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GUEST POST: THE JOHN MUIR PROJECT

November 12, 2014

Autumn in California frequently means heat and high winds. so it seems like  a good time to talk about fire – Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project at the Earth Island Institute will make you look at fire in a whole different light..

Help Protect Spotted Owls and Other Imperiled Birds from Clearcutting on Public Lands in the Rim Fire

By Chad Hanson, Ph.D.

After the 257,314-acre Rim Fire occurred last year in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park of California’s Sierra Nevada, representatives from the U.S. Forest Service quickly claimed that much of the fire area was a lifeless “moonscape”, using this political rhetoric to justify proposing an enormous post-fire clearcutting project on national forest lands.

However, in the first spring after the smoke cleared, a very different story began unfolding — a story of ecological rejuvenation and richness. Even in the largest high-intensity fire patches, where the fire burned hottest, there are now dozens, hundreds, and in some cases thousands of naturally regenerated conifer seedlings per acre. Oaks are sprouting, shrubs and grasses are growing, and a wild jumble of colorful flowers cover the landscape. Woodpeckers, warblers and many other bird species already inhabit the high-intensity fire patches. Deer are browsing on the post-fire regrowth. This is anything but a lifeless environment. It is a rich, vibrant, growing ecosystem that is full of wildlife.

The Forest Service’s Rim Fire logging project would essentially clearcut over 35,000 acres of ecologically vital “snag forest habitat”—patches of mature conifer forest that experienced high-intensity fire, and are now comprised mainly of standing snags (fire-killed trees), regenerating conifers and oaks, and native shrubs. This tractor logging would not only remove nearly all of the snags — which provide food and shelter for birds such as the Black-backed woodpecker, Hairy woodpecker, White-headed woodpecker, Wrens, Bluebirds, Flickers and many others — but would also crush and kill most of the natural conifer and other regeneration that is occurring in the Rim fire on the Stanislaus National Forest. Moreover, the Rim fire logging project would have a devastating impact on the imperiled California spotted owl.

Monica Bond, a scientist with the Wild Nature Institute, who is the nation’s top expert on the relationship between Spotted owls and wildland fire, analyzed the Forest Service’s own data from 2014 Spotted owl surveys in the Rim fire. Her findings are startling. Bond found that one year after the Rim Fire, and before post-fire logging, a total of 92% of the historical spotted owl territories are occupied in the Rim fire. To put this in perspective, average annual spotted owl occupancy in mature/old unburned forest is 60-76%. The owls do not occupy an individual territory every single year so, within any given year, a portion of the territories that have been occupied one or more times in the past will not be occupied. According to Bond’s analysis, even in the territories that experienced mostly high-intensity fire, the spotted owl pair occupancy rates are essentially the same as in territories with low levels of high-intensity fire.

This result should not be so surprising given that current research shows that while spotted owls select unburned or low/moderate-intensity fire areas for nesting and roosting habitat, they preferentially select unlogged high-intensity fire areas for their foraging habitat. This is because these high-intensity fire areas, which create ecologically-vital “snag forest habitat” (also known as “complex early seral forest”), have an abundance of habitat structures, such as snags, downed logs, native shrub patches, and areas of dense natural conifer regeneration, that provide excellent habitat for the small mammal prey species upon which spotted owls depend. Given this, it is also not surprising that when much or most of the snag forest habitat is removed through post-fire logging, it strongly tends to extirpate the owls, which are declining in population throughout the Sierra Nevada, except where mechanical “thinning” and post-fire logging are not allowed (e.g., Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park).

To prevent a loss of spotted owl occupancy, scientists have recommended that the Forest Service avoid post-fire logging at least within 1500 meters of nest or roost locations. But in the decision for the Rim fire logging project, issued in late August of 2014, the Forest Service chose to conduct post-fire logging in every single occupied Spotted owl territory in the Rim fire. In some of these territories, most of the area would be clearcut, leaving large barren expanses.

