Westerman Bill

Over the last 20 years, we have heard of many attempts to create legislation that will improve the management of our National Forests and public lands.  There was the Healthy Forest Restoration Act under the Bush administration.  It says a lot of good things, but it still fails to address the scale of the problem.  There have been other attempts at legislation, but none have made it to law.  In my opinion, the reason for this is simple.  The language has failed to capture the essence of what the public wants.  It either goes too far, and few Democrats support it, or doesn’t go far enough and loses momentum.

Westerman

Currently, there is one bill that is getting attention from all sides.  H.R. 2936 – Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, also referred to as the Westerman bill.  It was introduced by Congressman Bruce Westerman from the 4th Congressional District of Arkansas.  Bruce sits on the House Committee on Natural Resources which is where this bill was worked up. He graduated from the University of Arkansas with an engineering degree before getting a master’s degree in forestry from Yale University.  This makes him the only forester in the House of Representatives.  He also worked for Mid-South Engineering, a company that does work in the forest industry.  He has unique, credible experience.

H.R. 2936 has several parts to it.  Some are great, where others seem to miss the mark.  We need to understand that legislation is not intended to say everything and spell out everything that should be done in the forest, but it lays the foundation for future action.  I like that collaboration remains a key component.  I’m not a big fan of Resource Advisory Councils (RAC).  Basically, they are appointed individuals that are supposed to advise land managers on what should and should not be done.  My concern with this is that it doesn’t go as far as collaborative groups in getting community acceptance.  In the absence of a collaborative group, a RAC could be the best tool available.  RACs could be seen as special interest or too narrow in scope making them subject to justified criticism.

Categorical Exclusions

The other concern is the size of Categorical Exclusions (CE) in this language.  Sure, I’d like to see the size and scope of projects move quickly through the planning stage to implementation, but I see a bigger potential downside.  That downside would be a backlash on projects that don’t have full support from collaborative groups.  If we find ourselves back in the position of groups igniting smear campaigns against the forest industry for management that goes too far, we could all lose, again.

We need collaboratively minded conservation groups to support these efforts.  Our forests and our communities need lasting solutions that we can build upon.  Getting into a situation where this legislation passes because of a Republican administration only to be replaced by something else driven by environmental interests when the pendulum swings to the left will create boom and bust cycles we can’t afford.

Post Fire Restoration

Here are some ideas that might help get this to a place that gives us lasting solutions.  Many of the CE’s are designed to help after a catastrophic event like a wildfire, wind damage, insect and disease outbreak, or other natural disasters.  I fully believe that these are intended to be solutions for land managers in the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, but I think we can do better.

We should create the language that encourages forests to develop a “Post Fire Restoration Strategy.”  These would be collaboratively developed plans that would spell out how we would restore areas following a major wildfire event.  For other regions of the country where events like Hurricanes and Tornados are prevalent, strategies could be created for those as well.  It’s important to determine where and how we would restore these forests.  We have done some of this on the Colville National Forest and hope to have a strategy in place soon.

Renner Lake Fire
Burned trees along the road

We should create the language that encourages forests to develop a “Post Fire Restoration Strategy.”  These would be collaboratively developed plans that would spell out how we would restore areas following a major wildfire event.  For other regions of the country where events like Hurricanes and Tornados are prevalent, strategies could be created for those as well.  It’s important to determine where and how we would restore these forests before those efforts are needed.  The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition has done some of this on the Colville National Forest and hopes to have a strategy in place soon.

In the absence of this strategy, we should use existing guidelines for green forests.  If the fires happen where active management would typically take place, the Forest Service and the collaborative group could respond with a plan to harvest the burnt timber in much the same way that it would have looked if it were standing green.  This would give assurances to groups concerned that aggressive fire salvage efforts would lead to large clear cuts and more damage on the ground.

