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February 27, 2006

Biscuit Salvage Study Controversy Won't Die

We first aired the Donato study controversy, what we might call The Donato Affair, on January 12

Since then the controversy has morphed and moved, but won't go away. Here is the latest from The Washington Post .

In Fire's Wake, Logging Study Inflames Debate
University Study Challenges Cutting Of Burnt Timber
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006; Page A03

…Logging after the Biscuit fire, the study found, has harmed forest recovery and increased fire risk. What the short study did not say -- but what many critics of the Bush administration are reading into it -- is that the White House has ignored science to please the timber industry. The study is consistent with research findings from around the world that have documented how salvage logging can strip burned forests of the biological diversity that fire and natural recovery help protect.

The study also questions the scientific rationale behind a bill pending in Congress that would ease procedures for post-fire logging in federal forests. This, in turn, has annoyed the bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who has received far more campaign money from the forest products industry than from any other source, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Logging after fires is becoming more and more important to the bottom line of timber companies. It generates about 40 percent of timber volume on the nation's public lands, according to Forest Service data compiled by the World Wildlife Fund, and accounts for nearly half the logging on public land in Oregon.

But there is much more to the dispute than money. The Oregon State study was published in Science, the prestigious peer-reviewed journal. It appeared after a group of professors from the university's College of Forestry, which gets 10 percent of its funding from the timber industry, tried to halt its publication.

Professors behind the failed attempt to keep the article out of Science had earlier written their own non-peer-reviewed study of the Biscuit fire -- a study embraced by the Bush administration and the timber industry. It said post-fire logging and replanting were exactly what was needed to speed growth of big trees and suppress fire.

A couple of weeks after the Science article appeared and infuriated the forest industry, the federal Bureau of Land Management, which footed the bill for the study of the Biscuit fire, cut off the final year of the three-year, $300,000 grant. BLM officials said the authors violated their funding contract by attempting to influence legislation pending in Congress.

After the cutoff, Democrats in the Northwest congressional delegation complained about government censorship, academic freedom and the politicization of science in the Bush administration. Within a week, the BLM backed down and restored the grant.

Oregon State University has officially scolded the forestry professors for inappropriate behavior and praised the authors of the Science article.
Still, the issue is far from over.

On Friday here in Medford, there was a field hearing of the House subcommittee on forests and forest health, which is chaired by Walden, chief sponsor of the forest recovery bill that was cast in a dim light by the Science article.

In this corner of Oregon, where environmentalists and logging interests have been jousting for decades, jawboning about forest policy is a spectator sport. The hearing, held in Medford City Hall, was so packed with spectators that the fire marshal insisted it could begin only after he delivered a stern lecture on emergency exits.

The hearing's star witness -- and principal punching bag -- was Daniel Donato, lead author of the Science article and a graduate student at Oregon State's forestry school. By at least a decade, he was the youngest participant in the hearing. Rail thin and wearing neatly pressed khakis, he looked even younger.
Walden accused Donato, 29, of having failed to tell his federal research supervisor about the findings of his study, as is required by the terms of his research contract with the federal government. Donato conceded that he had not known about the requirement for consultation and that he knows more about it now.

Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), another member of the subcommittee and a co-sponsor of the forest recovery bill, was even more disgruntled. He charged Donato with a long list of professional failings and character flaws, including "deliberate bias," lack of humility and ignorance of statistical theory.
Donato smiled nervously through these attacks and politely -- but firmly -- told the hearing that his article was solid on its facts and fair in its conclusions. He also said the forest study should not be viewed as, nor was it intended to be, the final word on post-fire logging.

After Donato was excused, one of the nation's best-known forest ecologists attempted to summarize the world's collective scientific knowledge on logging after fires. Jerry Franklin, a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Washington's College of Forest Resources, warned the hearing that Congress should be careful not to prescribe salvage logging as a cure-all for every forest fire.

Salvage logging and replanting can often succeed, Franklin said, if the intent is to turn a scorched landscape into a stand of trees for commercial harvest.

If, however, Congress wants to promote the ecologically sound recovery of burned federal forests, Franklin said, the overwhelming weight of scientific research suggests that "salvage logging is not going to be appropriate." {emphasis added}

More information can be found at the Red Lodge Clearinghouse.

Here are the papers from the Feb. 24 Congressional Field Oversight Hearing.
And below are excerpts from Jerry Franklin's testimony:

...The results provided by Donato et al. (2006), for example, should not have surprised anyone. The negative impacts of post-fire logging on natural regeneration have been reported in many past studies, including one conducted on the Tillamook Burn by the guru of Douglas-fir management, Leo A. Isaac (Isaac and Meagher 1938).

