Why Idaho’s Silver Valley is forested again

Ed Pommerening, 1947-2022
by Jim Petersen, Editor, The Evergreen Foundation

When Ed Pommerening died last Christmas Eve in Kellogg, Idaho he left a forestry legacy that is unmatched in Idaho history. I grew up in Kellogg and knew Ed mostly by reputation. We last talked by phone in 1996. I was in the middle manuscripts for an Evergreen edition featuring forests and forestry in Idaho and I wanted to include a short story about the miraculous rebirth of forests on the barren hills of my youth.

Ed is the reason Idaho’s Silver Valley between Smelterville and Big Creek is covered with countless thousands of conifers, many of them 50 feet tall. It is a stunning tribute to the dogged determination of a young man who once told me that the Kellogg he saw for the first time in 1972 reminded him of the godawful agent orange devastation he’d seen while serving with the 101st Airborne Rangers in South Vietnam.

That young man was Ed Pommerening. He was coming to Kellogg then to begin work as the Bunker Hill Company’s first forester. “Uncle Bunker” was by far Idaho’s largest industrial employer, the Union Pacific Railroad’s largest customer by tonnage, and the largest power consumer in the entire Washington Water Power system. At one time, Bunker Hill was the largest mining and smelting company in North America. It supplied most the lead we threw at the Germans and Japanese during the Second World War.

I worked my way through college in company stopes a mile beneath the streets of Kellogg. It was dangerous as hell — but great fun. I have no idea what convinced Ed that he could turn the Silver Valley’s barren hills green again — or how he convinced the company to invest in the crazy idea that he could grow countless thousands of seedlings 3,000 feet down in the mine, but in August 1975 company carpenters built Ed’s first 40-foot long underground greenhouse. One of my late father’s plumbing crews ran the water lines.

The scale of Ed’s thinking was breathtaking but the idea was not new. Many miners grew vegetables in pots in pitch black drifts with only the illumination of a single lightbulb. The air temperature was a constant 72 degrees, so all you had to add was some soil, water from a nearby drill line, a little light, and voila! It certainly helped that Ed had earned two forestry degrees from the University of Idaho. His connections would prove invaluable after his first seedlings died soon after they were transplanted on treeless hills by high school kids and civic groups.

The same thing had happened to seedlings my Cub Scout pack planted in Vergobbi Gulch in the 1950s. We never knew why, but soil scientists at the University of Idaho figured out that sulfur dioxide gas released from stacks at the Bunker smelter had polluted the soil. Acid was killing the seedlings. The solution: plant them deeper and add a dash of neutralizing potash for good measure. The beautiful result graces both sides of Interstate 90 between Smelterville and Big Creek:  Ponderosa, Scotch and Austrian pine, Douglas-fir, western larch, western white pine, blue spruce, willow, and poplar.

The homesteader’s apple orchard behind our home on Mission Avenue has given way to a sea of green that turns to gold in the fall. Words seem inadequate.

A very good case can be made for the fact that the Silver Mountain Resort and Ski Area and its legendary gondola are prospering today because of Ed Pommerening’s modesty and quiet determination. Small wonder that his forestry consulting business, Riverview Timber Services, thrived for decades.

The Kellogg where I grew up is long gone: the smelter whistles that announced shift changes, the friends I made underground, Al Laramie at the piano on Friday nights at the old Sunshine Inn, and the vibrancy of Kellogg’s booming economy. We thought Bunker would go on forever. For better or worse, it didn’t. The end came in 1981. Labor strife and unattainable federal air and water quality standards were the main reasons. But Ed’s vision provided the catalyst for Kellogg’s rebirth.

The power of forestry turned the barren hills of my youth green again and my hometown has a future. There is a bronze statue of a miner at the corner of Main and McKinley Avenue in uptown Kellogg. There needs to be one of Ed standing beside him.