Many people tend to think of forests the same way they think of their homes and other possessions, mistakenly believing that since a fire will destroy a home, it must do the same to the forest. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the pockets where all of the trees are dead create “snag forest habitat,” which scientists now know (http://www.johnmuirproject.org/pdf/Hanson_Fire_Science_Aug_2013.pdf) is one of the most ecologically rich, rare, and most threatened of all forest habitat types in the Western US. We have much less of this habitat now than we did historically, due to fire suppression and post-fire logging policies. In October of 2013, some 250 scientists (http://www.geosinstitute.org/images/stories/pdfs/Publications/Fire/Scientist_Letter_Postfire_2013.pdf) sent a letter to Congress regarding the Rim fire, urging lawmakers to oppose post-fire logging in the Rim fire area, and to appreciate the high ecological value of this habitat and not weaken or roll-back federal environmental laws. The scientists concluded:

Though it may seem at first glance that a post-fire landscape is a catastrophe ecologically, numerous scientific studies tell us that even in patches where forest fires burned most intensely the resulting post-fire community is one of the most ecologically important and biodiverse habitat types in western conifer forest. Post-fire conditions serve as a refuge for rare and imperiled wildlife that depend upon the unique habitat features created by intense fire. These include an abundance of standing dead trees or “snags” that provide nesting and foraging habitat for woodpeckers and many other wildlife species, as well as patches of native flowering shrubs that replenish soil nitrogen and attract a diverse bounty of beneficial insects that aid in pollination after fire…This post-fire habitat, known as “complex early seral forest,” is quite simply some of the best wildlife habitat in forests and is an essential stage of natural forest processes. Moreover, it is the least protected of all forest habitat types and is often as rare, or rarer, than old-growth forest, due to damaging forest practices encouraged by post-fire logging policies.

Rim fire photo5 from Sept 2014 site visit

 Natural post-fire conifer regeneration hundreds of meters from the nearest live tree, Rim fire; Photo by Chad Hanson, 2014

One of the most striking phenomena currently occurring in the Rim Fire area is the “flushing” of new foliage in conifers that appeared to be dead, but were not. These are trees, especially ponderosa pines, that had zero remaining live needles after the fire. But the buds survived at the ends of branches in the upper portion of the tree crowns. Now thousands and thousands of such trees have produced new green needles through a process called “flushing.” Many if not most of these trees will survive long-term, providing natural seed sources in countless places within large, high-intensity fire patches. In fact, in some areas that were initially mapped as having experienced high-intensity fire, the flushing is revealing that most trees are alive, even though they all appeared dead just weeks earlier. In fact, while the Forest Service reported, based on its preliminary assessment, that 40% of the Rim fire experienced high-intensity fire, the final assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey, conducted in the summer of 2014 (after flushing) found only 19.9% high-intensity fire in the Rim fire area (www.mtbs.gov). Less than two-thirds of the Rim fire occurred in conifer forest (the remainder occurring mostly in grassland, foothill chaparral, and oak woodland) and, because most of the fire within conifer forest was low/moderate-intensity, there is actually relatively little “snag forest habitat” (also known as “complex early seral forest”) in the fire area—and the Forest Service’s Rim fire logging project, which almost exclusively targets this habitat, would remove the majority of it. Nowhere in the Final Environmental Impact Statement did the Forest Service reveal to the public the high number of Spotted owls that would be affected by the planned logging, or mention the amount of logging planned within 1500 meters of occupied owl sites.

Rim fire photo2 from Sept 2014 site visit

Ponderosa pines that “flushed” after the Rim fire in a high intensity fire-patch. Photos by Chad Hanson, 2014.

