Tag Archives: rim fire

November ISSUE OF THE BIOMASS MONITOR: Should We Log Burned Forests for Biomass Energy?

Should We Log Burned Forests for Biomass Energy? [November 2016]

Inside this issue:

Forest Service Studies Soil Impacts of Bioenergy Logging

Forest Biomass Utilization Combatting Catastrophic Wildfires

The Disconnect Between Myth and Reality in the Rim Fire

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[OPINION] The Disconnect Between Myth and Reality in the Rim Fire

[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Forest Biomass Utilization Combatting Catastrophic Wildfires,” by Julia Levin, Bioenergy Association of California & Tad Mason, Registered Professional Forester]

– by Chad Hanson, Research Ecologist, John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute

Large fires in the western U.S. have become the stuff of myth in recent years, with the public dialogue surrounding such fires now taking on the character of fish tales. Everything gets bigger, more dramatic, and more extreme with each telling, often resulting in an ever-widening gap between fact and fiction. There is perhaps no fire for which this is more true than the 257,000-acre Rim fire of 2013 in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

Demonized by the Forest Service and the timber industry’s allies in Congress as a “moonscape,” where the fire burned so intensely that it “sterilized” the soil, the impression was created in the popular imagination of a landscape overwhelmingly dominated by high-intensity fire effects in the Rim fire, where every tree was killed and little or nothing would grow in the future. One local logging industry advocate claimed, without any basis in evidence, that the Rim fire moved so fast that deer could not outrun it and birds could not fly fast enough to escape. All of these claims were repeatedly reported in the news coverage as if they were fact. In the context of this narrative, pro-logging members of Congress and the timber industry pushed for a massive post-fire logging program on National Forest lands, and the U.S. Forest Service complied.

But it is now more than three years after the Rim fire, and the smoke has long since cleared, so what is the truth?

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[OPINION] Forest Biomass Utilization Combatting Catastrophic Wildfires

[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “The Disconnect Between Myth and Reality in the Rim Fire,” by Chad Hanson, John Muir Project]

– by Julia Levin, Executive Director, Bioenergy Association of California & Tad Mason, Registered Professional Forester

California’s 2013 Rim Fire burned more than a quarter million acres; early estimates suggest that damage to the environment and property values could reach $1.8 billion. It destroyed wildlife habitat, released millions of tons of carbon emissions, and damaged key watersheds.

Sadly, catastrophic wildfires like the Rim Fire are increasing in frequency throughout the inland West. Land managers are very focused on proactive strategies to address the unnatural buildup of forest biomass. Forest thinning and hazardous fuels removal are important strategies to return forest landscapes to a healthier and more fire resilient condition. Utilization of this excess forest biomass as a feedstock for renewable power generation can provide a market-based solution that serves as an alternative to current biomass disposal techniques such as piling and burning or leaving biomass material on site.

Western forests are suffering from the combined impacts of past fire suppression efforts, development, and climate change, which is causing higher temperatures, reduced snow pack, invasive species and more intense weather events that trigger wildfires. Together, these factors are causing a perfect storm of weakened, combustible forests that lead to catastrophic wildfires. California has lost more acres to wildfire in the past five years than in the previous seventy years combined. In 2015 alone, California lost an area larger than the state of Rhode Island to wildfire. Other western states tell a similar story.

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[OPINION] Wildfire: Thinning Forests for Biomass Energy Can Reduce Fire Severity

[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Wildfire: Dead Trees Vital to Forests,” by ecologist George Wuerthner.]

– by John Buckley, Executive Director, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center

Over 13 years as a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, I worked primarily on hotshot fire crews. During those years I fought a number of the largest wildfires ever documented in California as well as many other wildfires elsewhere across the West.

For years I taught wildland fire behavior classes, helped ignite and manage prescribed burn projects, and spent entire summer/fall seasons (between wildfires) doing post-fire restoration work in recently burned areas.

From that experience, I can emphasize that fuel loading, fuel arrangement, continuity of fuel, and fuel moisture combine with fire weather, topography, time of day, and other factors to determine fire intensity. Put simply, the more dry fuel that is packed on moderate to steep hillsides on a hot summer afternoon when there are up-slope or up-canyon winds, the higher the likelihood that a wildfire will make major runs that kill a large percentage of trees that might survive a lower intensity fire.

Strategically planned biomass removal projects can reduce that build-up of excessive fuel.