~ Jim Petersen, Editor

The Reforestation of Silver Valley is a fascinating story told by Ed Pommerening and others about an industry that took the initiative to solve a major environmental problem in northern Idaho. The video was funded by the Kootenai-Shoshone County Farm Bureau and Idaho Farm Bureau and was produced by Matthew Bane. Watch it [HERE].


To thin or not to thin … it’s really not a question

The largest wildfires in the West — often called mega-fires — have increased in both size and number in recent years. The fire season — in both length and severity — increases nearly annually. Severe wildfire — classed in various ways but often as fire that kills most of the trees in its path — has by some reports increased eightfold in 30 years.

Fire science and experience over decades of research and field practice have settled on a major prevention tool: fuels reduction. This term includes both thinning (mechanical removal of shrubs and mostly small trees) and prescribed burning (intentional introduction of fire under favorable conditions).

A recent issue of High Country News features a report by Emily Shepherd, a freelance writer who worked in wildlife conservation for eight years, followed by two years as a U.S. Forest Service hotshot. She explains that wildfire ecologists almost universally support fuels reduction, especially in forests that had previously flourished under frequent ground fires — such as the ponderosa pine forests of Arizona and the Southwest.

While there’s no serious cohort of scientific dissent, forest managers still struggle to put their fuels reduction knowledge and goals into practice. “Forest thinning” is the target of prolific misinformation from groups ranging from the simply uninformed to the nationally well-funded (and well lawyered up), while locals in the area where prescribed fire is planned often see rxfires as just a nuisance or annoyance. A cacophony of opinions based more on language than on science.To its opponents, thinning is a form of “silviculture by stealth,” as wildfire historian Stephen Pyne puts it; he says thinning is more like “woody weeding.” Logging harvests large, mature trees over large areas, he explains, while thinning mostly removes small trees. Logging makes money; thinning almost always costs money.

Thinning should be followed by prescribed fire. “If you don’t follow it up with the right fire, then it’s worthless,” says Pyne, “and in many cases may have made it worse.” Thinning and prescribed burning are the one-two punch that can knock out severe wildfires. Like everything, prescribed fires do have drawbacks: They are complicated to plan and execute, they dump unwanted smoke on nearby communities, they’re subject to litigation, and in rare instances they can ignite destructive burns or even get agency staff arrested.

“We conduct an average of 4,500 prescribed fire projects annually,” said USFS Chief Randy Moore in the spring of 2022, “and 99.84 percent go according to plan. That equals slightly more than one escape per every 1,000 prescribed fires, or about six escapes per year.”

As long as terms like “thinning” are used and abused by non-scientific groups with a bias, though, there will always be conflict. A report by Oregon Public Broadcasting not long ago was headlined “A southern Oregon conservationist’s wishlist for better collaboration with the BLM” in which Roman Battaglia, a reporter with Ashland-based Jefferson Public Radio, interviewed Luke Ruediger, executive director of Applegate Siskiyou Alliance, about the Medford area BLM’s latest forest management plan, known as the Integrated Vegetation Management Plan. “A lot of the problem that we see is that increasingly the federal government and federal land managers are not making that effort to communicate and collaborate or even to share basic information on federal land management projects with the public,” said Ruediger. “And that’s leading to a lot of issues surrounding trust.”

“It’s also creating a lot of situations where, essentially, the BLM is operating in secret and refusing to provide information on the projects that they’re designing on federal lands to the public that those projects would affect,” claimed Ruediger.

Opponents of thinning and other fuels treatment methods really need to take a look at the history of Lick Creek in Montana. The Lick Creek Demonstration – Research Forest studies were established back in 1991 in western Montana to evaluate tradeoffs among alternative cutting and burning strategies aimed at reducing fuels and moderating forest fire behavior while restoring historical stand structures and species compositions.

