Presidential order sets goals for fuel reduction

The Executive Order also addresses the use of drones and increases timber harvesting by 37 percent.

prescribed fire Custer State Park
Firefighters ignite the Norbeck prescribed fire in Custer State Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

With the devastating wildfires in California this summer and the visits by President Trump to the Camp and Woolsey Fires, firefighting and forest management were brought into the national conversation. Mr. Trump showed an interest in the fire siege, criticizing forest management, suggesting rakes as one of the solutions, and threatening on multiple occasions to cut unspecified funding allocated to California.

The magnified interest seen in Washington may have been the impetus for the *Executive Order (EO) signed by Mr. Trump on December 21. The document requires emphasis in a number of areas related to wildland fire, some of which have specific goals. The stated rationale for the EO is identified:

For decades, dense trees and undergrowth have amassed in these lands, fueling catastrophic wildfires. These conditions, along with insect infestation, invasive species, disease, and drought, have weakened our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands, and have placed communities and homes at risk of damage from catastrophic wildfires.

With the same vigor and commitment that characterizes our efforts to fight wildfires, we must actively manage our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands to improve conditions and reduce wildfire risk.

Both Mr. Trump and his Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, who also showed up before cameras at fire scenes this summer, denied that climate change is one of the factors affecting the increase in wildfire activity in recent decades.

“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in an interview after visiting the Carr Fire at Redding, California.
climate assessment wildfires increase
The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. Source: adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016.

The EO lists a number of areas with specific goals or directives.

FUEL REDUCTION. The four Department of the Interior land management agencies now have an objective in 2019 of treating a total of 750,000 acres to reduce fuel loads. The objective for the Forest Service is 3,500,000 acres. As of December 8, 2018, according to the National Situation Report, the year-to-date accomplishments for acres treated with prescribed fire were 525,659 and 1,307,389, respectively. Presumably, mechanically or herbicide-treated acres were not included in those 2018 figures. The goals appear to be substantially higher than what has been done this year. However, as direction from on high moves the goal posts, federal agencies can sometimes initiate creative methods to keep everyone happy. For example, recently the Forest Service has started “counting” wildland fire acres where light to moderate wildfires have caused vegetation to improve what used to be called “fire condition class”. These then become “treated acres”. In addition, some timber sales are now being counted. So, magic, presto, poof! The number of acres “treated” adds up more quickly than they used to. A person with extensive D.C. experience told us that they expect the land management agencies are not worried about meeting the fuel treatment goals laid out in the EO.

prescribed fire acres accomplished 2018
Prescribed fire data from the December 8, 2018 National Situation Report.

LOGGING. Calling it “health treatments”, the FS has a goal of selling 3.8 billion board feet of timber in 2019, while the DOI’s goal is 600 million. This total of 4.4 billion board feet is a significant 37 percent increase over the 3.2 billion board feet removed from those agencies’ lands in 2017, according to the Sacramento Bee. The EO also requires the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to identify salvage and log recovery options from lands “damaged” by fire, insects, and disease in 2017 and 2018. Many people say that logging is not the answer to the wildfire problem, and that areas visited by fire are not necessarily “damaged”. While some rehabilitation is often required, burned areas don’t always have to be fixed or logged.

NATIVE AND INVASIVE SPECIES. Both the FS and the DOI have goals of treating 750,000 acres.

UNMANNED AERIAL SYSTEMS. The Secretaries are ordered to maximize the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, in forest management and in support of firefighting. The DOI has been extremely aggressive in the last two years in establishing a surprisingly robust UAS program. There is a report that a person formerly with the DOI’s Alaska Fire Service is now heading the Forest Service UAS program.

The goals in the EO are an unfunded mandate. It says, “[The agencies] shall review the Secretary’s 2019 budget justifications and give all due consideration to establishing the following objectives for 2019, as feasible and appropriate in light of those budget justifications, and consistent with applicable law and available appropriations.”


*Here is a backup copy of the Executive Order in case the one at WhiteHouse.gov disappears.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Eric. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

A correction was made December 26 about the new leadership of the Forest Service UAS program.

Forest Service intends to restore areas in Wyoming with logging, prescribed fire, and building roads

The project would take place in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming

Beaver Creek Fire intensity
Varying burn intensities on the Beaver Creek Fire in the Medicine Bow-Routt NF in Colorado about 1 mile south of the Wyoming state line. The area had large areas of beetle-killed trees. July, 2016. InciWeb.

The U.S. Forest Service has a plan to treat 360,000 acres in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming by logging, thinning, prescribed burning, and building 600 miles of roads. The justification for what they are calling the Landscape Vegetation Analysis project, or LaVA, is to treat areas in the forest with the intention of “restoring forest health”. This area just north of the Colorado/ Wyoming border has been heavily impacted by Mountain Pine Beetles, so it fits the agency’s definition of an unhealthy forest and is considered by the U.S. Forest Service as an undesirable condition.

Landscape Vegetation Analysis project
The areas in the Medicine Bow National Forest north of the Colorado line would be part of the Landscape Vegetation Analysis project.

The Forest Service intends to build 600 miles of roads, clear cut 95,000 acres, selectively cut or commercially thin 165,000 acres, and use prescribed fire, mastication, and hand thinning on 100,000 acres.

Climate change that brought drought and warmer weather has provided a better habitat for the beetles. During normal times their spread is inhibited in the higher elevations by cold winters. Several days with low temperatures of around 35 degrees below zero can knock them back, but if that does not occur the rice-sized insects can come back with a vengeance the next summer.

Beetle-killed trees can be hazardous to firefighters due to the possibility of falling trees and burning snags. And, 5 to 15 years after the outbreak heavy ground fuels make fireline construction difficult. The dead trees can also be problematic near roads, trails, and structures. But a couple of years after the beetle attack and the red needles have been shed, the tree skeletons are less prone to crown fires than green trees. In 2015 University of Colorado Boulder researcher Sarah Hart determined Western U.S. forests killed by the mountain pine beetle epidemic are no more at risk to burn than healthy Western forests. Other scientists have found similar results.

Below is an excerpt from the Washington Post:

Not everyone considers the plan a good idea. Some biologists say science doesn’t back up the efficacy of the treatments proposed, particularly logging and the prescribed burns that the Forest Service calls necessary for lodgepole pine to reproduce and more diverse species to take root.

“They say they are going to reduce fuel loads to limit wildfires, and the literature doesn’t support that,” said Daniel B. Tinker, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming, who has studied the region for 23 years. “We’ve had fires this summer that burned through areas that were clear-cut 15 years ago. Those stands weren’t supposed to burn for 100 years.”

Conservation groups also say the Forest Service truncated scientific review in a rush to meet congressional demands for increased timber production on public lands. For now, the proposal does not specify which parcels would be targeted and where those hundreds of miles of road would be built.

In the Washington Post, article Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, was quoted as saying “Certainly, prescribed burning doesn’t pay its way — it’s expensive at around $100,000 per acre.”

If there is a prescribed fire somewhere that actually cost $100,000 an acre, which is very hard to believe, it is definitely an outlier. The costs vary greatly across the country and by vegetation type. They can be as inexpensive as less than a dollar an acre in Oklahoma, but usually run $10 to $250 an acre.

The federal agencies have had to cut back on their prescribed burning programs in recent years due to budget reductions.

The Forest Service expects to make a decision on the Medicine Bow plan in mid-2019.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Gary.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

217 scientists sign letter opposing logging as a response to wildfires

The House version of the 2018 Farm Bill would expand logging on public lands

One of the favorite responses of some politicians to devastating wildfires is to call for increased logging on public lands. Their reasoning is that having fewer trees will prevent large fires. The fact is that logging does not eliminate forest fires. For example, in a clear cut there is still fuel remaining, especially if the slash is left untreated, which can spread a fire faster than a forested area and can act as spot fire traps with dry, easily ignitable vegetation that is even more susceptible to propagating a fire from airborne burning embers up to a mile away from the main fire.

The House version of the 2018 Farm Bill being considered now would expand logging on public lands in response to recent increases in wildfires. A group of 217 scientists, educators, and land managers have signed an open letter calling on decision makers to facilitate a civil dialogue and careful consideration of the science to ensure that any policy changes will result in communities being protected while safeguarding essential ecosystem processes.