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California Gets $70 Million for Logging and Bioenergy After Rim Fire

– by Alysson Aredas, January 26, 2016, Turlock Journal


Photo: Turlock Journal

California is hoping a $70.4 million grant will help prevent wildfires with the likes of the Rim Fire—which scorched approximately 400 square miles of land in Tuolumne County nearly three years ago—from dealing another devastating blow to the region and ultimately the state.

The state was one of 13 recipients to receive funding from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of its $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition. With this funding, California plans to pilot its Community and Watershed Resilience Program in Tuolumne County.

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US Forest Service Moves to Start Clearcutting in Rim Fire Area

– by Chad Hanson, August 28, 2014, Earth Island Journal 

[How much of the forests that experienced the Rim Fire will be feeding biomass incinerators? -Ed.]

The US Forest Service issued a draft decision yesterday for a massive post-fire logging project in the Stanislaus National Forest portion of the 2013 California Rim Fire, which covered 257,171 acres on the national forest and Yosemite National Park. A final, signed decision on the proposal is expected this afternoon.

The draft decision proposes over 37,000 acres of intensive post-fire logging, which would remove the majority of the rarest and most ecologically valuable habitat resulting from the fire on the Stanislaus National Forest: “snag forest habitat” created by high-intensity fire in mature conifer forest. (Forty one percent of the Rim Fire area was comprised of non-conifer vegetation, such as grassland and foothill chaparral, and most of the forest area burned at low/moderate-intensity, wherein only a portion of the trees were killed).

This would include essentially clear-cutting 95 percent of the snags (standing fire-killed trees) in 19,462 acres of the fire area. An additional 17,706 acres of “roadside” logging is planned along roads, including old logging roads, which are not maintained for public use (and many of which are closed roads, long since decommissioned). Much of this would be clearcut too, including live, healthy, mature, and old-growth trees, which would be removed by the thousands, for no credible public safety benefit, based upon profoundly vague criteria that allow just about any tree to be cut.

Because the Forest Service has closed most of the Rim Fire area to public access, and because the agency is not marking trees before they cut them along roads, there is no accountability.

The Forest Service would keep 100 percent of the revenue from selling the timber from our federal public lands to private logging companies. Most of these funds would be used to pay Forest Service staff to implement future post-fire logging projects, under the “Salvage Sale Fund.”

As I have reported previously in Earth Island Journal (see here and here), the Forest Service has repeatedly claimed over the past year that the Rim Fire damaged and destroyed the forest, using this as a justification to propose one of the largest commercial logging projects in the history of the national forest system. The agency’s comments along these lines have been particularly pointed with regard to California spotted owls. Even before the smoke cleared last year the Forest Service has claimed that the fire was too big and intense for spotted owls, suggesting that post-fire logging would have little adverse impact because most of the Rim Fire area is no longer suitable habitat for the owl.

The agency repeats this claim in various forms in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and draft decision, released on August 27, 2014, which is interesting, given that the Forest Service’s own wildlife biologists have been gathering data on California spotted owl occupancy in the Rim fire since the spring of this year, and the results—which are nowhere mentioned in the FEIS or draft decision — are dramatically at odds with the Forest Service’s claims in the media.

The John Muir Project (JMP), Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Wild Nature Institute (WNI) requested the 2014 spotted owl occupancy results in the Rim Fire area from the Forest Service in spring this year. Initially the agency refused to give us the data, but finally it relented and provided some preliminary data on June 5. However, most of the surveys had yet to be completed at that time. When we requested the final data, the Forest Service again refused first and then relented, ultimately providing the complete results in mid-August.

Monica Bond, a scientist with WNI, who is the nation’s top expert on the relationship between spotted owls and wildland fire, analyzed the data and produced a report which was sent to the Forest Service on August 21. Her findings are startling. Bond found that one year after the Rim Fire, a total of 92 percent of the historic spotted owl territories within fire-affected area is already reoccupied by spotted owls, and 87 percent of the territories are occupied by pairs.

To put this in perspective, average annual spotted owl occupancy in mature/old unburned forest is 67-76 percent.  The owls do not occupy an individual territory every single year so, within any given year, a portion of the territories that have been occupied one or more times in the past will not be occupied.  A rate of 92 percent occupancy is, therefore, sky high. Not only is it substantially higher than occupancy rates in unburned mature/old forest in the Sierra Nevada, the 2014 results indicate that the owls specifically colonized a number of areas that were unoccupied before the fire — i.e., spotted owls deliberately moved into the Rim Fire area, rather than leaving it. According to Bond’s analysis, even in the territories that experienced mostly high-intensity fire, the spotted owl pair occupancy rates are essentially the same as in territories with low levels of high-intensity fire.

This result should not be so surprising given that current research shows that while spotted owls select unburned or low/moderate-intensity fire areas for nesting and roosting habitat, they preferentially select unlogged high-intensity fire areas for their foraging habitat. This is because these high-intensity fire areas, which create ecologically-vital snag forest habitat, have an abundance of habitat structures, such as snags, downed logs, native shrub patches, and areas of dense natural conifer regeneration, that provide excellent habitat for the small mammal prey species upon which spotted owls depend. Given this, it is also not surprising that when much or most of the snag forest habitat is removed through post-fire logging, it strongly tends to extirpate the owls, which are declining in population throughout the Sierra Nevada, except where mechanical “thinning” and post-fire logging are not allowed (e.g., Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park).

To prevent a loss of spotted owl occupancy, scientists have recommended that the Forest Service avoid post-fire logging at least within 1500 meters of nest or roost locations. But in the draft Rim Fire decision, the Forest Service is proposing to conduct post-fire logging within most of the occupied spotted owl territories. In some of these territories, most of the area would be clearcut, leaving large barren expanses.

There have also been interesting developments on another high-profile issue pertaining to the Rim Fire — natural forest regeneration in the high-intensity fire patches. In my previous articles on the Rim fire for the Earth Island Journal, I have discussed the abundance of natural post-fire conifer regeneration that I, and others, have observed in the large high-intensity fire patches within the Rim Fire area. However, these observations were based upon short excursions into the fire area due to the fact that the Forest Service has prohibited public access to most of the fire-affected area, and has allowed only limited, and brief, exceptions.

In order to more rigorously document the extent of natural conifer regeneration in the Rim Fire area, we need to spend several days in the fire area doing conifer regeneration surveys in numerous plots. (This would also help us inform the public about what would be lost if the region is logged. Science shows that post-fire logging kills most of the natural conifer regeneration, literally crushing it under tractor treads of heavy logging machinery)

JMP and CBD have asked the Forest Service several times for permission to access the fire area in order to formally document the level of natural conifer regeneration before logging destroys the evidence. So far, the Forest Service has refused our request, giving no reason whatsoever.

This is a significant issue not only because it prevents natural conifer regeneration — we lose seedlings of conifers that have specifically adapted, over millennia, to the particular soil and site conditions at each location in the forest and end up with generic nursery-grown conifer seedlings planted by the Forest Service — but it also costs taxpayers more.

The Forest Service has repeatedly claimed that they need to implement the Rim Fire logging project in order to generate revenue to pay for conifer planting. This is a deliberate falsehood on two levels. First, it implies that there is little or no natural conifer regeneration happening in the Rim Fire area, which we now know is not true. Second, it suggests that the revenue from the logging would generally be used for replanting, and would be sufficient to cover replanting costs.

In reality, killing-off the existing natural conifer regeneration in the Rim Fire area through logging will cost taxpayers millions. The Forest Service estimates that it will generate about $200 per acre in revenue from the logging project. However, the agency’s own documents show that artificial planting (including site preparation and planting expenses) costs about $700 to $1000 per acre, and sometimes even more. Therefore, on any given acre, when post-fire logging kills natural conifer regeneration, the net cost to taxpayers for replanting the areas is at least $500 to $600. The real cost could be even higher given that under the Salvage Sale Fund most of the timber sale receipts are typically required to be allocated to future post-fire logging projects, not replanting.

As the environmental assessment for another, much smaller, recent Forest Service post-fire logging project — the Aspen post-fire logging project, Sierra National Forest  — recently admitted: “Foregoing recovery and reforestation treatments would save taxpayers approximately $3,287,000 of appropriated funding needed to implement these activities.”  Because of the massive size of the Rim Fire, the net cost to taxpayers — just on this issue alone — would, by conservative estimates, be more than $15 million, and could easily top $25 million.

And for what? So the Forest Service can generate about $5 million in revenue from selling public timber to private logging companies — most of which would be used to pay Forest Service staff to implement the next round of post-fire logging projects?  This is a system so corrupt, so wrong-headed, and so outrageously damaging and wasteful, it boggles the mind and shocks the conscience. This is, essentially, nineteenth-century forestry management ideology being applied in the twenty-first century.

Even though more than 150 scientists sent a letter to the Forest Service specifically urging the agency not to log the Rim Fire area, pointing out that the snag forest habitat created by higher-intensity fire is the rarest, most biodiverse, and most threatened forest habitat type in the Sierra Nevada, the Forest Service ignored the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community.