Lick Creek Montana fuels projects

Firefighters and numerous studies over many years credit intensive forest thinning projects with helping save communities like those recently threatened near Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada, but dissent from some environmental advocacy groups still roils the scientific/environmental community. An Associated Press story out of Sacramento in October of 2021 noted that environmental advocates say data from recent gigantic wildfires support their long-running assertion that efforts to slow wildfires have instead accelerated their spread. “Not only did tens of thousands of acres of recent thinning, fuel breaks, and other forest management fail to stop or slow the fire’s rapid spread, but … the fire often moved fastest through such areas,” Los Padres ForestWatch, a California-based nonprofit, said in an analysis joined by the John Muir Project and Wild Heritage advocacy groups.

But James Johnston, a researcher with Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, called the groups’ conclusions “pretty misleading,” “irresponsible” and “self-contradicting.”

“Claims that modern fuel-reduction thinning makes fire worse are not credible,” Johnston said.

Chad Hanson is an ecologist with the John Muir Project and the author of Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate. “Wildfires can always turn tragic,” says Hanson, “but the greater tragedy in Greenville and Paradise, which was largely destroyed during the 2018 Camp Fire, and other towns is that they put their faith in logging operations miles away rather than proven, community-based fire prevention measures. Forest thinning is gaining more media attention and is heavily promoted by some land management agencies and logging interests, but science suggests the technique more often makes fires burn hotter and faster. The idea of felling trees and hauling them to lumber mills in the name of fire prevention has many deceptive names: fuel reduction, forest health, ecological restoration, thinning, and even reforestation.”

KGW-8 News reported on Johnston’s work with OSU, writing that the forestry sciences community forecasts massive wildfires like the ones that burned in Oregon last year will only get bigger and more severe. However, new research suggests that thinning the forests can go a long way toward preventing severe fires.  [ related: video ]

“This study shows that fuel reduction thinning to moderate fire behavior … works,” said Johnston. His research focused on a ponderosa forest in northeast Oregon, where his team compared thinned stands of trees with un-thinned control stands and then used computer modeling to predict the behavior of future fires. “Most fuel reduction projects in eastern Oregon thin from below and cut down the smaller trees and leave the old large fire-resistant trees,” Johnston said. “That leaves behind a forest that’s less dense, and our studies show it has a less far less fuel to burn in future fires.”

Johnston said the result is even better when prescribed burning is added. “The only way to fight fire is with more fire,” he said.

It’s easy to see why the influenceable public can become confused, with a wide range of communications and opinions about complex forest and fire management topics. But two rural Josephine County communities are working with federal fire managers, according to a report by KDRV-TV, to improve wildfire resilience in southern Oregon. The BLM recently issued its “decision to promote safe wildfire response, develop fire-resilient lands, and create habitat for special status species” for a project near the communities of Murphy and Williams, both south of Grants Pass.

The BLM project is called Late Mungers Integrated Vegetation Management Project. It includes prescribed fire, fuels thinning and selective harvest phases; over the next 10 years the BLM expects fuels reduction work on about 7,500 acres under this project.

Fire managers plan to start at strategic locations where firefighters have the best chance to catch and contain wildfires. The project also includes 830 acres of proposed harvests split into two timber sales: Late Mungers and Penn Butte. “By using selection harvest methods, these treatments will increase the diversity of the forest stands,” according to the BLM. “This more complex habitat is important for the northern spotted owl, the marbled murrelet and Pacific marten (federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act), as well as other special-status species.”

During the project’s public comment period, the BLM collected more than 100 comments, and the project team hosted a field trip to the project area and held a public webinar to collect further input about the project. The final document, including BLM’s response to comments, is online at eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2018484/510 and there’s a detailed PDF map online [HERE].

“Forests in Southwest Oregon are in dire need of active management to maintain and improve forest health,” said BLM District Manager Elizabeth Burghard in Medford. “The Late Mungers project is an important step toward promoting and developing complex forest habitats for the northern spotted owl and other sensitive species. This project will make the landscape, including legacy trees, more resilient to wildfire by addressing hazardous wildfire fuels near local communities.”


Lytton wildfire survivors want their lawsuit certified as a class action in British Columbia

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Two survivors of a wildfire that destroyed much of Lytton, B.C. in the summer of 2021 say their lawsuit should be certified as a class action. The chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court will decide whether the case, initially filed in October of 2021 by two residents who lost their homes, has a broader scope.

