Does One Size Fit All?
Too many years ago, I served on a timber industry committee charged, among other things, with figuring out whether it was better to advocate the calculation of “allowable sale quantities” in board or cubic feet. Board foot measure estimates how much lumber can be sawn from a log, with allowances for saw blade width (“kerf”), slabs (the left-overs after squaring off a round log), and sawing strategy. Cubic foot measure is the geometry-based volume of a log.
Ceteris paribus, the number of board feet equivalent to one cubic foot is proportional directly to log diameter. For example, a small-diameter log has a bf/cf ratio of about 4, while a large-diameter log’s ratio is about 6.
Today, almost all serious measures of timber are made in cubic feet, except for pulpwood and biomass, which are measured by weight. That’s because cubic foot measure is widely regarded as a more accurate representation of total wood volume, less subject to the vagaries of milling technology and scaling judgment.
Which measure one chooses makes a difference in how one sees the world of wood production and supply. “Everyone” knows that Oregon’s timber harvest has dropped precipitously since the early 1990s. And, so it has, measured in board feet (the blue-line curve).
But a funny thing happens when Oregon’s harvest is measured in cubic feet (the red-line curve). Not nearly so dramatic a decline. The reason is pretty simple. Oregon’s plantation forests grow a whole lot of wood, producing much more growth annually than the old forests the plantations replaced. Cubic foot measure, which is much less sensitive to tree diameter, more accurately captures that volume than does board foot measure.
The Natural Forest
View a promo for "The Natural Forest"—the story of one national forest's transformation and its profound lessons for forests nationwide.
Tragic and Needless Loss of Life
Aviation accidents account for more wildland firefighter deaths than any single other cause. From 1999 to 2009, 61 firefighters died as a result of air crashes. On Sunday, two more aviators’ names were added to that list when their airtanker crashed while dumping retardant on the White Rock fire. On that same day, tragedy was averted narrowly when another retardant airtanker was forced to make a belly landing because one of its gear failed to deploy.
In 2002, a government-appointed Blue Ribbon Panel concluded, “The safety record of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in wildland fire management is unacceptable.” The report also noted “if ground firefighters had the same fatality rate [as firefighting aviators], they would have suffered more than 200 on-the-job deaths per year.” Since the Blue Ribbon report’s publication, aviation-related fatalities have gone up 50 percent compared to the three-year period preceding the panel’s report—not including this past weekend’s tragic loss of life.
When a firefighter risks his life rescuing a child from a burning home, we applaud his heroism. If he dies in the effort, whether successful or not, we honor his sacrifice, knowing he gave everything to save that child’s life. While we mourn his loss, our society agrees that saving a child’s life is worth the risk and the ultimate price paid.
But, what are we to think when firefighters die trying to save sagebrush and juniper from burning? The White Rock fire does not threaten a single home. It poses no danger to any person, save the firefighters themselves. The fire is burning in one of the least populated corners of our nation—the Utah-Nevada border—on federally owned land inhabited by jack rabbits and coyotes.
Yet our government has thrown everything in its arsenal at this natural, lightning-caused fire. Over three hundred firefighters, including four helicopters, six engines, four bulldozers and three water tenders, continue to battle this fire before it . . . well, before it what? Before it burns itself out, just like an adjacent fire did a couple of years ago. The total financial tab will cost taxpayers upwards of a million dollars, while the cost in human life is immeasurable.
Our society’s aerial war against wildfire will continue to sacrifice lives and money in a fruitless campaign against Nature. Each year, we dump tens of millions of gallons of toxic retardant on fires, with no evidence that these bombings improve firefighting effectiveness. There is no correlation between the amount of aerial retardant used and success in keeping fires small.
Some in Congress, including Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, think the solution is to give pilots new airplanes. Half-a-billion dollars of shiny new airplanes will not make aerial firefighting any more effective. Nor will new planes make the job substantially safer. Flying low through smoke on hot, windy days in the nation’s most rugged landscapes is a recipe for disaster no matter what aircraft is being piloted
Sensible wildland fire policy is less sexy and heroic than the war-like television footage of bombers raining red retardant on burning brush. We know that the best way to protect homes from wildland fire is to keep vegetation clear from around the house and build with fire-resistant roofing. Retardant doesn’t save homes; proper construction and landscaping save homes.
Ten years ago, the government’s Blue Ribbon panel said the aerial firefighters’ death rate was “unacceptable.” Today, the government’s fruitless and ineffective aerial war against wildland fire can only be called immoral. Congress should stop pandering to our innate fear of fire and promote sensible fire management policies that save lives and homes.
Is Anyone Minding the Store?
For three years I’ve been wondering whether anyone in USDA pays attention to what the Forest Service does or says. Left to its own devices, the Forest Service is capable of much mischief. Here’s today’s example, from the “National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy“:
Wildland fire management actions are guided by a suite of laws, implemented through regulations and adopted as agency policy after public review and comment. Regulations and policies, however, are often more limiting than the authorizing legislation itself, and sometimes may impede the accomplishment of management objectives and timelines. While legislation such as the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) has been beneficial to active management of public lands, other legislation has been used to promote agendas and philosophies that are not necessarily in harmony with the legislation’s original intent. This is especially true of the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), which was meant to provide a means for underprivileged people to bring legal action against the federal government. Similarly, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are sometimes utilized by special interest groups to achieve objectives not considered by Congress when the bills were enacted. In addition to barriers presented by existing regulations and policies, the articulation of new or revised policies and changes in agency terminology and/or goals create challenges related to communication and implementation. It is important to seek out opportunities to streamline and coordinate procedures and to pursue broader use of authorities across jurisdictions to achieve common goals. Legislative barriers that are impeding project implementation must be examined and reformed to create incentives for resolving conflict through collaboration rather than litigation.
So, there we have it. The Forest Service now supports legislatively amending the Equal Access to Justice Act, the Endangered Species, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Is the Forest Service speaking for the Obama Administration? Does USDA know or care that its flagship agency has called upon Congress to amend three bedrock laws?
Is USFS World’s Most Expensive Wildland Firefighting Agency?
At least in the U.S., no one even comes close.
The Forest Service oversees 193 million acres with a wildland fire management budget of about $2 billion. That’s $10.36 an acre.
The Department of Interior manages 500 million acres with a wildland fire budget of $856 million. That’s $1.71 an acre.
By the way, DOI enjoys a 98 percent initial attack success rate (defined as the percent of fires kept smaller than 300 acres) — same as the Forest Service.
Fourmile Canyon Fire Report Confirms Firewise
The Rocky Mountain Research Station released its Fourmile Canyon Fire report, requested by Senator Udall of Colorado. The Report confirms that:
1) A home’s fate depends upon fuel in its immediate surroundings and construction materials;
2) Fuel treatments, especially those that leave fine fuels untreated, are ineffective protection against wildfires that threaten homes, i.e., windy, dry conditions; and,
3) Fire suppression resources are easily overwhelmed precisely when Fire-Unwise homes need them the most.
The report took a special look at aerial attack, finding that the great preponderance of retardant was dropped after the fire had already stopped advancing.
Senator Hatfield’s Forest Legacy
Oregon’s longest-serving senator, Mark Hatfield, died yesterday at 89. As a youngster, I remember my mother campaigning for Hatfield in his first election to the U.S. Senate (1967), notwithstanding her life-time Democratic Party affiliation. As Oregon’s governor, Hatfield had opposed the Vietnam War, and that was enough to earn my mom’s support. Later, as an adult, I got my own chance to see him at work.
The first time was during the Mapleton litigation, circa 1982. My employer, the National Wildlife Federation, sought to reform logging practices in the steep and erosion-prone Oregon Coast Range. For a generation, the Forest Service had paid little heed to its own scientists who warned that clearcut logging and roadbuilding would accelerate mass wasting and landslides. When environmental disclosure documents fabricated erosion calculations, we sued and won a court injunction stopping timber sales on the Mapleton Ranger District. Throughout the lawsuit and its aftermath, I made it a point to stay in constant contact with Senator Hatfield natural resources staff. Sure enough, the Senator used his Appropriations Committee chairmanship to attach a rider that allowed buy-back timber sales (sales returned to the government due to purchaser speculative bidding) to go forward, notwithstanding the court’s order. It was a measured legislative response (we had not sought to stop these sales in the first instance) to the beginnings of an inexorable reformation in Coast Range logging practices.
A couple years later, Hatfield presided over a fractured Oregon delegation as it passed the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Bill. His office vetted every roadless area included in the bill, which, among other things, gave Siuslaw coastal rainforests their first (and, so far, only) wilderness protection.
Although Hatfield did not have any great interest in forest or environmental policy — his scope was much broader — his last act as a legislator was the protection of Opal Creek’s ancient forests.
In today’s era when many elected officials seem less leaders than supplicants, Hatfield stood tall as a true Oregon statesman.
Glen Ith's Enduring Legacy
This week, in a 3-0 opinion, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service’s use of a deer habitat suitability model was “arbitrary and capricious” because key numbers in the model were altered without any rational explanation. The case is a special testimonial to the persistence of Greenpeace’s Larry Edwards, a Sitka resident, the advocacy skills of co-plaintiff Cascadia Wildlands Project (one of my favorite grassroots outfits for its combination of smarts and passion) and their legal counsel’s (Chris Winter of Crag Law Center), talents.
It is the back story that it is especially poignant to me.
The story begins six years ago, when Tongass wildlife biologist Glen Ith emailed me aerial photographs taken by an Alaska Department of Fish and Game employee. The photos showed on-going logging road construction appearing to access the Overlook project. Overlook was an old-growth forest timber sale that is prime winter range habitat for Sitka black tail deer. What caught Glen’s eye was that the Forest Service had not yet completed the Overlook NEPA analysis, but had already started building the roads. Turns out that there were several million dollars that Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) had earmarked for Tongass road work; money that if not spent by fiscal year’s end would be lost to the Forest Service, and incur Stevens’ displeasure. Overlook’s NEPA documents were behind schedule, but that didn’t stop the road engineers from moving forward. [NB: The conspiracy to spend the money was broader than the engineers alone, including district and forest-level planning staff, line officers, and contracting officials.]
Glen and FSEEE filed suit, challenging the Overlook and Traitors Cove (another site of illegal “advance” work) road building. It was the first-ever environmental lawsuit by a Forest Service employee. We won. The Forest Service retaliated, suspended Glen from work, and eliminated his job. Several days thereafter, Glen passed away from sudden heart failure.
Early on in our roads litigation, Glen told me that the Tongass was using irrational numbers in its deer habitat capability model. He wanted to cure the errors. We agreed the on-going roads case wasn’t the place to do so, primarily because the issue was not ripe as the timber sale environmental reviews were not complete. Glen said he would try to work internally to fix the modeling problem, but he wasn’t confident he would be successful. He believed the errors were intentionally designed to allow the Forest Service to defend logging high-value old-growth forest habitat.
Glen assiduously documented the problems with the deer habitat model; documents that Greenpeace’s Larry Edwards later found in the administrative records. Glen also administratively appealed the Scott Peak sale on these grounds.
Larry Edwards dedicated this week’s court victory to Glen’s memory.
Fire retardant EIS: It's still faith-based firefighting
June 27th is the deadline for commenting on the Forest Service’s draft fire retardant EIS.
FSEEE’s comments can be read here. The associated spreadsheet collects together national forest-level data over an 11-year period on initial attack success rates, numbers of fires by size class, and retardant use. These data are the basis for FSEEE’s statistical analysis of retardant effectiveness.
Here is our take-home message:
“The fact of the matter is that each and every year the Forest Service drops millions of gallons of a toxic chemical slurry, predictably killing about a half-dozen air personnel while jeopardizing dozens of protected plant and animal species, all for a program that could best be characterized as faith-based firefighting. The Forest Service can and should do better.”
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
President Obama has committed his administration “to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government” and “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” Since transparency, participation and collaboration depend upon communication, it is strange that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s on-line organizational directory is “temporarily unavailable,” and has been for some time.
The organizational directory lists telephone and FAX numbers for all USDA offices, including those of the Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service. No directory means it takes a phone call to Undersecretary Harris Sherman’s office to get his FAX number – you would also have to know his name to make that phone call.
FSEEE seeks to save you that trouble and the toll charges associated with it. Without further ado, here is Undersecretary of Agriculture Harris Sherman’s FAX number:
(202) 720-0632 (FAX)
And, if you want to talk with Mr. Sherman, you can call him at
We look forward to the restoration of the USDA’s organizational directory, which will happen as soon as this blog post is brought to Mr. Sherman’s attention.
P.S. During the first Bush presidency, the Forest Service deleted its own organizational directory from the web due to “national security” concerns. FSEEE, however, happened to have downloaded the directory’s files several months earlier. As a public service, we posted the entire directory on our own website. A couple months thereafter, a Republican staffer on the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee complained to the Forest Service that he had to go to FSEEE’s website to get agency phone numbers. The directory was restored the next day.