Biological legacies are a key factor contributing to rapid ecological recovery (Franklin et al. 2000). The concept of biological legacies emerged from research at Mount St. Helens but it is applicable to essentially all disturbance types. Biological legacies consist of living organisms, organic matter, and organically-created patterns that persist from the pre-disturbance ecosystem and strongly influence the development of the post-disturbance ecosystem. Living legacies are extremely diverse in form and often abundant, typically ranging from spores and seeds to large trees and sexually mature animals. Legacies of organic matter are also abundant since trees and other plants are killed but very little organic matter is actually consumed or removed in natural disturbances, including intense wildfires. Legacies of organic matter are most apparent in the concentrated forms of standing dead trees (snags) and downed boles (logs), material often referred to as coarse wood.

Snags, logs, and other coarse wood are biological legacies of extraordinary significance to ecological recovery, second only to surviving trees. The literature on the ecological role of coarse wood is immense; Harmon et al. (2004) and Maser et al. (1988) provide excellent entry points into this literature. The functions of such material are many. Logs and snags provide critical habitat for probably ½ to 2/3 of forest animal life (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates). Coarse wood is a long-term source of energy and nutrients but, unlike other organic matter, coarse wood is also a site for nitrogen fixation. Coarse wood has significant direct physical influences on geomorphic and hydrologic processes, such as erosion, sediment deposition, and the physical structure of stream and river ecosystems. Residual wood structures significantly modify the microclimatic regime of the disturbed site, which is important in lifeboating diversity and in facilitating the establishment of natural tree reproduction.

Logs, snags and other wood persist and progressively play these and other roles for many decades and even centuries, particularly in the case of larger and more decay-resistant wood and in the case of aquatic ecosystems. Furthermore, where a stand-replacement disturbance has occurred, the resulting pulse of large wood in the form of snags and logs is all of the coarse wood that the recovering ecosystem is going to get for the next 60 to 80 years or more—i.e., until the new forest is large enough to begin generating large snags and logs on its own (Spies 1988). In part, this is the basis for my comment in earlier testimony that, from an ecological perspective, it is better to harvest living trees from an intact forest than to remove dead trees from an intensely burned site.

Ecological science also provides substantial insight into landscape-level issues that need to be considered in any type of post-disturbance management activity, such as ecological impacts of logging (e.g., Lindenmayer and Franklin 2002). All parts of a landscape are not created equal. The special importance of riparian habitats in a forest landscape exemplifies this principle. As another example, post-fire logging programs that are selectively focused on portions of the landscape with high residual wood volumes can have a disproportionately high impact on overall ecological conditions within the disturbed landscape, even though the activity directly impacts only a small percentage of the total area. The potential is there to effectively “high grade” a large disturbed landscape by logging the majority of the areas with abundant large legacies.

Research on natural forest disturbances has also shown that post-disturbance landscapes are important sites for many biota and important ecological processes, such as nitrogen fixation. Because such areas have a rich array of structural legacies and are free of dominance by tree canopies, very high levels of biological diversity are often present in the form of animal, plant and fungal species as well as diverse plant life forms. Forest guru Leo A. Isaac noted such qualities based on his observations in the Tillamook Burn (Isaac 1963). Such naturally-disturbed early-successional habitats are very different from clearcuts in structure, composition, and duration.

The naturally recovering portions of the Mount St. Helens blast zone provide graphic evidence that such areas can be regional hotspots of biological diversity, as exemplified by the extraordinary species diversity and population levels of amphibians, birds, small mammals, and meso-predators found in this landscape (Dale et al. 2005). Such richness of organisms and processes is not to be found within the reforested portions of the Mount St. Helens region although these dense young forests are producing a lot of wood. This contrast makes explicit the importance of management objectives for a disturbed area.

Resource managers do have much knowledge and experience with post-disturbance landscapes but there has been relatively little systematic research on impacts of post-fire logging. Moreover, some of the science described as relevant has limitations. We cannot assume that research focused on solving regeneration problems following timber harvesting in southwestern Oregon are directly applicable to conditions or to management objectives on naturally disturbed areas in the Biscuit Burn. As I hope we have all learned--clearcuts are not just like wildfires! To which I would add, what is good for timber production may not be good for many other forest values. ...

Posted by Dave on February 27, 2006 at 11:12 AM Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 08, 2006

Forest Service and BLM to Sell Off Thousands of Acres

The recently released President's Budget Proposal says the Forest Service and BlM are to Sell Off Thousands of Acres. Here is a related Forest Service News Release. And here is perspective from the Salt Lake Tribune:

Forest and BLM Acreage for Sale?
Robert Gehrke, Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 8, 2006

WASHINGTON - Tucked amid thousands of pages of President Bush's $2.77 trillion budget is a proposal to sell off tens of thousands of acres of national forests and Bureau of Land Management land.