The message here is clear: It is time for a major change in management on our national forests.

The Ecological Importance of California’s Rim Fire

– by Chad Hanson, John Muir Project

Since the Rim fire began in the central Sierra Nevada on August 17, there has been a steady stream of fearful, hyperbolic, and misinformed reporting in much of the media. The fire, which is currently 188,000 acres in size and covers portions of the Stanislaus National Forest and the northwestern corner of Yosemite National Park, has been consistently described as “catastrophic”, “destructive”, and “devastating.” One story featured a quote from a local man who said he expected “nothing to be left”. However, if we can, for a moment, set aside the fear, the panic, and the decades of misunderstanding about wildland fires in our forests, it turns out that the facts differ dramatically from the popular misconceptions. The Rim fire is a good thing for the health of the forest ecosystem. It is not devastation, or loss. It is ecological restoration.

What relatively few people in the general public understand at present is that large, intense fires have always been a natural part of fire regimes in Sierra Nevada forests. Patches of high-intensity fire, wherein most or all trees are killed, creates “snag forest habitat,” which is the rarest, and one of the most ecologically important, forest habitat types in the entire Sierra Nevada. Contrary to common myths, even when forest fires burn hottest, only a tiny proportion of the aboveground biomass is actually consumed (typically less than 3 percent). Habitat is not lost. Far from it. Instead, mature forest is transformed into “snag forest”, which is abundant in standing fire-killed trees, or “snags,” patches of native fire-following shrubs, downed logs, colorful flowers, and dense pockets of natural conifer regeneration.

This forest rejuvenation begins in the first spring after the fire. Native wood-boring beetles rapidly colonize burn areas, detecting the fires from dozens of miles away through infrared receptors that these species have evolved over millennia, in a long relationship with fire. The beetles bore under the bark of standing snags and lay their eggs, and the larvae feed and develop there. Woodpecker species, such as the rare and imperiled black-backed woodpecker (currently proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act), depend upon snag forest habitat and wood-boring beetles for survival.

One black-backed woodpecker eats about 13,500 beetle larvae every year — and that generally requires at least 100 to 200 standing dead trees per acre. Black-backed woodpeckers, which are naturally camouflaged against the charred bark of a fire-killed tree, are a keystone species, and they excavate a new nest cavity every year, even when they stay in the same territory. This creates homes for numerous secondary cavity-nesting species, like the mountain bluebird (and, occasionally, squirrels and even martens), that cannot excavate their own nest cavities. The native flowering shrubs that germinate after fire attract many species of flying insects, which provide food for flycatchers and bats; and the shrubs, new conifer growth, and downed logs provide excellent habitat for small mammals. This, in turn, attracts raptors, like the California spotted owl and northern goshawk, which nest and roost mainly in the low/moderate-intensity fire areas, or in adjacent unburned forest, but actively forage in the snag forest habitat patches created by high-intensity fire — a sort of “bedroom and kitchen” effect. Deer thrive on the new growth, black bears forage happily on the rich source of berries, grubs, and small mammals in snag forest habitat, and even rare carnivores like the Pacific fisher actively hunt for small mammals in this post-fire habitat.

In fact, every scientific study that has been conducted in large, intense fires in the Sierra Nevada has found that the big patches of snag forest habitat support levels of native biodiversity and total wildlife abundance that are equal to or (in most cases) higher than old-growth forest. This has been found in the Donner fire of 1960, the Manter and Storrie fires of 2000, the McNally fire of 2002, and the Moonlight fire of 2007, to name a few. Wildlife abundance in snag forest increases up to about 25 or 30 years after fire, and then declines as snag forest is replaced by a new stand of forest (increasing again, several decades later, after the new stand becomes old forest). The woodpeckers, like the black-backed woodpecker, thrive for 7 to 10 years after fire generally, and then must move on to find a new fire, as their beetle larvae prey begins to dwindle. Flycatchers and other birds increase after 10 years post-fire, and continue to increase for another two decades. Thus, snag forest habitat is ephemeral, and native biodiversity in the Sierra Nevada depends upon a constantly replenished supply of new fires.

