews should be pulled off and the fire allowed to burn with no or little suppression. I have seen fires that were not safe to fight on the front or on the uphill side; however, crews could always work the flanks until the fire front laid down at night when the front could be attacked. I have been on fires when we constructed line ahead of the front and ignited a backfire at a strategic time but we still always took suppression action.

In my day we would have never failed to take suppression action because a fire was not safe.

Mike, you have clearly expressed the problems associated with this new decision making paradigm and the associated social and ecological issues. It is flawed, legally and professionally. If the process were applied to any other activity, other than wildfire (which has the current perception that it is “natural” and at least environmentally neutral if not all good), the environmental community would be all over it, and would prevail in stopping it, or at the least getting those in the decision position reprimanded and removed.

29 Oct 2009, 4:19pm
by Timbo

Ecological benefits, eh? Let’s see:

* 4 and 5 ft. diameter ponderosa pine and sugar pine (rare habitat found within the TB Burn) totally red or totally black;

* Somewhere around 5,000 or more acres of northern spotted owl habitat totally fried;

* Such concern with bull trout habitat effects that they are sprinkling shredded wood within one of the hottest burned subdrainages (by helicopter).

I could go on. A small portion of the Tumblebug Burn (the very lowest elevations) used to have a frequent, low-intensity [anthropogenic] fire regime, but that ended over 100 years ago. Those open, grassy stands where the pines were have grown over with a closed canopy — letting a wildfire burn in those fuel conditions has no ecological benefits without prior restoration efforts.

The bulk of the Burn (which includes 4,000 or 5,000 acres of [former] plantations [formerly] ranging in age from 10 to 45 years), contains several large ridges with elevations up to 6,100 feet that did not have a frequent fire regime. While those places in the watershed have always burned severely and infrequently, resetting that clock can hardly be called an ecological benefit. Considerable acreage of early successional habitat has been created by past clearcutting, which also entailed the management equivalent of high intensity fire through disposal of slash.

I don’t buy the “benefit” line. The fire certainly did not benefit the threatened Chinook Salmon or bull trout living right at the bottom of the [burned and now eroding] slopes.

30 Oct 2009, 1:06pm
by Forrest Grump

Yeah, just wait until the biologists rush in this next spring to save whatever T and E species are at risk from what looks like might be another impressive runoff season. Just like the emergency created by the Station fire.

Benefits, ya sure. The only “benefit” of a fire that I can see is well-timed prescription burns in basins with no means of mechanical pretreatment. I will grumblingly confess the Flathead did one of those this summer, in a choked doghair pile. It plumed up within a couple hours of ignition, which is pretty indicative of the risk the fuels posed had the conditions been wrong. Still, the Kootenai fire was a burr in everyone’s saddle down in the Bitterroot.

I did a little poking about on Titus… temporary placement from the BLM planning department? And did she do this with the blessings of Salazar or Tidwell or what?

30 Oct 2009, 1:08pm
by bear bait

Chinook used to be there, prior to Lookout Point and Hills Creek dams. Maybe this will open up the country so people can again look for the lost gold mine. The travel path anomaly trees from past Indian use of that area to transit from the Willamette Valley to the Klamath country are probably gone. Historical loss will be great.

Or, maybe the USFS will plant Quercus garryanna, and there will be oak savannas once again…

But the real losses that informed people will know about and mourn are the result of bad luck and meaningless protections offered by “let ‘er burn” management. What would a SESPool rent-a-manager from Interior know about fire? She was just a slot filler in the grand scheme of diversity by the numbers slot filling, and managed to oversee the third largest recorded fire on the Forest. That is like supervising the third biggest wreck on the freeway ever…

It appears the USFS is still gunshy after the 30 Mile Fire experience and US Attorneys. Nobody in management or fire team staff positions will fight fire today. Not when there might be personal responsibility for SNAFUs…

In the grating knowledge that OUR government is funding three teams of US Attorneys to secure damages when private land origin fire burns public lands (”loss of grandeur of the landscape” is now a compensable claim), and there is no relief or compensation for damages from Federal land origin fire to private estates because Congress and the Courts say there will be none, the Cowgirls running the USFS can talk big because there is no claim against their ass, ever. They can burn all they want, and never be held accountable. Well, maybe if they spend TOO much money. They are graded on the lowest cost per acre suppression effort.

On the other hand, private landowners have to be overly diligent and assertive as to access, because they have unlimited liability now — as we have seen by two successful US Attorney actions, one for $102 million against the UP Railroad, and a $14 million settlement with Pacific Gas and Electric due to a ponderosa pine with a rotten core falling on their transmission line and starting a fire on public lands. The wholesale slaughter of powerline rights of way is under way. Lawsuits by the Feds can do that to a private company’s plan of action.

The end result we now know is that access for recreation and hunting on private land is almost universally denied today. The net result of Big Government assuming the Be ALL and End ALL to all things on forest land, public and private, is that there is now much less access in the West. The public lost tens of millions of acres on which to spread recreation effort, and now that alligator is biting the public land managers on the butt because they don’t have the wherewithal and support to carry this larger load they have created. Bad deal. Really bad deal.

I took my grandson out to seek a blacktail on State land today, but we didn’t see one, not even a doe. But we did see some very well managed forests, with all the trees looking good. We saw a proposed timber sale that has many “leave” trees of larger diameter, and we also saw a private landowner slash pile burn operation underway. They were helicopter-lighting shovel logging slash piles. Hopefully UCLA has some asthmatic players. OSU needs all the help we can give them.

The USFS is a lost cause. Fatally wounded, and self-inflicted by having no moral rudder and a very sensitive political rudder. Politics will change, and the USFS won’t be able to adjust, and will end up in Interior, on the floor now held by Bureau of Reclamation. That agency has no way, now, to protect itself and its assets, and will become a part of Commerce, with a fish biologist or a climatologist running it.

Things will be aligned differently when we are a part of the One World Governance. Phil Gramm describes that as a millions wagons full of people waiting for someone or something to pull them to the free food place. If you love imported oil, you will love imported food. Our future. Eating rice once a day cooked over dead limb fires as we worship and preserve our forests. Annually, some people from the city will visit and go Oooh! and Ahhhh! And then go back to taking their cut of the imported widgets and cheerios which are bought by government to dole out to the masses. Health care costs will be very low because the masses will be skinny and malnourished, and the dolers will be fat and popping a lot of pills to roto rooter their arteries. Stasis. And we will all be happy as we await our turn to eternity and the promised land.



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