Restoration helps
Forest restoration along roads

We should also include a road-side restoration effort immediately.  If we have open roads through an area that has been burned, we should harvest both sides of the road as soon as possible.  We have seen numerous occasions where burnt trees start falling onto roads after a fire.  This is a safety issue.  We can easily harvest 150 feet on either side of a road, leaving any live trees.  This creates revenue that can be used for soil stabilization, replanting, and other restoration efforts.  It should be authorized and incorporated in the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team’s work.

I suggest we focus on the areas that we plan to manage and restore.  Unless we have strong collaborative support, do not focus on Port Fire Restoration work within Inventoried Roadless Areas or other sensitive areas.  If we push to harvest areas that groups find as sensitive or currently protected, we will get significant push back.  It may be possible to get collaborative support for adjusting boundaries, but until that is accomplished, I think we are asking for trouble.  We can all get more with strong collaboration.

Arbitration

Arbitration is something that could be a game changer.  If a collaborative group comes up with a plan with the Forest Service that has the full support, it should have different legal protection.  If an outside group objects to a project, it should go through as Arbitration process rather than the lengthy legal process.  The time horizon for an arbitrator’s decision should be 60 to 90 days.  This will encourage two things.  First, it will encourage everyone to work out collaborative support for projects. Secondly, it will speed up the NEPA process because the Forest Service will focus on collaborative support rather than preparing for a legal challenge.

The Forest Service needs this kind of direction.  Currently, the agencies are doing their best to collaboratively develop a land management plan. While doing so, they still need to consider all options that could derail the project in court.  If they could focus on meeting the needs of the collaborative while still adhering to the law, they could move much faster. There’s a big difference between doing the right thing and doing the right thing and preparing for a lawsuit.  We need to remove that constraint and things will happen much more fluidly.  If something is missed, someone can bring that up and if no immediate compromise can be made, a qualified arbitrator can make the call.

Thinned and burned
Healthy forests don’t just happen, they require active management.

Congress needs to continue to work on this important issue.  I would like to see them do a bit more outreach so that we can create the kind of buy-in that we need for transformative legislation that most groups can support.  Forest management shouldn’t be a political football, but it has been.  If legislation can be drafted and passed that meets the criteria of most groups we have a chance at creating a new future.

Smoke Pollution

In Northeast Washington on August 1st, 2017 we woke up to smoke from wildfires.  It wasn’t as thick here as it was in other areas, but it was bad at varying levels throughout the month.  Now that September has started it feels like August was clear.  The smoke is so thick that visibility is impaired within 100 yards and nearly nonexistent within a mile.  Your eyes burn and you find yourself continually coughing.  There’s no escape.  Some people have been living with it throughout the west like this every day for well over a month.  This is smoke pollution and it’s likely to be a problem for years.

Carbon Source?

As bad as it is, it makes me wonder about the bigger picture.  Andrew Spaeth, Forest Program Director for Sustainable Northwest, based in Portland wrote about this very thing in September of 2016 in his post for The Climate Trust titled “Pacific Northwest Forests: Carbon Sink or Carbon Source?” Have these forests been a quiet cause of carbon emissions and climate change?

Smoke in the forest
The Colville National Forest covered in a thick blanket of smoke.

When you drive around areas that are supposed to be places of natural beauty and splendor, and it feels as though you’ve been dropped into Beijing it makes you wonder what it all means.  This is supposed to be the part of the world that is capturing carbon dioxide and pumping out oxygen.  It sure seems like it’s become the other way around over the last 10 years, getting progressively worse.

Aftermath of to action
Massive fuel loads, even near roads lead to massive fires

These forests are becoming a wasteland.  How long will it take before the trees start to grow back and produce oxygen?  Many of these forests are burning hotter than ever.  I have personally seen where these forests burn so hot that it burns entire root systems out.  It scorches the earth to the point where recovery is a long and difficult process.

So here we are trying to do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint, but we’re turning our back on the very forests that are the lungs of the earth.  We need to manage these forests to save them.  We need to put the science in high gear and do what needs to be done.  That means thinning out vast acreages of forests in a way the provides them a chance to withstand fires.