It would surprise most people to learn that snag forest habitat is far rarer in the Sierra Nevada than old-growth forest. There are about 1.2 million acres of old-growth forest in the Sierra, but less than 400,000 acres of snag forest habitat, even after including the Rim fire to date. This is due to fire suppression, which has, over decades, substantially reduced the average annual amount of high-intensity fire relative to historic levels, according to multiple studies. Because of this, and the combined impact of extensive post-fire commercial logging on national forest lands and private lands, we have far less snag forest habitat now than we had in the early twentieth century, and before. This has put numerous wildlife species at risk. These are species that have evolved to depend upon the many habitat features in snag forest — habitat that cannot be created by any other means. Further, high-intensity fire is not increasing currently, according to most studies (and contrary to widespread assumptions), and our forests are getting wetter, not drier (according to every study that has empirically investigated this question), so we cannot afford to be cavalier and assume that there will be more fire in the future, despite fire suppression efforts.  We will need to purposefully allow more fires to burn, especially in the more remote forests.

The black-backed woodpecker, for example, has been reduced to a mere several hundred pairs in the Sierra Nevada due to fire suppression, post-fire logging, and commercial thinning of forests, creating a significant risk of future extinction unless forest management policies change, and unless forest plans on our national forests include protections (which they currently do not). This species is a “management indicator species”, or bellwether, for the entire group of species associated with snag forest habitat. As the black-backed woodpecker goes, so too do many other species, including some that we probably don’t yet know are in trouble. The Rim fire has created valuable snag forest habitat in the area in which it was needed most in the Sierra Nevada: the western slope of the central portion of the range. Even the Forest Service’s own scientists have acknowledged that the levels of high-intensity fire in this area are unnaturally low, and need to be increased. In fact, the last moderately significant fires in this area occurred about a decade ago, and there was a substantial risk that a 200-mile gap in black-backed woodpeckers populations was about to develop, which is not a good sign from a conservation biology standpoint. The Rim fire has helped this situation, but we still have far too little snag forest habitat in the Sierra Nevada, and no protections from the ecological devastation of post-fire logging.

Recent scientific studies have caused scientists to substantially revise previous assumptions about historic fire regimes and forest structure. We now know that Sierra Nevada forests, including ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests, were not homogenously “open and parklike” with only low-intensity fire. Instead, many lines of evidence, and many published studies, show that these areas were often very dense, and were dominated by mixed-intensity fire, with high-intensity fire proportions ranging generally from 15 percent to more than 50 percent, depending upon the fire and area. Numerous historic sources, and reconstructions, document that large high-intensity fire patches did in fact occur prior to fire suppression and logging. Often these patches were hundreds of acres in size, and occasionally they were thousands — even tens of thousands — of acres. So, there is no ecological reason to fear or lament fires like the Rim fire, especially in an era of ongoing fire deficit.

Most fires, of course, are much smaller, and less intense than the Rim fire, including the other fires occurring this year. Over the past quarter-century fires in the Sierra Nevada have been dominated on average by low/moderate-intensity effects, including in the areas that have not burned in several decades. But, after decades of fear-inducing, taxpayer-subsidized, anti-fire propaganda from the US Forest Service, it is relatively easier for many to accept smaller, less intense fires, and more challenging to appreciate big fires like the Rim fire. However, if we are to manage forests for ecological integrity, and maintain the full range of native wildlife species on the landscape, it is a challenge that we must embrace.

Encouragingly, the previous assumption about a tension between the restoration of more fire in our forests and home protection has proven to be false. Every study that has investigated this issue has found that the only way to effectively protect homes is to reduce combustible brush in “defensible space” within 100 to 200 feet of individual homes. Current forest management policy on national forest lands, unfortunately, remains heavily focused not only on suppressing fires in remote wildlands far from homes, but also on intensive mechanical “thinning” projects — which typically involve the commercial removal of upwards of 80 percent of the trees, including mature trees and often old-growth trees —that are mostly a long distance from homes. This not only diverts scarce resources away from home protection, but also gives homeowners a false sense of security because a federal agency has implied, incorrectly, that they are now protected from fire — a context that puts homes further at risk.

The new scientific data is telling us that we need not fear fire in our forests. Fire is doing important and beneficial ecological work, and we need more of it, including the occasional large, intense fires. Nor do we need to balance home protection with the restoration of fire’s role in our forests. The two are not in conflict. We do, however, need to muster the courage to transcend our fears and outdated assumptions about fire. Our forest ecosystems will be better for it.

Chad Hanson, the director of the John Muir Project (JMP) of Earth Island Institute, has a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of California at Davis, and focuses his research on forest and fire ecology in the Sierra Nevada. He can be reached at cthanson1@gmail.com, or visit JMP’s website at www.johnmuirproject.org for more information, and for citations to specific studies pertaining to the points made in this article.