October 19, 2007

Watch 60 Minutes - Warming Climate Fuels Mega-fires

I recommend that my readers watch a story on CBS 60 Minutes this Sunday, October 21st. You can read it first at Expert: Warming Climate Fuels Mega-Fires - including my online comment. Like so many investigative stories on television, they create a significant amount of viewer outrage without offering solutions.

I am glad they are pointing out that "Seven of the 10 busiest fire seasons have been since 1999." What they don't point out is that 50% of the Forest Service budget has been allocated to fighting forest fires and obstructive litigation rather than deploying proven prevention measures.

Forests are now 4-10 times denser than their historic norm (when they were open enough for a horse to gallop through). Now dense underbrush and small diameter trees hamper walking and fire-fighting. That, coupled with warmer, dryer conditions, is what is causing these fires.

I witnessed a persuasive presentation at a workshop sponsored by UC/Berkeley and the USDA/Forest Service last month that thinning forests works. Through a series of photographs Ron Vineyard of the Eagle Lake Ranger District of the Lassen National Forest showed how the 2002 Cone Fire in Northern California extinguished itself within about 20 yards of its entry into the mechanically thinned zone. Their studies place the cost of suppressing a fire in an unthinned forest at $1,726/acre. The cost of mechanically thinning a forest with an underburn is approximately $204 per acre. An ounce of prevention is, indeed, worth a pound of cure.

With the benefits of thinning so obvious I asked him what the biggest hurdle was for the Forest Service. He said "Infrastructure." He explained that there wasn't sufficient private industry demand for the fuelwood to make publicly financed thinning operations economically sustainable.

Currently the forest products industry is not robust enough to fill the breach. But there is significant promise that new tech biorefineries will be able to cleanly convert woody biomass (fuelwood and underbrush) into cellulosic ethanol.

For now, I would like to see environmental groups restrain themselves from attacking Forest Service fire prevention programs they plan to deploy. If they care about global warming they should recognize that mega-fires now spew more greenhouse gas emissions per year than all the auto emissions of the U.S. combined.

I will be attending the Society of American Foresters National Convention in Portland, Oregon October 23-24 and presenting my speech Woody Biomass: Fuel for Wildfires or Feedstock for Bioenergy? October 25th at the Residual Wood Conference in Vancouver, BC.

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October 5, 2007

Ending Obstructive Environmental Lawsuits

An oft heard frustration of the USDA Forestry Service is the frequency of challenges mounted in opposition to their planned forest management programs. In June of last year, the Society of American Foresters published a comprehensive study of the legal challenges filed in federal court from 1989-2002 - all 729 of them!

Dr. Robert Malmsheimer, lead researcher and Associate Professor of Forest Policy and Law at State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) expressed the good news/bad news verdict of the study:

“The Forest Service enjoys an excellent success rate – winning 57% of all cases and 73% of the cases decided by a judge or panel of judges – especially when one considers that the Forest Service is the defendant in all of these cases and the plaintiffs get to choose the basis and venues for their lawsuits.

“It’s interesting to note however, that the Forest Service settles more than one in every six cases – almost as many land management cases as it loses. Clearly both the Forest Service and litigants view settlements as an important dispute-resolution tool.”

The study’s authors also note that plaintiffs win less than one of every four cases. This suggests that plaintiffs may receive indirect benefits from litigation, such as publicity, delay of action, and the chance of establishing new legal precedents. These benefits may be as important to some litigants as the direct benefits of winning lawsuits.

Delays are costly to the environment. Forest Service programs are designed to either prevent a health problem for a forest or remediate an unhealthful condition that could result in fires, decay, or infestations. It has been determined that a decaying forest emits 300% more greenhouse gases than a fire ravaging the same tree. The Forest Foundation reports that "Nearly four years after fires burned more than 133,000 acres of national forest land in California, less than one percent of those acres have been replanted.” As Forest Service resources are squandered fighting litigation and forest fires, is it any wonder that more remedial programs are shelved until more resources are available?

On the bright side, Michael Moore of The Missoulian reports that environmentalists and government leaders have found a way to reach consensus on forest programs without resorting to legal redress. See excerpts below:

Forest Parties Reach Consensus on Restoration Principles
by MICHAEL MOORE of the Missoulian, September 28, 2007

For months, a diverse group of conservationists, timber industry officials, forest users and government leaders met in an effort designed to stem the tide of lawsuits filed against forest restoration projects.

Finally, on Thursday, the group announced a set of 13 principles that might guide future restoration work on the Bitterroot and Lolo national forests.

And because those principles are the result of a time-consuming consensus process, the hope is that restoration projects will move ahead more quickly, be less likely to spawn litigation and, most important, be good for the ecosystems they're designed to restore.

The effort started in the frustrating wake of a post-fire restoration project in the southern Bitterroot Valley. The project became embroiled in litigation, and prompted many on both sides of the debate to wonder if there wasn't a better way to approach such projects.

Not long after that, a group of about 35 gathered at the Lubrecht Experimental Forest for a meeting that eventually evolved into the Montana Forest Restoration Working Group.

