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. …

Tree growth, competition, and death are governed by known “laws” that have withstood the rigors of scientific investigation for the past 66 years. For example, we have the -3/2 power law (Reineke 1933) which identifies how trees compete, when competition will begin, and when mortality will occur as trees grow, age, and fill the site. Using that law we can characterize each forest site’s carrying capacity, or maximum site occupancy, which is largely a function of soil quality and climate in addition to some interaction with species physiology. …

One consequence of large mortality events associated with MPB (mountain pine beetle) outbreaks are devastating and unnatural wildfires that are next to impossible to control. While lightning ignites wildfires more or less randomly, the likelihood of those ignitions producing large uncontrollable fires that kill most or all trees in their path is highly correlated with the underlying forest condition. High levels of prior mortality from MPB were found to increase the likelihood of stand replacing fires during the 1988 Yellowstone wildfire event (Lynch et al. 2006); a result that is also supported by anecdotal evidence from the 2006 Tripod Complex fire that burned over 350,000 acres of National Forests in Washington State’s East Cascades within a fire perimeter of approximately 400,000 acres.

The fire perimeter for the Tripod Complex had approximately 100 forest inventory and analysis (FIA) plots that comprise the national forest census of which 70% had substantial MPB impact in the prior 5 years (Oneil unpublished data). This fire was estimated to emit 2.1 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or the equivalent to the emissions of 1 million Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV’s) for 1 year (Mason 2006).

High levels of insect attack are not the only precursor to the largely uncontrollable wildfire events of recent years. Dense forests with multi-layered canopies, large amounts of dead wood, and thick understory vegetation make fire control difficult or impossible under all but the most benign weather conditions. The federal forests of the Inland West are dominated by forests with extensive mortality from MPB and SBB and/or have these dense forest canopies as a result of 50 years of fire suppression making them highly susceptible to uncontrollable wildfires. …

The carbon released to the atmosphere from increasingly large, uncontrollable wildfire events exceeds our efforts to mitigate emissions. Widenmeyer and Neff (2007) found that the average CO2 emissions from wildfire from 2002-2006 were 213 Tg/yr for the lower 48 states with an additional 80 Tg CO2/yr emitted from Alaska’s wildfires which is the equivalent to 4-6% of anthropogenic emissions for those years. In Alaska there are double the CO2 emissions from wildfires than there are from human fossil fuel emissions; in Idaho the CO2 emissions from wildfires are 93% of those from fossil fuels; and in Montana wildfire emissions are 43% of the emissions from human fossil fuel use based on 2002-2006 fire occurrence.

Analysis of California wildfires from 2001-2007 calculates that 277 million tons of CO2 were released by fires and the ultimate decay of the dead trees (Bonnicksen 2009). This is equivalent to the emissions from 7 million cars each year over those 7 years or about half of the registered cars in the state. The figures highlight how the cost of wildfires are much more than just the direct cost of fighting fires, the impacts on communities, human health, and loss of infrastructure. There is an immediate CO2 emissions cost to wildfire with subsequent CO2 emissions from decay that are larger than the fire emissions. Of the 882,759 acres of land where all trees were killed during the California wildfires, an estimate of 86% of the land affected (762,000 acres) will not be reforested with any substantial tree cover within the next century because of regeneration failures (Bonnicksen 2009).

This means that the CO2 emissions from fires are compounded by the loss of CO2 sequestration capacity from regenerating forests. The burnt forests are not being replanted and there is little chance for re-establishment of sufficient future forests to offset these emissions without substantial investment in replanting, stand tending, and management.

In short, wildfire in these harsh dry environments is creating deforestation just when we most need that tree growth to offset carbon emissions from other sources. As with the MPB climate thresholds that have only been identified within the past decade, there may well be a threshold value that we have not identified yet wherein large areas of current forest become shrub land with much diminished capacity for carbon sequestration because of regeneration difficulties. …

Fire impacts can be substantially reduced by thinning treatments that restore densities more like those observed before fire suppression was introduced. Multiple studies have shown that thinning reduces fire severity, sufficient for firefighters to gain control and maintain forest structure, tree seed source, and other values (e.g. Agee and Skinner 2005, Moghaddas 2006, Skinner et al. 2004). After the 2002 fire year, which in hindsight was relatively mild, Dr. Jerry Franklin (ecologist) and Dr. Jim Agee (fire scientist) from the University of Washington offered their perspective on the need for a rationale national forest policy that incorporated ecology, fire science, known benefits of treatment and social benefits. Their perspective is that “Letting nature take its course in the current landscape is certain to result in losses of native biodiversity and ecosystem functions and other social benefits…” (Franklin and Agee 2003).