CBC News reported that on the hottest day of 2021, a fire in the Fraser Canyon burned more than 800 square kilometers, killed two people, and destroyed much of the village. Investigators found no evidence that a passing train caused the fire, but the lawsuit claims the fire was started by either a Canadian National or Canadian Pacific train on its way through the village. According to the Calgary Sun, lawyers for Christopher O’Connor and Jordan Spinks, the two representative plaintiffs in the case, argued in court that the fire was ignited as a result of a coal train owned by Canadian Pacific Railway passing through the village on June 30, 2021. Spinks is a member of the Kanaka Bar Indian Band and has said that he witnessed smoke and flames on CN Rail’s right of way, at or near CN Rail’s bridge that crosses the Fraser River. He had just finished his shift as a care aide at an assisted-living facility and lost his job as a result of the fire. O’Connor, a resident of Lytton, lost his home in the fire and had his vehicle damaged.

The railway companies deny any responsibility for the fire and cite a report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada that concludes there was no link between train operations and the fire. But Tony Vecchio, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the report was deficient in a number of respects and should not be relied upon.

“They didn’t have any basis to make this finding at all, on their own evidence,” Vecchio told B.C. Supreme Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson. He pointed out errors in the report, including the number of railway cars on the train, and said investigators failed to interview a number of witnesses.

The British Columbia Wildfire Service said that in 2021 between April 1 and September 30, 1,610 wildfires had burned 868,203 hectares (2.145 million acres) across British Columbia. Moody’s RMS reported those numbers were in stark contrast to 2019 and 2020 when the total area burned in the province was less than 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) per season.

On Sunday, June 27, the temperature in Lytton reached 46.6°C (116°F). On Monday it reached 47.7°C (118°F). And then on Tuesday, June 29, Lytton recorded the highest-ever temperature in Canada: 49.4°C (121°F). Extended drought conditions held through April and into June, meaning many areas were already on extreme fire hazard ratings when on June 29, 2021, the small town of Lytton made it into the record books for the third time in three days.

The Guardian has a photo essay of the Lytton fire online.

Two California counties sue PG&E over Mosquito Fire

A lawsuit was filed January 18 against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. by El Dorado County and Placer County seeking damages related to the 2022 Mosquito Fire, which burned almost 77,000 acres over 50 days in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The two counties, along with the El Dorado Water Agency, Georgetown Divide Public Utilities District, and Georgetown Divide Fire Protection District, filed the lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court. The fire burned mostly on the Tahoe and El Dorado National Forests and caused evacuations of more than 11,000 people.

Mosquito Fire 09-13-22
An airtanker makes a retardant run over the Mosquito Fire after it jumped the American River and headed north toward Foresthill, California.   09-13-22 Inciweb photo.

The suit alleges that PG&E’s equipment caused the fire, which started on September 6 near the community of Foresthill, according to a report by CBS News.

“The lawsuit seeks to hold PG&E accountable and to help our community rebuild after this devastating fire,” said El Dorado County counsel David Livingston. The Mosquito Fire started near the Oxbow Reservoir at the Middle Fork American River, according to the Sacramento Bee, and it destroyed 78 structures, including dozens of homes in the Placer County community of Michigan Bluff and the El Dorado County town of Volcanoville. It was not contained till October 27.

Mosquito Fire Day #2
Extreme fire behavior on the second day produces a large column of smoke visible from Foresthill, California.
09-08-22 Inciweb photo

The county filed the lawsuit one day before PG&E officials were scheduled to appear in Shasta County Superior Court for a criminal case related to the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people and which Cal Fire investigators have blamed on PG&E equipment. Shasta County prosecutors charged PG&E with four counts of involuntary manslaughter; the utility company in June pleaded not guilty.

