The US Forest Service has issued a new proposal in Boulder County for "forest restoration" and watershed protection (Forsythe II Project). They are cutting patches of forest using both clearcuts and aggressive thinning. Will these cuts actually help, or is this activity misguided? The USFS would have us believe that they know what they are doing and we should trust them to manage our forests, but should we?
While the USFS has been making these types of cuts for years, there is little evidence to indicate that they work, for either fire mitigation, or forest "health". The "new" plan would cut trees to "restore" the forest to a historical fire regime that did not exist at this altitude. It proposes the paradox of cutting the trees that hold the soil in place to prevent erosion in the watershed. The unfortunate result of this new mitigation may be more flooding! Fire is, of course, an ever present danger. Everyone wants to prevent major fires from taking out forest and homes.
Evidence from the Fourmile Canyon Fire, the Hayman Fire, and 80 years of forest research shows that small patch cuts are not only ineffective in stopping high intensity fires, they may actually increase the risk of severe fires (read more about the science behind this). To be effective a cut has to be large enough and continuous enough to prevent fire from flowing around the cut and in effect widening the path of the fire. It has to be in the right place with regards to the fire and the prevailing winds, which is difficult to predict. It has to be maintained free of surface fuels that will carry the fire. Although it may seem that thinning the large trees will reduce the fuel load, in fact, the large trees are the most resistant to fire; it is the surface and ladder fuels (bushes, small trees) that will speed the fire's travel and carry it up into the tree tops. Some thinning of crown (tree top) density may help, but there is a fine line between enough and too much, as thinning the forest opens it up to sunlight, which encourages the growth of grasses, bushes, and small trees. It also tends to dry out the soil and allows wind speeds to increase in the openings. All of this can increase the risk of severe fire behavior.
If a wind-driven, high-intensity, crown fire is approaching, it has been shown that patch cuts do nothing to stop the fire and may speed it up in places. This type of fire can throw firebrands two miles in advance of the fire. Wind-driven grass and brush fires can also consume houses in their path. The best protection for homes is to mitigate fire danger around the home in 30' and 100' zones. Boulder County has programs to help with this. Keep the surface fuels low, keep combustible materials away from the house, and use fire resistant materials for construction. This will do more to save your home in the event of a wildfire, than the other 'mitigation' efforts being proposed by the Forest Service right now. More emphasis should be placed on these proven methods, on educating people about preventing forest fires, and on restricting camp fires and other ignition sources in the wildland-urban interface, rather than cutting down the forest in order to save it.
We are not the only creatures inhabiting the forest. These patch cuts fail in their stated purpose of mitigating fire danger and, at the same time, are detrimental with regards to wildlife habitat lost, recreational areas scarred, and peaceful buffers around homes gone. We can work together to prevent forest fires and protect homes, but it is time to put a stop to projects that spend large amounts of taxpayer money only to destroy habitat and, paradoxically, put us all at greater risk of fire.
Does the "new" Forsythe II proposal PASS or FAIL in achieving its objectives? For our thoughts on it, find out now.
More about the science...
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The Forsythe ll EA and Draft Decision has been released. While we concede it could be worse, we are very disappointed with the decision. Despite USFS promises to work with the public, despite the many comments sent, the proposed action has undergone little change that we can applaud.
The project will not meet their needs or objectives stated, as it is not likely to reduce the effects of severe wildfire and is likely to increase the risk of wildfire both in the short term and long term. They are cutting the mature ("timber") trees, which are the most fire resistant, and increasing the surface, ladder, and "jackpot" fuels, which carry the fires across the land and into the canopy (tree crowns). It will not "restore" the forest, as they admit in the EA that the forest is within the historical range of characteristics for the upper montane zone. We are not against mitigation to improve the chances for the forest against wildfire. We are in favor of mitigation that will improve the chances for wildlife, homes, homeowners, & firefighters to survive a severe wildfire. There are better ways to achieve the result of a resilient, healthy forest, improved wildlife habitat, and defensible space than are provided by this plan.
There are a few adjustments that have been made to respond to the comments: the acres of lodgepole to be cut are almost halved, which is a step in the right direction. The size of trees to be retained has been lowered from 16" to 14", another step forward. Unfortunately, they increased the percentage of ponderosa pine thinned from 40% to 50%.
The biggest change is that they have conceded what we have stated all along, that this project would not "improve wildlife habitat" as their objective proposed. Rather than changing the project to improve habitat, their solution is to make an amendment to the ARNF Forest Plan to permanently remove the project area from the requirements to maintain or improve effective wildlife habitat! This is very bad news for wildlife and the forest, as it means that not only will this project damage habitat, but concurrent projects and future projects may also further degrade habitat until we have no more wildlife. They did not choose to exempt the units suggested by CPW to mitigate effects on the elk herd.
The Magnolia Forest Group intends to continue working with the USFS during the 30-day objection period in hopes of amending the plan to provide for a better outcome for our forests and community. We need your help! You can keep the pressure on by attending the USFS open house, by writing or calling your local, state, and national politicians, by writing letters to the editors, or by donating to our cause - preferably all of these.
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(Excerpt) by Derek Lee
Laws that protect public lands from destructive activities have reduced most commercial logging in our national forests, but the Forest Service has a loophole to log our trees: fire. Worse, they do it on our dime. Congress always lets the Forest Service take money from the General Treasury to pay for timber sale administration, road building and logging costs, and then the agency keeps the profits from those sales. The Forest Service enriches itself at the people’s expense by selling the people’s trees. This is the incentive for another agency deception: that the forest “will never be the same” without “restoration” work. This presumes forests don’t naturally regrow on their own – which of course they do, in what scientists call “succession,” one of the first ecological processes ever described.
Don’t believe it either when they tell you we might have avoided a big fire if only we had removed “excessive fuels” beforehand. Studies show that logging doesn’t prevent or stop big fires during extreme weather when most acreage burns. But it does enrich the Forest Service.
Derek Lee is a quantitative ecologist with expertise in wildlife surveys, statistical analyses, demography, and population ecology. He is principal scientist of the Wild Nature Institute.