Thick forests

Thick forests falling over
A conservation approach can help save our forests by reducing fuels

Thick forests lead to thick smoke. When the number of trees and the amount of brush in the forest reach many times the number that was there naturally, they not only burn hotter but create greater volumes of smoke and pollution.  Let’s say that there is three times more burnable material in the forest in 2017 than there was in 1977.  This means that in 2017 every acre of fire equals at least three times the amount of smoke 40 years ago.  If the number of acres burned in 2017 reaches 10 million acres in the United States, that means that it could be the same amount of smoke and carbon pollution of 30 million acres of burn in 1977.

Based on data collected by Georgia Tech, these new fires with more fuel are creating more health complications and pollution.  This NPR story tells the story pretty well.  Their findings were that the hotter fires we have today, fed by massive amounts of dry fuel in the forest are much worse for humans, animals, and the environment.  This new information should lead even more urgency to a solution.  Fires are going to happen, but do we need to leave this much debris in the woods?

Burnt Bark
Fire resistant bark on Ponderosa Pine

The tree species that are native to fire-prone forests are naturally wildfire resistant with thick bark and limbs high off the ground.  They need spacing that allows them to survive these intermittent fires.  In today’s public forests those trees are invisible because of a sea of small trees and brush.  When these fires start we lose all those old growth trees.  We can save them by removing the other trees that have enough value to pay for the effort to get them out.

A better way

What a novel concept.  We can build businesses that thrive from the by-product of restoring our national forests.  Sawmill technology has moved to efficiently process small and medium sized logs, not the big old growth logs of the past.  We need to build businesses that are right-sized to the needs of the problem.  We can estimate the need and build the facilities to use the trees that need to be removed.  Why aren’t we doing this?

Smoke polltion
128-foot portal log crane at Vaagen Bros Lumber in Colville, WA operates despite the smoke.

We’re not doing it because the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are effectively paralyzed.  Some of that paralysis is from lawsuits from environmental interests, and some of it is built into their culture.  A risk-averse culture that doesn’t think it’s safe to try new things or make significant changes.  Most of the conservation groups in the West agree that management is necessary.  Still, there are some that think any management is too much.  They cannot see the forest for the trees.  We cannot appease them, and we shouldn’t try.

We need to quickly mobilize and get with key leaders from conservation groups and find the issues that lead to consensus.  Once we do that, we should give those findings to Congress so they can draft legislation that works.  We don’t need something that will have conservation groups wanting to turn the tide back their way once they get political support.

We need to be proactive about this.  The forest industry and the conservation movement need to realize that we have common goals.  Once we realize that we can support our collective interests, we can see real change that benefits us all.

Smoke

Hot Weather Equals Summer Smoke

August 2017 has covered much of the West with a blanket of smoke.  Although the media has been portraying this as coming from the BC fires, there are fires throughout the region and there’s bound to be more.  This is unfortunate for everyone and our forests.

Smoke
Smoke in the Colville Valley

Continue reading “Smoke”

The New West

Growing up in the Inland Northwest in the 80’s and 90’s summers were great.  We knew fire was always possible, but it wasn’t a clear and present danger like it is now.  The last few years the summers as we knew them only last for about a month.  As soon as July rolls around it seems like a matter of time before the smoke rolls in.  The fires are so big now, that the smoke doesn’t even have to be from fires in the immediate area.

Summer in the New West

Chopper on the lookout
Helicopter spotter looking for new fires in the smokey skies of the New West summers.

Many people talk about how this is a result of climate change and past logging practices.  Although there may be shards of truth in those positions, I don’t believe it’s the real story. Continue reading “The New West”

Wildfire

The topic of wildfire raises the level of awareness of our forests.  Some of this is good.  People become aware and then they are compelled to act.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure if they are going to act in the right manner.

Wildfire in the West

In the fire-prone forests of the Intermountain West, fire is part of life.  These forests have adapted to survive regular fire intervals for centuries.  Ponderosa Pines and Western Larch are prime examples of species that are specifically capable of withstanding significant fire.  Unfortunately, some of our actions have put even the most capable trees at risk.  These actions and subsequent inactions have put entire forests and massive ecosystems at risk.