The Mosquito Fire lawsuit follows a legal settlement earlier this week in which 10 public entities agreed to $24 million from PG&E for damages caused by the 2021 Dixie Fire, which started July 13 and burned over 963,300 acres across Plumas, Lassen, Butte, Shasta, and Tehama counties. Plaintiffs include the five counties, along with the City of Susanville, Plumas District Hospital, Chester Public Utility District, Honey Lake Valley Recreation Authority, and Herlong Public Utility District.

“Local government across the five affected counties came together to recover these significant funds to reimburse public and natural resources lost in the fire,” Gretchen Stuhr with Plumas County told The Plumas News. “The allocated portion of the settlement proceeds will in no way make the entities whole following the devastation caused by the Dixie and Fly Fires but will assist the County in its recovery.”


County commissioner in Glenwood Springs wants “climate” removed from wildfire agreement

Garfield County in west-central Colorado signed off this week on the new multi-agency Roaring Fork Wildfire Collaborative, but not without a little creative editing. The Post Independent reported that county commissioners signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) joining 17 other local governments, fire districts, and state and federal agencies in the formation of the wildfire collaborative.

“The Roaring Fork Valley presents especially complex boundaries with the sheer number of agencies involved,” said Larry Sandoval with the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office. He said the completion of this MOU is a major step toward effective collaboration in fire prevention and management.

The request for edits to the MOU originated with Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky. “A lot of the emphasis is coming from Pitkin and Eagle counties and the Forest Service to do more forest management,” he said, “which from my perspective is more than just prescribed burns.” Jankovsky wanted the MOU to include equal mention of logging, thinning, and other “more aggressive” forest management methods. “I find it ironic that this group talks about climate change, yet they look at forest management as burning the forest, which has the same effect as if we have a forest fire, just to a much smaller degree,” Jankovsky explained.

A third-generation native Coloradan, Jankovsky is serving his third term as Garfield County Commissioner. He is the public lands planning lead for the Board of County Commissioners and the former general manager of Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs. He asked that the word “climate” be removed from one sentence in the MOU where it stated that active management “… includes the use of the best available climate science that will help stakeholders understand how a changing climate will impact our landscapes and ecosystems, while also looking for opportunities to improve understanding through local research.” Jankovsky wanted the line to read “best available science” and not “best available climate science.”

Fire photo by Colorado State Forest Service
Fire photo by Colorado State Forest Service

Because fires have no boundaries and don’t recognize jurisdiction lines, the valley-wide collaborative is meant to have everyone on the same page. The 18 local, county, state, and federal agencies involved in wildfire management formalized their working relationship through the Roaring Fork Valley Wildfire Collaborative; the Gunnison Times reported that talk of the collaborative started early 2022, when residents in the Roaring Fork River drainage discussed their interest in better fuels treatment. With several big fires in recent memory — the 2018 Lake Christine Fire, the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire, and the 2021 Sylvan Lake Fire — valley stakeholders began discussing solutions. The collaborative’s goals include improving communication and identifying critical areas of fuels reduction and vegetation treatment.

Signatories to the MOU are Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, and Marble. County signatories are Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, and Gunnison counties. Additional collaborators include Aspen Fire, Roaring Fork Fire and Rescue, Carbondale Fire, Glenwood Springs Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, and the BLM.

The 2002 Hayman Fire was the largest wildfire in Colorado state history for nearly 20 years, until the Pine Gulch Fire surpassed it in August 2020. The Cameron Peak Fire became the largest wildfire in Colorado history seven weeks later at 206,667 acres. With multiple record-breaking fires, the 2020 Colorado wildfire season became the largest in state history after burning 665,454 acres.

Large-scale wildfires are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. as climate change accelerates; since 2000 an annual average of 70,072 wildfires have burned an annual average of 7 million acres across the country. According to research by the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University, that’s more than double the annual average of 3.3 million acres burned in the 1990s, when a greater number of fires occurred annually. A 2016 study found that climate change had doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western U.S., and a 2021 study supported by NOAA concluded that climate change has been the main driver of the increase in fire weather each season.

