Wildfire Recovery Debate Goes On

The Union Democrat
By Guy McCarthy, July 24, 2015

Management of federal forest lands in the Mother Lode, especially fire suppression and recovery efforts in the wake of giant blazes like the 2013 Rim Fire, could change if two recently proposed laws pass through Congress.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, co-authored by the congressman representing the Mother Lode, was passed on July 9 by the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate. The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors approved sending a letter this week to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, urging her to support the bill.

“Not only will recovery from catastrophic wildfire be streamlined under HR 2647, but fire prevention will be enhanced,” John L. Gray, Tuolumne County’s board chairman, said in the July 21 letter to California’s senior senator. “This commonsense bill addresses a number of loopholes, including unnecessary delays during the wildfire recovery process. If enacted, forest health, watershed health, and wildlife habitat would all improve.”

Also in the Senate, the National Forest Ecosystem Improvement Act of 2015 was introduced June 25 by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming. The aim of the bill is to “expedite and prioritize forest management activities to achieve ecosystem restoration objectives, and for other purposes,” the legislation states. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held hearings on S1691 last week.

‘Streamlining’ forest management

Streamlining and expediting forest management practices have been hot-button topics in the Mother Lode since before the Rim Fire burned more than 400 square miles, including portions of the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, between August and October 2013.

But environmentalists have opposed some Rim Fire restoration efforts, especially logging in burned areas. They’ve argued in unsuccessful legal challenges that cutting down fire-damaged trees threatens spotted owls living in and near burned habitat.

Some local elected leaders, loggers, ranchers and residents have criticized groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity as deep-pocketed outsiders who use lawyers, twisted science and circular logic to block any activity on forest lands.

Environmental regulations and policies have consigned federal forests to decades of benign neglect, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, said earlier this month when the House passed the Resilient Federal Forests Act.

Now a scientist who works with groups opposed to Rim Fire logging is presenting data and observations from Rim Fire burn areas, in part to rally opposition to the pending laws in Congress.

Chad Hanson is a forest ecologist with Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project. Earth Island Institute is based in Berkeley. Hanson is based in the east San Bernardino Mountains east of Big Bear Lake. He says he has visited Rim Fire burn areas multiple times, every few weeks or so excluding winter months, to track the return of plants and wildlife since the fire’s been out.

‘Ideal habitat’

Hanson contends that during the Rim Fire, protected forest areas with no history of logging burned with the least intensity, that the Forest Service initially exaggerated fire intensity assessments across the Rim Fire footprint, and that even high-intensity burn areas make ideal habitat for regenerating plant life, insects and animals, so long as they are not logged out.

“You want that dead material to come through the fire,” Hanson said Thursday in a phone interview. “The standing dead trees, the snags, that is some of the best wildlife habitat we have in the forests.” 

Hanson summarized life-chain recovery in unlogged burned areas by starting with beetles.

“Fire burns, and there are native beetles, wood boring beetles,” Hanson said. “They lay eggs on the bark of fire-killed trees, and that’s what woodpeckers eat, the larva. The woodpeckers create nest cavities in fire-killed trees.

“Then mountain bluebirds, nuthatches, flying squirrels and chickadees use the abandoned woodpecker nest cavities,” Hanson said.

Native shrubs that germinate after fire attract abundant flying insects, including butterflies and bees, which in turn attract fly-catching birds and native bats, Hanson said. Native shrubs that germinate after a fire, and natural regeneration of conifers and oaks, create excellent habitat for small mammals.

“What this means is spotted owls have a great prey base on all the small mammals living in the shrubs and the downed logs,” Hanson said. “Then you have species like the Northern goshawk that eat woodpeckers and flycatchers so they have more food.”

Large mammals like deer come into regenerating burn areas to eat new shrubs and other vegetation growing in the understory, Hanson said. Bears come for the berries on shrubs growing after a fire, and grubs, the beetle larva in downed logs, as well as small mammals including ground squirrels and chipmunks.

“The bottom line is these fires, the burn areas after the fires, they are ecological treasure troves,” Hanson said. “It’s really wonderful habitat.”

Fire intensity assessments

Hanson said he’s been finding “hundreds of conifer seedlings per acre even in highest intensity burn areas,” and this directly contradicts what the Forest Service has been telling the public in order to justify their ongoing logging project.

Hanson said he and other researchers compared final Rim Fire severity data produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Forest Service, and geographic information systems data on land ownership, to see if fire severity in ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests might be different across land ownerships.

“We found that the forests with the fewest environmental protections, where the most logging was allowed to occur before the fire, such as private timberlands, burned most intensely, and the forests with the greatest environmental protections and no previous logging, such as national parkland, burned least intensely,” Hanson said.

“National Forest lands, which have intermediate levels of environmental protections, had levels of fire intensity that were in between those of private lands and national parks,” Hanson said.

Forest Service perspective

In a 2014 analysis titled “Forest Vegetation Report: Rim Fire Recovery Project,” Forester Roger Brown and Silviculturist Dana Walsh said high-severity burns may be less likely to reforest naturally.

“While some studies have not been able to associate tree regeneration patterns in stand replacing patches with patch characteristics, seedling regeneration and especially pine regeneration are reduced in patches of high severity fire,” Brown and Walsh said.

“Based on the current scientific information and previous experience it is expected … regeneration of conifers and especially of pine in the area classified as high severity will be limited compared to other areas of the fire that burned at lower intensity.”

More than 7,400 acres in the Rim Fire burn in the Stanislaus National Forest have been logged, Barbara Drake, director of the forest’s Rim Fire recovery team, said in May.

“It never stopped,” Drake said. “We only got wintered out for a couple of days. We stopped for a couple of days because the roads were wet at one point earlier this year.”

Logging in the forest’s Rim Fire burn area is expected to continue through Oct. 31, 2016, Drake said. The Forest Service has approval to log more than 17,300 acres of the burn inside Stanislaus National Forest boundaries, Drake said.

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