The two separate proposals are part of an effort to make the agencies operate more efficiently and generate new revenue in tight budget times, agency officials say. Together, they would generate more than $1 billion over five years.

But to environmental groups, it's like eBay for public lands.

"You marry these two up together and what you have is them proposing a billion-dollar privatization program," said Dave Alberswerth, a public lands expert with The Wilderness Society. "When Western residents wake up to the fact that the Bush administration has a . . . scheme to divest the public of its lands, I don't think people are going to like that very much."

The BLM program seeks to sell $30 million of land in the first year, and would grow from there. Over five years, the sales would generate about $260 million, according to budget projections.

Mike Ferguson, budget officer for BLM, said the agency identifies lands through its land-use plans that have little scenic, recreational or mineral value and are hard to manage, often because they are isolated. But they could be of use to some private party.

Congress gave BLM the authority to sell land in 2000, but only those acres that had already been identified as surplus.

The new proposal would change that, and would direct 70 percent of revenues from land sales into the treasury, where it could be used for any federal program. Four percent would go to the states, and the remainder could be used by BLM for things like campground or trail maintenance or weed eradication.

Currently, land sale revenue is used to buy new lands with wildlife habitat or other values. The BLM has about $25 million in its land acquisition fund, revenues from earlier land sales, Ferguson said. In 2005, the BLM sold off 8,409 acres for a total of $16 million.

"We probably don't need to acquire as much additional land as we're disposing of and we have a lot of other needs in terms of managing the lands we do have," said Ferguson. "It's nice to be able to find a revenue stream that will help meet some of the other discretionary programs."

The Forest Service proposal would liquidate up to 200,000 acres of federal forestland - parcels that are deemed impractical or unnecessary to retain - with the anticipated $800 million in proceeds directed to a program to fund rural schools.

Utah schools, for example, received nearly $2 million from the Secure Rural Schools program last year.

The program currently is funded with taxpayer dollars, but by selling the land, that money could be spent elsewhere.

"There could be a lot of hyperbole on a proposal like this," said Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron. "This proposal . . . is pretty contained to small parcels, anywhere from a fraction of an acre to less than 200 acres. Mid-range would be 10 to 100 acres, disconnected and inefficient to manage."

At the end of the week the Forest Service plans to publish a preliminary list of lands it has identified as being eligible for sale, should Congress approve the program. Jiron could not say what, if any, Utah forest lands would be on the list.

Alberswerth said that, by estimating revenue, the Bush administration is setting a quota and letting deficit reduction drive public lands policy.

"Here's a case where they will have a mandate and a target, a quota of money they have to raise according to this budget from land sales each year," Alberswerth said. "The problem here is that there doesn't seem to be particular rationale [to the sales] other than to raise money."

Ferguson said that is not the case. "It's not that we're going out to look for some certain lands to bring it up to a certain dollar amount," he said.

BLM land sales are rare in Utah, the last one taking place in Vernal several years ago, and it was fairly small, said state BLM spokesman Don Banks. There has been some interest in another sale of some BLM land in Washington County, he said.

In the draft of the BLM's management plan for the Price area, the agency identified dozens of parcels that could be disposed of by the agency, though the number of acres is unclear.

Southern Nevada has been where most of the land-sale action has taken place, with the BLM selling off chunks of land surrounding the Las Vegas area.


BLM program:
Acres to be sold: Unknown
Amount generated: $30 million in first year; about $260 million over five years
Money used for: 70 percent to the federal treasury, 26 percent for BLM projects and 4 percent to states

Forest Service program:
Acres to be sold: 175,000-200,000
Amount generated: $800 million over five years
Money used for: Secure Rural School Act, which sends money to rural schools. Utah received $2 million from the program in 2005, part of $380 million distributed nationally

As an indicator of the largesse of money flows from land sales in the Southern Nevada area, I hear that the Forest Service is now putting finishing touches on a $53 Million visitors center for the Las Vegas-based Spring Mountains National Recreation Area.

And the Rural School Act sales make one wonder just what may come next and where it all may end. Will we hear proposals, once again, to sell public lands to retire the national debt? If so we can once again debate whether it is prudent to sell the "seed corn."

Posted by Dave on February 8, 2006 at 10:43 AM Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Final 2005 NFMA Planning Directives Are Out

Late last week the Forest Service made available it's Manual and Handbook directives for the 2005 NFMA Planning Rule.

The website for National Forest Management Act/Planning is here, with links to the Law, the Rule, the Directives, and more.

Posted by Dave on February 8, 2006 at 10:17 AM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack