Forest Service official: Environmental groups delayed thinning6/27/12
Damage from the Little Bear Fire could have been reduced if a proposed Forest Service thinning project had not been delayed by an appeal from two environmental groups, a Forest Service official said Tuesday.
"Any type of treatment we could have done would have reduced the severity of the fire," said Chad Stewart, fire and timber officer for the Lincoln National Forest. While the fire as a whole could not have been stopped by thinning efforts, especially in the face of 40 mph wind gusts, damage to the Bonito watershed likely would have been greatly reduced, he said.
The thinning project, aimed at 11,600 acres surrounding Bonito Lake was delayed by an appeal from the two environmental groups in late 2011.
The groups contended, in a decision upheld by Carson Forest Supervisor Kendall Clark, that the thinning plan did not adhere to guidelines established by the Forest Service and had the potential to harm the Bonito watershed and endangered species in the area.
But Stewart, a participant in the thinning project from its inception in 2008, said Tuesday the group's appeal relied on hazy technical details that nobody had a specific answer to. The reason the reversal was upheld was that there was not enough historic data for the area to establish natural conditions and allow the team to speak from a position of expertise, he said.
"It's a lot about interpretation," he said. "There's not a set template for describing the effects of old growth as there is for goshawks and other endangered species. (The project) got turned back, more or less saying we did not analyze the effects enough to make a professional recommendation for treatment."
Regulations and rulings clearly define what is required to maintain habitat for endangered species, but decisions on old growth typically relied on site-specific data, though the plan did have goals to encourage old growth, loosely defined as multi-age tree stands, to expand, he said.
Issues with erosion brought up by the environmental groups also were based on a lack of historical data, he said.
"We were in the process of beefing those (reports) up, gathering data on the soil and for the old growth to show a more in-depth analysis," he said. "We expected to do treatments this year. To have it appealed put it on hold, and we were expecting a new decision by the end of this fiscal year, in September."
With the new information, Stewart said the project was "at the door, waiting to go," requiring no changes from the original draft. "We were getting more justification for what we had already proposed."
Without an appeal, thinning treatments would have begun possibly as soon as spring of this year, continuing through the summer, he said. Timber contracts would have been issued during autumn, though few areas would be worth the expense of logging, he added.
"So now, the best I can do is talk about salvage logging in (the burned area)," he said. "We've got three to five years of rehab work to do now."
But representatives from the two groups said that they only appeal projects that may potentially threaten endangered species, watersheds or human habitations.
Bryan Bird, an ecologist with Santa Fe-based Wild Earth Guardians, said that the Bonito project was one of the few they had appealed in the last several years.
"We're very sorry for the people that have lost homes, that's a result that no one wants," he said. "We want the Forest Service to spend its incredibly limited taxpayer funds on areas around homes, protecting lives and structures. We really don't think that money is best expended in the backcountry, wildland areas."
Bird said the groups' biggest concern with the project was the approach the Forest Service was taking with large trees and old growth.
The impact on native wildlife and "unnecessary road construction" above the Bonito watershed also was cause for concern, he said.
Jay Lininger, an ecologist with the Tucson, Ariz.-based, Center for Biological Diversity and author of the appeal, said the findings in the review of the appeal were that the Forest Service would have violated its own policies if the project had continued.
Inadequate canopy cover would not only have reduced habitat for goshawks and Mexican spotted owls, but also would have lowered humidity levels within the forest, potentially increasing the risk for fires, he said.
"The Forest Service could have gone back and said 'we will obey our own standards for fuel and wildlife habitat in this thinning project," he said. "And then they could have issued a new decision without a new environmental analysis. The (Forest Service) routinely issues site-specific amendments for projects."
"We try to strike a balance with the Forest Service as far as where they're cutting and what they're cutting," Bird said. "You can do more damage with these projects than good if they're not correctly (implemented). When we're going to do these projects we need to balance them with protecting wildlife and protecting water quality, and that was the two big things we had concerns with."
Lininger said that the thinning project would have harmed Bonito Lake by causing sediment to fall into the lake from the slopes where temporary roads were to have been cut.
Bird added that with the shift in typical conditions in the Southwest to a dryer, drought-ridden landscape, he questioned whether thinning would be effective, or feasible in the backcountry.
"The bottom line is that you can fire-proof a community, but you can't fire-proof a forest," he said.
According to the Wild Earth Guardian's website, the group seeks to "transcend this paradigm of fear-driven fire policy," and protect communities with "common-sense safety measures and financial incentives from state and federal governments."
"Our forests were born of fire and, just as rainforests need rain, forests need fire's rejuvenating properties to perpetuate and thrive," the website states.
The groups won their appeal after it was determined that a three-year environmental impact study conducted by Lincoln County foresters failed to disclose the effects the thinning and temporary road construction would have on erosion, did not sufficiently analyze old growth in the forests and did not analyze canopy cover requirement.
A Forest Service report, issued during October of 2011 in response to the groups' contentions, found that canopy cover requirements and old growth studies were not adequate, but stated that the impact from roads had been sufficiently analyzed and was permitted. However, logging and mechanical thinning impacts on the areas within 1,200 feet of the road had not been sufficiently analyzed, the report stated.
The groups also claimed that the project would harm the habitats of the Mexican spotted owl and goshawks that nest in the Lincoln National Forest, and that foresters planned to excessively reduce mistletoe, a valuable food source and habitat for many species, though the Forest Service review stated otherwise.
According to the Forest Service report, the issue of the Mexican spotted owl and goshawks were directly addressed in the initial thinning proposal and foresters would "retain as much of over story canopy over and groups or clumps of the largest trees available" as habitat for the endangered birds.
Specific directives to maintain old growth and the "largest, healthy green trees" per acre were included in the thinning plan, though the minimum number of trees could dip if there was an excess of mistletoe infesting the trees. Base levels of mistletoe would be maintained, according to the report.
A diverse landscape of mixed meadows and both light and heavy tree stands to "reduce crown fire potential," "protect and enhance the watershed" and increase biodiversity and habitat was prescribed for the area, according to the report.
The groups also pushed for a 16-inch cap on tree removal, which was taken "under consideration" by Robert Trujillo, supervisor for the Lincoln National Forest.
"It's hard to put a dollar cost on (appeals), because it's people's time," Stewart said. "I think the cost is, more or less, what else could (Forest Service workers) be working on aside from this appeal?"
He added that thinning projects already were hampered by cost-cutting concerns. Hand crews cost upwards to $1,200 per acre, mechanical thinning ran at about $300 per acre and controlled burns typically cost $90 per acre, but could only be applied in areas without a significant concentration of ladder fuels, he said.
"(Thinning) has to take a more holistic approach, and I have to do this across the entire forest," he said. "The Bonito (project), to me, was almost heartbreaking. We knew it was going to be important, we knew it was a municipal watershed for Alamogordo and we knew that if there was a fire, it was going to be devastating. And we got it, unfortunately."