Maybe insurance will be the turning point

In Boulder, Colorado, Democratic State Rep. Judy Amabile says people are having difficulty finding affordable home insurance. “It seems like across broad areas certain companies have decided we are not going to insure in this area,” she told 9News-TV. “They are having to make a lot of calls and the prices have gone up a lot and they are having difficulty finding anything.”

Amabile plans to introduce legislation to create a “last-resort” insurance plan provided by the state of Colorado. “The plans on that program are going to be really bare-bones and they are going to be very expensive.” She said at least 30 other states now have last-resort homeowners’ insurance programs like this, as more companies are increasing rates or even refusing to insure wildland/interface homeowners at all.

“Across the board, we are seeing 20 to up to 50 percent increases in renewals,” said independent insurance agent Morgan Lloyd.

Homeowners have moved into and built homes in wildland/urban interface areas for decades with little regard for the multiplying fire risk (and evacuation dangers) posed by increased development and neglected fire-safety mitigation. In some areas of the West, homeowners (along with homeowners’ associations, insurance companies, and local governments) are now facing the realities of paying for this development. NBC Los Angeles reported that more and more homeowners in southern California are being dropped by insurance companies because of wildfire risk. They talked with homeowners near Pomona whose insurance companies canceled their policies even though no wildfires have burned near their homes for years. Others’ premiums increased by 800 percent.

Interface photo from Great Basin Coordination Center
Interface photo from Great Basin Coordination Center

The Insurance Journal reported last month that California, Florida, and Texas are the states with the highest number of homes at risk of wildfire, but that other states also are faced with large and increasing risk. Colorado and New Mexico, for example, have fewer homes overall, but project fires can wreak tragedy on a much larger proportion of their populations. New Mexico’s Santa Fe County counts nearly 34,000 properties at risk of wildfire, but the county housed a population of only 155,000 in 2020. This ratio of vulnerable homes to the overall population underscores the magnitude of population displacement assistance, reconstruction resources, and economic recovery expense required after a major wildfire.

With wildfire danger threatening the liquidity and solvency of insurers, the California Department of Insurance has proposed new regulations to incentivize risk reduction on covered properties and neighborhoods. In October, the state Insurance Department issued regulations to recognize and reward wildfire safety and mitigation efforts by homeowners and businesses. The InsuranceNewsNet reported that California’s “Mitigation in rating plans and wildfire risk models” regulation is the first in the nation requiring insurance companies to provide homeowner discounts under the “Safer from Wildfires framework,” which the California Department of Insurance and state emergency preparedness agencies created last year. The regulation requires insurance companies to submit new rate filings incorporating wildfire safety standards. The new rates must recognize the benefit of safety measures such as upgraded roofs and windows, defensible space, and community programs such as  Firewise USA and the Fire Risk Reduction Community designation developed by CAL-FIRE.

::: UPDATE: Highway to the Danger Zone :::
Matt Simon recently wrote an eye-opening piece for WIRED about a study examining numbers of residents moving into and out of fire danger zones (and hurricane regions) across the country. Wildfires in the West have grown increasingly devastating in part because of climate change, but also because more humans are moving deeper into areas that once were intact or contiguous forests. That overlap between development and wildlands, Simon noted, now exposes more people to fires and provides more opportunities to ignite them.

moving to the danger zone

Americans are “flocking to fire,” say the authors of a study published last month in the journal Frontiers in Human Dynamics. Using census data, the researchers found that people are increasingly moving to areas that are more prone to catastrophic wildfires or plagued by extreme heat. And though some affluent Americans are seeking the beauty of forested areas, economic pressures are forcing others there, too: Skyrocketing housing prices and cost of living are pushing people toward more rural places where homes are cheaper.

“As temperatures increase — as things get drier and hotter and prices for housing get more unaffordable — it’s definitely going to push people into these rural areas,” says Kaitlyn Trudeau, a data analyst at the nonprofit Climate Central. “Some people don’t have a choice.”

Increases in the number of people living in wildfire zones come at a huge cost: the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, California, resulted in an estimated $16.5 billion in losses.