Reducing forest carbon inventories to bring them in line with new estimates of carrying capacity is necessary to increase resilience in the surviving trees, and reduce risks of further mortality from the MPB and other insects. If designed with multiple goals in mind, thinning treatments can also provide better options for wildfire control, restore forest structure, maintain critical habitat, and adjust for the overstocking that has occurred because of 50 years of fire suppression. Optimal thinning strategies will vary by region, forest type, and fire and insect risk. In ecology, one size does not fit all: the kinds of treatments needed in the dry interior west to address climate change and carbon storage are quite different than what is needed at high elevations or in coastal forests.

Using local expertise coupled with grass roots input from concerned citizens can ensure that the activities are sustainable over the long term. The result can be at least a triple win scenario with improved habitat, reduced carbon emissions and avoided future wildfire fighting costs.

Losing the carbon that trees sequester to insect epidemics and wildfire under the guise of naturalness or the precautionary principle, not only emits carbon, particulates, and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, it is a lost opportunity to store that forest carbon in buildings where the risks of wildfires are largely absent. It is also occurring at a time and on a scale where the increasing rate of CO2 emissions portends a threshold, or tipping point, that may exacerbate current disturbance trends and subsequent opportunities for management, sequestration, and fire control. In essence, forest thinning operations that reduce fire severity and risk are the most risk adverse option we have at our disposal at this time. …

As a forester, there is nothing worse than losing your stands to insect attack or fire and in the process losing all the values cherished by your local rural community. If the nearby federal forests, under the guise of naturalness, are not managed, except to suppress fires when they threaten structures, private and other public landowners have no control in preventing the insect invasions and wildfires that start on federal lands but then spread to nearby private and state lands with equally costly and devastating impacts.

The degree of interest in the topic of federal land management to reduce these impacts and risks along with the potential to provide resources for bioenergy initiatives is substantial. Recently a large constituency spent three days discussing the issues around biomass utilization in their communities and their region at the Plum Creek Conference on Forests and Energy at the University of Montana. As a speaker at that conference I was thrilled to see the level of interest, integrity, care, and sincere appreciation for the complexity of the task ahead. No one wants to see another ‘timber war’ or extractive industry with little thought to long term sustainability of the federal lands in their region. But neither do they want to see their backyard go up in flames as the forests around them succumb to MPB and then burn as they were during the conference in September. This fire was particularly notable as it burned vigorously despite record breaking rainfall during the prior month.

Many members of the audience at that conference were already working diligently with local USFS managers to devise plans that would produce not only sustainable forests, but sustainable livelihoods for local people. In the process they are building trust, crafting community, and with the appropriate top down policies that recognize the need to manage these forests and make a living, they will also be able to provide renewable energy that will help to meet the energy needs and greenhouse gas reduction goals outlined in federal policy. …”

20 Nov 2009, 12:49am
by Bob Zybach

A wonderful essay with great conclusions, despite invoking the “precautionary principle’ and focusing on greenhouse gas reductions (although, admittedly, in context to proposed federal policies).

Dr. Oneil calls for active management of our forests for a number of laudable and common sense purposes: catastrophic wildfire mitigation; energy production from excess forest fuels; meaningful rural employment.

It is refreshing to see the references to, and uses of, Bonnicksen’s work. I am hopeful that Dr. Oneil might have some positive effect on our federal commitments to healthy forests, renewable energy production, and jobs. She presents a persuasive argument.

20 Nov 2009, 11:30am
by bear bait

Not having the vast educational and professional experience of forest researchers, weather and climate experts, proponents of global warming and measurers of gases, leads me to ask this question about how data is presented: I have experience with wildland fire, and know that gases are invisible, but you see this great expanse of multi colored smoke from these fires. I could tell you by smoke color and plume height just about what was happening on the fire. So where does emitted particulates enter the equation of “pollution” or “green house effects” or just plain old “health warnings for smoke have been issued” “due to particulate volume in the atmosphere” now readily “impacting people with lung, breathing and heart problems”?????

Do wildland fires put out an insignificant amount of particulates? Or is this just another case of ignoring the obvious to make comparisons about Chicken Little’s sky and how it is falling along with “normal” weather expectations?

I have never been able to smell CO2…or oxygen. But I can smell ozone. Or at least that is what people have told me I was smelling after a lightning strike nearby in the street. I can smell sulfur. When my grandson is around, most of the time. And I sure as hell can smell smoke, and can tell you if it is pine, sagebrush, doug fir, or hardwoods that are burning. I am not smelling greenhouse gases. I am smelling organic aerosols associated with particulates. And those, I believe, are not good to breathe. For anyone, but especially bad for pulmonary compromised life forms. Smoke Luckies for sixty years, and smoke can be tough on you. Or work in the ship yards. No matter, that smoke is bad for you. And a much worse deal than the tail pipe exhaust from a million SUVs run daily for a year. That is spread over 365 days. The smoke is spread over days, weeks, and sometimes months. But never every hour of the year. Apples and oranges…and apples and oranges because it is the message that is important, and not the truth. In truth, wildland fire breaks all the Clean Air Act laws. EPA should be measuring and holding the landowners, even Uncle Sammy, responsible for stopping the pollution intrusion into the air shed right now!!! That might sound like a joke, and looks like a joke, but it is not a joke….and on the other hand, like most government actions today, it is a joke…ha ha ha ha….

20 Nov 2009, 3:37pm
by TreeC123

“Reducing forest carbon inventories to bring them in line with new estimates of carrying capacity is necessary …”

But how can our forests have too much carbon when the evidence is that they have too little carbon? BLM’s the Western Oregon Plan Revision Final EIS shows that decades of converting old-growth forests to plantations has reduced current stores of forest carbon on BLM lands in western Oregon by 149 million tons (and that includes all the regrowth), so to bring these forests in line with carrying capacity we need to let the trees grow, not log them.

20 Nov 2009, 4:13pm
by Larry Harrell

In the western forests, “carrying capacity” is less of a carbon issue than it is a groundwater issue. Forests need to be restored back to ancient stocking levels, and then adjusted to meet annual rainfall totals. The land (and its accompanying annual rainfall) can only support so many trees of certain sizes of certain species in certain soils. The complexity of this is daunting but, so many people claim they know what is best for the whole of Federal forests, with very little science to back it up.

TreeC123 makes the mistake of thinking the Forest Service will go back to widespread clearcutting, and ignores the concept of “restoration forestry”, which seeks to grow healthy, complex and resilient forests. Forests that survive drought, bark beetles AND fires, as well as sequestering (AND keeping!) vast amounts of atmospheric carbon.

The forest management “deniers” seek to rebuild the forests in their own sadly under-educated visions of how they WANT their forests to be, instead of how science says they need to be, from a micro-site point of view.

20 Nov 2009, 4:16pm
by Mike

Good question. An answer:

Reineke density is an natural upper bound on the biomass, not a desired target density! At maximum biomass per acre fuel loadings are also maximized and catastrophic fire is guaranteed.

Overly dense forests are species-sparse, with few herbaceous plants or shrubs. Trees are stressed, inviting insects and disease. Tree mortality from self-thinning is high, and the dead wood accumulates to loadings of 300 tons per acre or more.

Those are the forests most at risk, not the desired future condition. The extreme density condition is transitory anyway, since all that carbon will be combusted into the atmosphere sooner rather than later… leaving a moonscape behind that takes a few years for the brush to sprout up and start fixing CO2 again. Meanwhile 100+ years of fixed carbon have been oxidized, so it will take 100 years to re-fix that to get back to where we are today… assuming, of course, that one or more repeat fires don’t interpose a lot sooner and oxidize whatever carbon is left.

So, paradoxically, it behooves carbon fixation by forests to log* them. By removing excess biomass and leaving fire-resilient trees and stands, the threat of catastrophic fire is reduced. Some of the removals can be processed into wood products where the carbon remains fixed. Other removals may be burned as renewable, non-fossil fuel. A green and growing, fire-resilient, restored forest is the target condition, with the capacity to fix carbon at higher rates than either decadent, overly dense forests or their burned over remains.

*By “logging” I mean various professional silvicultural methodologies including but not limited to tree stem removals.

21 Nov 2009, 1:39pm
by bear bait

I have read a lot of definitions of old growth forests, most of them a “written in stone” deal about tree age or tree size. My definition of an old growth forest would describe one as “the cumulative surviving trees from multiple fire events over time and the associated in-growth from the last fire.

My old growth forests can have but one tree to the acre. And if I were to remove some stems to allow sunlight to hit the ground, so space between tree crowns in the survivors and the in-growth might be provided, I would still have an old growth forest. As long as I do not remove the fire event survivors, the living trees, I still have my old growth.

The Siuslaw Natl Forest has had 32,000 acres with one or more old growth trees on it, survivors of the 19th century stand removal multiple fire events, and in the ensuing 150 years, with logging and disturbance, it still has those 32,000 acres of old growth forest. A decent and recent whole forest inventory might reveal even more than that (how about that as a “stimulus” spending item: whole forest inventories contracted out). My old friend Chuck Lewis, now pushing up daisies, participated in one for Mason-Bruce that was an inventory of the whole State of Oregon, public and private: 60 or 70 years ago.

In the meantime, there is a sizable chunk of that forest, the Siuslaw NF, that was “thinned” at 100 years old or thereabouts. The name for that activity at the time was “pre-mortality salvage.” The Forest marked and sold the trees, still green and living, that their silviculturists believed with good faith would not be there in 20, 50, or 75 years, which they thought under the then present management regime would be the time for a clear cut harvest. So there are expanses of less dense stands of doug fir less than 150 years old that have large stand DBH averages (over 40″) and rings that show renewed growth at around 110 years, and now are being classified as “old growth.” I would call it managed old growth, because the stands were managed to have the tree spacings and diameters they have today.

They are as natural as the anthropogenic fire forests. In fact, I logged several of those thinning sales. Managed the contract for either a logging company or a sawmill. I will bet there is not a current employee of that National Forest who can take you one of those sale areas. No institutional memory and administered to have no institutional memory. With no institutional memory, there is no paper trail, no forest history continuum to compare methodologies and results.

At one time there were old guys who knew sour owl poop from apple butter out in the brush daily doing forest management work. No longer is that true. Now we have a succession of wannabes working the bureaucratic musical chairs to management positions or retirement and a chance to double dip somewhere if they don’t sit in the right chair at the right time. There is no fidelity to a Ranger District, and Ranger Districts get combined, sliced and diced, which makes them as effective as a sub prime mortgage.

We no longer can get there from here. The wheel now has to be re-invented, at great cost and loss of resources. And to what end? So down the road another set of “experts” can come along and change it once again? There is no way to have long-term management with short term hires and short term goals, all being litigated and micro-managed by Courts.

Just think about this: Native Americans managed those very same forests for thousands of years using the same plan. Their plan was to keep the landscape in a condition that would provide for their best welfare and their survival as a species. We no longer do that. And our forests no longer support people, either.

When people cannot figure out that the water budget for a slope, a basin, a watershed, is determined by the number of trees and their uptake of water, that every piece of vegetation is taking some, and until there are fewer users, they all suffer, and help is not on the way. There is no recognition that a whole lot of water that once flowed from the mountains now goes up the stem of billions of too many trees and is no longer available for “beneficial use” by humans. Or for salmon use, either, for that matter.

Since logging is a very limited option on litigation-targeted Federal lands (and on private lands too in micro-mismanaged Calif), and logging permits include expert evaluation and predictions of that logging proposed on the whole of the watershed all the way to the Pacific Ocean, the default objective is to have too many trees in perpetuity.

The ostensible objective is to have a large percentage of the landscape in trees in the hope that more trees will shade more ground and produce more water. Dream on. Federal lands across the West are not going to get any kind of treatment from the Feds except neglect. That costs little in direct expenses, if you don’t count skyrocketing firefighting costs, so doing nothing is the preferred alternative.

So here we have consternation over forests and tree stocking and fire regimes, while irrigation demands and potable water demands de-water the whole of the Sacramento-San Joaquin and Colorado River basins, no water effectively going to sea now.

Unchecked forest fires and no logging is a situation that will solve itself. The forests will burn and burn again, and then a lot of what WAS forest, due to accretion of trees since the Native American genocide century, will no longer be there and some sort of treeless frequent burn regime will take the place of forests. It is not about global climate change but about reckless fire and reckless fire management.

The “People” don’t want logging, and their anointed NGO minders of the wild want fire because it is “natural” (actually, so are floods and drought and insect infestations), so let the fires burn. Afterward the hunting is a lot better, and hungry folks without work are going to need protein any way they can get it. The chronically unemployed set fires every summer during the Great Depression. It would not surprise me to see a repeat of that for the next decade of the jobless recovery. The specter of fire in the forests as job creation is real and historical, just like the robbing of banks and jewelry stores we are now seeing daily. Some things just don’t change when conditions are favorable, like over-stocked forests and arson, or blatant wealth and poverty-producing property crime. Sort of a biblical deal really: reaping what we sow.

21 Nov 2009, 5:49pm
by Mike

Dear bait,

I enjoy and admire all that you say but beg to differ on one point: things can change, the USFS can change, and good stewardship can return, and in fact those are happening right now, bit by bit, insidiously perhaps, but from the grass roots.

Because the empirical evidence disproves the eco-babble theories, as anyone who devotes the effort to the study of forests must eventually attest to.

Those who care about forests, and understand them, profess that stewardship is preferable to abandonment to catastrophe. Familiarity with forests breeds wisdom about their care. The pressure from the field is repercussing at the office. The paradigm is shifting, and with it the mission of the USFS. Stewardship is going to win.

So I see a brighter future. Don’t give up. Don’t even give an inch.



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