The group drew representatives from industry and the conservation community, but also from forest user groups like snowmobilers, horsemen and outfitters.

Over the next months, they worked to find what they characterized as a zone of agreement, a place where everyone could accept what a successful restoration project ought to look like.

The zone eventually grew into a preamble and set of principles. That preamble notes the importance of scientifically sound, ecologically appropriate restoration work, but it also factors in the importance such work can have on surrounding rural communities.

The principles include:

- Restore functioning ecosystems by enhancing ecological processes.
- Re-establish fire as a natural process on the landscape.
- Consider social constraints and seek public support for reintroducing fire.
- Engage community members and interested parties in the restoration process.
- Improve terrestrial and aquatic habitat and connectivity.
- Establish and maintain a safe road and trail system that is ecologically sustainable.
- Integrate restoration with socioeconomic well-being.

Now that the principles are in place, the committee will begin work on two pilot projects on the Lolo National Forest and one on the Bitterroot. Those projects are still under consideration and were not announced on Thursday.

On a project-to-project basis, committee membership will vary depending on where the project is, with an eye toward bringing stakeholders and those with the most knowledge of the area to the table, Ekey said.

Pyramid's Gordy Sanders said the end result should be a restoration process that works for both the land and communities.

The Full Restoration Guidelnes Can be viewed and Down loaded at www.montanarestoration.org.


Finally, in a recent article in the NY Times titled As Logging Fades, Rich Carve Up Open Land in West environmentalist see another ominous threat that is a consequence of the demise of the forest products industry - the rise of timberland sales to real estate developers.
In ways that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, environmentalists and representatives of the timber industry are reaching across the table, drafting plans that would get loggers back into the national forests in exchange for agreements that would set aside certain areas for protection.

Both groups are feeling under siege: timber executives because of the decline in logging, and environmentalists because of the explosion of growth on the margins of the public lands.

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Senators: "Wildfires are a climate change issue, too."

It is interesting to see the lengths that state and federal governments will go trying to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases: higher CAFE standards mandating increased mpg for automobiles, renewable portfolio standards that provide incentives for using renewable energy in place of fossil fuels, regulations on air conditioning systems and semi cab designs, etc. But efforts to reduce a profound source of greenhouse gases, seems to fall on deaf ears, presumeably because thinning forests of fire-producing underbrush, small diameter trees, and dead, infected trees is seen as politically incorrect - pitting "environmental" groups and their litigators against the Forest Service assigned with the responsibility of managing public lands.

Two Republican Senators representing western states that have suffered from significant fires and who sit on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee have testified their concern. Says embattled Senator Larry Craig:

Actively managing forests can lead to a 50 to 60 percent reduction in the numbers of acres lost to wildfires each year. Preventing the forests from burning also ensures that we maintain the forests for the consumption of carbon dioxide from other sources.

Senator Pete Domenici made similar points during testimony last July.

In California - site this year of the worst fire season in the state's history - Senator Feinstein recognizes the magnitude of the growing problem and has fought to secure more funding from the USDA Forest Service to address California's needs. However, that is like putting a bandaid on a problem rather than developing an economically sustainable remedy to address the cause of the fires - failure to thin the dense overgrowth of woody biomass. A true partnership is needed between the government and private industry to build and supply forest product industries that can provide funding for biomass removal and proper forest management.

Craig: Wild Fires Impacting Our Climate
Hearing misplaces cause and effect

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Idaho Senator Larry Craig called attention today to the impact wildland fires are having on the global environment in a hearing by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The hearing examined the "Impacts of Global Climate Change on Wildfire Activity in the U.S."

As a member of the committee, Craig took the opportunity to point out the apparent chicken-egg scenario at play - do wildfires cause climate change, or does climate change cause wildfires?

"Fires in Idaho will emit more than 12 million metric tons of CO2 this year, compared to only 700,000 metric tons from our electricity generation, or 8.6 million metric tons from all of our automobile use," Craig said. "Wild fires in this country this year released the same amount of greenhouse gases as 12 million automobiles. Preventing fires through active management is certainly more feasible and cost effective than asking 12 million people not to drive."

On average, one acre of burning forest releases six tons of CO2. To date, roughly 8.4 million acres have burned in the U.S., meaning that over 50 million tons of CO2 has been released into the atmosphere. That's the equivalent of 12 million vehicles on the road for one year.

Senator Craig, also a member of the appropriations committee, called for a commitment to spending more on preventative forest management policies, noting that "the U.S. spends only $600 million to manage forests and $2 billion to fight fires. If we spent more of our resources on managing and thinning we'd likely not spend so much fighting fires. We'd also be reducing the amount of greenhouse gases from fires, and increasing the amount of CO2 sequestered by healthy trees."

Craig pushed for the active management of our nation's forests to significantly reduce the numbers of acres burned each year, which in turn would prevent significant emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Craig said, "Forest fires of the magnitude of this year's fires in Idaho and in other Western States emit massive quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Actively managing forests can lead to a 50 to 60 percent reduction in the numbers of acres lost to wildfires each year. Preventing the forests from burning also ensures that we maintain the forests for the consumption of carbon dioxide from other sources."

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