Below is an excerpt from the scientists’ letter:


What Is Active Management and Does It Work to Reduce Fire Activity?

Active management has many forms and needs to be clearly defined in order to understand whether it is effective at influencing fire behavior. Management can either increase or decrease flammable vegetation, is effective or ineffective in dampening fire effects depending on many factors, especially fire weather, and has significant limitations and substantial ecological tradeoffs.

Thinning Is Ineffective in Extreme Fire Weather – Thinning is most often proposed to reduce fire risk and lower fire intensity. When fire weather is not extreme, thinning-from-below of small diameter trees followed by prescribed fire, and in some cases prescribed fire alone, can reduce fire severity in certain forest types for a limited period of time. However, as the climate changes, most of our fires will occur during extreme fire-weather (high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture). These fires, like the ones burning in the West this summer, will affect large landscapes, regardless of thinning, and, in some cases, burn hundreds or thousands of acres in just a few days. Thinning large trees, including overstory trees in a stand, can increase the rate of fire spread by opening up the forest to increased wind velocity, damage soils, introduce invasive species that increase flammable understory vegetation, and impact wildlife habitat.  Thinning also requires an extensive and expensive roads network that degrades water quality by altering hydrological functions, including chronic sediment loads.

Post-disturbance Salvage Logging Reduces Forest Resilience and Can Raise Fire Hazards – Commonly practiced after natural disturbances (such as fire or beetle activity), post-disturbance clearcut logging hinders forest resilience by compacting soils, killing natural regeneration of conifer seedlings and shrubs associated with forest renewal, increases fine fuels from slash left on the ground that aids the spread of fire, removes the most fire-resistant large live and dead trees, and degrades fish and wildlife habitat. Roads, even “temporary ones,” trigger widespread water quality problems from sediment loading. Forests that have received this type of active management typically burn more severely in forest fires.

Wilderness and Other Protected Areas Are Not Especially Fire Prone – Proposals to remove environmental protections to increase logging for wildfire concerns are misinformed. For instance, scientists recently examined the severity of 1,500 forest fires affecting over 23 million acres during the past four decades in 11 western states. They found fires burned more severely in previously logged areas, while fires burned in natural fire mosaic patterns of low, moderate and high severity, in wilderness, parks, and roadless areas, thereby, maintaining resilient forests.

Consequently, there is no legitimate reason for weakening environmental safeguards to curtail fires nor will such measures protect communities.

Closing Remarks and Need for Science-based Solutions

The recent increase in wildfire acres burning is due to a complex interplay involving human-caused climate change coupled with expansion of homes and roads into fire-adapted ecosystems and decades of industrial-scale logging practices. Policies should be examined that discourage continued residential growth in ecosystems that evolved with fire. The most effective way to protect existing homes is to ensure that they are as insusceptible to burning as possible (e.g., fire resistant building materials, spark arresting vents and rain-gutter guards) and to create defensible space within a 100-foot radius of a structure. Wildland fire policy should fund defensible space, home retrofitting measures and ensure ample personnel are available to discourage and prevent human-caused wildfire ignitions. Ultimately, in order to stabilize and ideally slow global temperature rise, which will increasingly affect how wildfires burn in the future, we also need a comprehensive response to climate change that is based on clean renewable energy and storing more carbon in ecosystems.

Public lands were established for the public good and include most of the nation’s remaining examples of intact ecosystems that provide clean water for millions of Americans, essential wildlife habitat, recreation and economic benefits to rural communities, as well as sequestering vast quantities of carbon. When a fire burns down a home it is tragic; when fire burns in a forest it is natural and essential to the integrity of the ecosystem, while also providing the most cost effective means of reducing fuels over large areas. Though it may seem to laypersons that a post-fire landscape is a catastrophe, numerous studies tell us that even in the patches where fires burn most intensely, the resulting wildlife habitats are among the most biologically diverse in the West.

For these reasons, we urge you to reject misplaced logging proposals that will damage our environment, hinder climate mitigation goals, and will fail to protect communities from wildfire.