Actions: Consequence

Overstocked forests
Overgrown forests from years of fire suppression and no management.

Continue reading “Wildfire”

A to Z Update

A to Z Hearing Video

Since publishing the A to Z blog post, readers have been asking how the court appearance actually went.  Many of you may know how to find these videos, but in case you didn’t here it is.  This is the 34-minute video of the appeal hearing.  It was quite interesting to be there in person.

 

The courtroom wasn’t full, maybe less than a quarter capacity.  Of those in attendance, most were there to show support for the A to Z  project.   It was great to have the support of Sustainable NorthwestThe Nature ConservancyThe Northeast Washington Forestry CoalitionPend Oreille County Commissioner, Karen Skoog, and special thanks, to The American Forest Resource Council.  Lawson Fite, AFRC attorney, represented the collaborative interveners.  His testimony is near the end of the hearing. These people were in attendance to ensure the court knew that this project was truly collaborative.

Healthy Forest
Recently thinned stand in the A to Z project

As of the time this blog is published, we don’t know the decision of the judges.  We remain hopeful that the good work in the forest will continue. The group that worked on this did their very best to influence a project that was balancing the needs of forest thinning with wildlife habitat and clean water.  The early indications from the project are all overwhelmingly positive.  The forest looks amazing as it gets back to a natural spacing. The forest can now withstand fire when it comes, which is a far cry from the condition it was in.

Sustainable Northwest Summer Board meeting in Colville

SNW on A to Z
SNW Board talks about the A to Z project

Two weeks following the appeal hearing, the SNW Board had the opportunity to go into the woods and tour the project.  Seeing first hand what the forest looked like before and what it looks like immediately after restoration work.  It was a great time to provide a Q & A to better understand the goals of the project.

Forest Industry Infrastructure Creates Value

SNW VBL Tour
SNW Board Tours Vaagen Bros Lumber in Colville

The following day the group had the opportunity to visit the Vaagen Bros. Lumber mill in Colville.  Seeing both the work in the woods and then the way the small logs were turned into lumber, chips, biomass, sawdust, and shavings created a clear picture of the value created from and for the forest. Having healthy forest industry infrastructure helps offset the cost of forest management.

Crane Log Yard
Picture of the Vaagen log yard from the crane

In the case of Northeast Washington, the infrastructure is so well developed that the Forest Service actually gets retained receipts from the products (logs).  These retained receipts are able to fund other forest restoration work and we hope even more.  If we build more right-sized infrastructure we might be able to solve funding issues for other parts of the Forest Service like recreation, road maintenance, and possibly even money back to the counties.

VBL in Colville
Vaagen Sawmill in the Colville Valley

With fires burning again and homes being threatened and destroyed at an increasing rate, changes will be made.  We need to engage and make sure that we create a positive future for our forests.  There are some legislative bills in Washington DC that have many people talking.  We need comprehensive engagement so we can make changes that benefit everyone and the forest.

 

Prescribed Fire

There’s a great deal of talk in today’s forest management circles about the use of prescribed fire as a tool to manage forests.  Fire can certainly be a great tool to reduce forest fuels and maintain tree spacing.  It’s been used by mother nature for eons.  So much so that many tree species like Ponderosa Pine and Western Larch have become resistant to fire in order to survive the regular intervals of lightning caused fires.

Active Management and Prescribed Fire

Forest Restoration: Management then Fire
Active Management then Prescribed Fire

Prescribed fire should be used in conjunction with active forest management.   There are certainly areas where fire might be used on it’s own. It’s ideally performed in the front country with established road systems. In these areas we can commercially thin or log these areas to achieve historical spacing.  The next season it could be very beneficial to conduct prescribed fire.

Continue reading “Prescribed Fire”

Federal Land Management 2.017

If we are going to get better at managing lands we need a better land allocation method.  All lands need to be inventoried and grouped together based on desired outcomes.  We see three necessary land designations. Actively managed lands, conservation managed lands and protected as backcountry.  In doing this we can align management that is appropriate for each specific landscape.  We need to create a management strategy that is efficient, compassionate, and effective.