The Forest Service’s primary justification given for this enormous clearcutting project on federal public lands in the Rim fire area is that the agency wants to “recover” the “economic value” from the standing fire-killed trees in order to enhance the agency’s own budget. Under a little-known law called the “Salvage Sale Fund”, the Forest Service keeps 100 percent of the revenue from selling public timber to private logging companies, creating a perverse financial incentive. Tellingly, the agency characterizes the snags in the fire area as a “commodity.”

In addition to its post-fire logging plans, the Forest Service wants to conduct a massive program to remove native flowering shrubs and create artificial tree plantations. This is a major ecological threat, because native shrubs attract flying insects that provide food for birds and bats, contributing to the amazing and abundant biological diversity of these snag forest patches. Also, because of fire suppression and post-fire management practices — logging, and killing of shrubs with herbicides—we have far less of this native shrub habitat now than we did historically. Currently, several shrub/ground-nesting bird species associated with high-intensity fire areas are experiencing protracted population declines (http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/cgi-bin/atlasa12.pl?S15&2&12) in the Sierra Nevada, including the Orange-crowned warbler, Chipping sparrow, Yellow warbler, Dark-eyed junco, and Wrentit. And yet the Forest Service has refused recommendations from scientists, including its own, to avoid logging during nesting season, when chicks are in the nest but cannot yet fly (logging during this season results in the unnecessary death of countless birds, especially chicks).

There is no need for human intervention to “restore” the Rim Fire area. The fire itself already restored ecologically-vital snag forest habitat to the landscape. If we can set aside decades of misinformed prejudice about wildfire, we will see that ecological restoration is occurring, naturally, right before our eyes. There is a message emanating from this landscape, telling us that fires in our forests — including large, intense fires — are restorative events that create unique, rich habitats. We do not need to be afraid. Rather, we should celebrate the rejuvenating effect of mixed-intensity fire in our forests. We need to learn to appreciate the forest ecosystem for all of its parts — not just live, green trees, but also snags, downed logs, and shrubs resulting from nature’s most important, and essential, ecological force in Western US conifer forests: fire.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

The Stanislaus National Forest is implementing the Rim fire logging project through multiple individual timber sales, some of which have begun (totaling about 20% of the planned logging so far), but most have not yet been prepared or advertised. Please send an email to Jeanne Higgins (jmhiggins@fs.fed.us), the Supervisor of the Stanislaus National Forest. Urge her to: a) halt further implementation of the Rim fire logging project, and stop preparing and advertising new timber sales in the Rim fire area; and b) protect the snag forest habitat created by the Rim fire, and withdraw current plans to create artificial tree plantations and remove/reduce shrubs.

You can also write letters to the editor to the Union Democrat in Sonora (where the Stanislaus National Forest headquarters is located) at letters@uniondemocrat.com, and also to the Sacramento Bee (http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/article2571435.html). Letters should be less than 150 words, and writers must include their names, phone numbers, email addresses, and physical addresses (for verification by the newspapers).

Thanks!

Chad Hanson is the director of the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute. He has a Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of California at Davis, and focuses his research on fire ecology in conifer forests of California and the western US. For more information, watch a video of Dr. Hanson’s recent presentation on the restorative virtues of the Rim Fire, and the ecological value of snag forest habitat (https://vimeo.com/95535429), visit www.johnmuirproject.org, or email: cthanson1@gmail.com.

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3 Comments
  1. Chukar permalink*
    December 31, 2014 4:17 pm

    Someone left an unsigned comment on this article. It had no name attached to it, which we will not accept, and it didn’t make a lot of sense (grammatical peculiarities), so i deleted it. Chukar

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  2. November 12, 2014 7:31 pm

    All our members who attended Chad Hansen’s presentation at our evening meeting in October will agree with your enthusiasm, Laurel. Thank you for posting the summary in writing for those who could not attend. And thanks to Mary Prismon and Lys Axelson for giving us the lead to Chad Hansen.

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    • laurelajones permalink
      November 12, 2014 9:30 pm

      Actually the article was written by Chad Hansen especially for Audubon to post.

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