With so many acres facing the imminent risk catastrophic fire, we need to develop a nationwide strategy for effective forest treatment.  Many collaborative groups have laid the groundwork for what is appropriate in their local areas.  By identifying which lands are eligible for active management and conservation focus we can assign the appropriate treatment for each area.  Continue reading “Federal Land Management 2.017”

The Need For Active Forest Management

I have been meaning to use more video to tell our story.  Here’s my first shot at doing that.  This is the active management portion of the Era of Megafires presentation that Paul Hessburg with the Pacific Northwest Research Station put together with North40 Productions, both from Wenatchee, Washington.  Vaagen Bros contributed much of the raw video.

I was interviewed along with Mike Petersen, Executive Director of The Lands Council.  As you will see in the video, Mike and his organization were not supporters of active management during the time known as the “Timber Wars”.  However, due to consistent collaboration with other community members in Northeast Washington, there is a new way of managing the Colville National Forest.  Mike and I believe that we are getting closer to fixing many of the problems of the past to create a new future for our forests and rural communities that depend on them.

Continue reading “The Need For Active Forest Management”

Why…..

Why is it important to care about healthy forests? To some of you, it must seem simple and you may even intuitively feel like you know why it’s important. There’s a reason I ask “why.”

I recently had a discussion with my sister Emily. We were talking about podcasts and TED talks. She asked me if I’d listened to Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk about “why.” I hadn’t – So, I immediately did a search for it and opened it up to be sure it was the right one, which she confirmed.

Later that evening I made some time to watch it. It was fascinating. I would encourage you to check it out for yourself. Basically, he says that we all have a biological need to know why it is that we’re doing something. When we know why” we can get behind a cause. We feel that cause and work diligently to see if come to fruition, regardless of the odds. An example that he gave was the Wright Brothers and their pursuit of flight while there were many other entities that had more money and more support staff.  They were able to do it because they absolutely knew their why.”

So why is great forest management so important to all of us? Forests are beautiful, resilient systems that provide all kinds of benefits for us. The big push in the 80’s and 90’s was to leave that system alone and allow it to be natural. It’s a novel concept that can actually work in some areas of the remote backcountry. In the reality we now know there are dire consequences to leaving the forests alone.

 

Overstocked forests that are decimated by pine beetles
Overstocked forests that are decimated by pine beetles

 

People have become an integral part of the forests. Human activity influences the way forests grow, the way they die, and how they die. When we cut trees the forest doesn’t necessarily die or have to start over. We can thin forests and we can mimic natural openings that allow forests to operate much like they would naturally. Why is this important?

 

Massive Smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States
Massive smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States

Well, we need to ensure fires don’t get out of control and create mega-fires that scorch the earth and burn everything in their paths. Because of public safety, we will always put fires out and strive to keep them at bay. We must manage the forest systems by thinning, creating openings, and leaving clusters of trees. This will recreate a natural forest type that is resilient to insects, disease and that is ultimately fire. When managed properly in this way, fires can actually be beneficial for the landscape and can also be safely managed.

Beneficial fire
Beneficial fire that reduces fuel levels and protects forests

So why do I do this? Why is it critically important to me? Because I can easily see that we can have all the abundance we want from the forest. We can provide rural jobs in the forest, where the labor of proper thinning and grooming is done. We can also offer rural jobs in the mills, using of the byproducts of forest management to make lumber. We can develop emerging mass timber products that allow us to build better wooden structures in the ever-changing and growing urban landscape. And we can begin to reverse the massive carbon pollution and destruction that mega-fires cause in our forests, by removing some of the small and medium sized trees that threaten the forest as a whole.

Post harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground
Post-harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground

I see a historic battle of rhetoric that is built on mistrust and past war wounds. We need to set aside our biases and do what’s best for the forests and the people. This act of intentional balance can be achieved to benefit everything and everyone that depends on our forests. At the end of the day what better “why” is there?

Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area
Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area