P.O. Box 1749, Quincy CA 95971

January 23, 2003

James M. Peña
Forest Supervisor
Plumas National Forest
P.O. Box 11500
Quincy, CA 95971

Subject: QLG comments on the Administrative Study NOI and Proposed Action

Dear Jim,

These are QLG comments on the USDA Forest Service Region 5 Administrative Study 4202-01-02: Fire and Fuels Management, Landscape Dynamics, and Fish and Wildlife Resources - Integrated Research on the Plumas and Lassen National Forests.

1. The need for a research study.

The “Achilles heel” of wildlife management is separating correlation from causation.

  The California Spotted Owl: A Technical Assessment of its Current Status
(The CASPO Report) PSW GTR-133, Verner, et al, 1992, page 97.

The CASPO report very openly acknowledged the deficiencies of the limited research on which it was based, cautioned against drawing conclusions not supported by the available information, and made only tentative management recommendations, saying those recommendations would have to be adjusted in response to longer term research that was needed along a number of lines identified in the Report.

In the ten years since the CASPO Report was published, owl research has very seldom gone beyond the continuation or replication of demographic studies already under way in 1992. Few if any additional studies of the kind called for by the CASPO Report have been conducted, and results of the demographic studies that were conducted have been mis-interpreted or mis-represented in the succession of Forest Service attempts to replace the CASPO Interim Guidelines with permanent guidelines.

Lack of progress in formulating valid owl guidelines in the most recent attempt, the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendments (SNFPA), is perhaps best shown by updating a diagram from the CASPO Report.

The “simplified” CASPO diagram above [to the right] shows twelve primary linkages (bold type) and 10 secondary linkages between spotted owls and other components of the ecosystem, several of which are obvious lines of essential research. What the diagram does not show is any linkage to “canopy cover,” yet canopy cover is the only claim for ecological linkage that actually survives in the SNFPA Standards and Guidelines. Furthermore, Forest Service analysis shows that the number of “old trees” or “mature trees,” which are explicit linkages in the CASPO diagram, would be significantly less well maintained under the alternative actually adopted in the SNFPA Record of Decision (ROD), Alternative 8-mod, compared to several other alternatives discarded.

The diagram below more nearly represents the actual premise of the SNFPA Decision, that the only linkage of significance is the effect of Canopy Cover on Owls.

This SNFPA version of owl ecology very obviously cannot be an adequate response to the complexity of issues shown in the 1992 CASPO diagram, but perhaps more to the point, the SNFPA fixation on canopy cover was called into serious question by some of the Forest Service scientists and analysts who were most directly involved in writing the SNFPA EIS. For example, the administrative record contains a letter of January 11, 2001, to the team leader and science leader of the SNFPA Interdisciplinary Team from Danny C. Lee, who had been science team leader until shortly before the date of the SNFPA Decision. Danny said in part:

[Referring to earlier communications,] ... it appeared that statements were being made in the FEIS, and attributed to Hunsaker, et al., which could not be inferred legitimately from that report. More importantly, such specious inferences were being used both as a rationale for developing standards and guides, and as the basis for evaluating the relative effectiveness of varying management activities. Given the prominence of the Hunsaker et al. report in the FEIS, I believed that a more critical examination of the data was warranted.

[The fourth point in the summary of conclusions from his own critical examination was:]

“In productive sites ... there is no apparent relationship between canopy cover and relative productivity. That is, increased canopy cover is not positively correlated with increased productivity provided the site has sufficient canopy cover to support active nesting. More is not better.”

There can be no doubt that additional valid long term scientific research and analysis are needed but have not been provided and correctly used to date.

2. Would the proposed Admin Study provide the needed valid long term research?

The Proposed Action is said to be an “administrative study,” but its title says “Integrated Research,” and in fact it is very much closer to a “research study,” as those terms are defined in the Forest Service Manual, sections 1991 and 4000 respectively. This mis-characterization is a potential legal deficiency, as noted below; but perhaps more importantly it betrays an underlying confusion in the Forest Service about purpose and methods, and this confusion raises serious questions about whether results of the Study would be valid or would be used correctly if valid.

The HFQLG Pilot Project itself is already structured as an administrative study in every essential characteristic except name. Its purpose is to “demonstrate the effectiveness” of the specified management activities, and its methods, as described in HFQLG EIS Alternative 2, are well-suited to make that demonstration and report those results. In contrast, the proposed Administrative Study is actually structured as a scientific experiment, although its methods do not appear to be adequate to produce valid scientific results, for reasons that include the following:

a. The Study is to be conducted on very large Treatment Units (TUs), yet in fact the number of replications of each Treatment Regime (TR), i.e. each “sample size,” is very small for a scientific experiment or study.

b. The spread of effects intended to be created among the three Treatment Regimes is not large, compared to other differences among the Treatment Units due to current forest conditions resulting from past conditions and management practices, or that would result from variations in climate, weather, terrain, elevation, and possibly fire effects, during the term of the experiment.

c. The spread of effects would not be as large as possible, because there is no provision for equivalent study of a “no treatment” regime. The proposed Treatment Regimes are relatively close to each other, compared to the difference between “no treatment” and any of the proposed treatments.

d. The closest the Proposed Action comes to dealing with our points (b) and (c) above is where it says, on page 9, “Areas of no treatment cannot serve as experimental controls, because vegetation change within such a control will have a trajectory of its own, influenced by weather, fire, insect infestation, perhaps other SNFPA-prescribed treatments, etc.” Exactly. But that argument cuts both ways. If a few units of equivalent forest would not be a valid test of no-treatment, then how could a few other units of the proposed treatments be a valid test of those treatments?

e. Individual owls are relatively long-lived, and there seems to be good evidence that owl populations rise and fall significantly on about a 10-year cycle. While too little history has been recorded to be sure of the cycle's regularity or length, it does seem that owl populations do respond to some combination of long- and/or short-term influences not yet identified or understood. Given the combination of long-lived individuals and the possibility of long-term carry-over effects from past management that might affect both short-term and long-term population dynamics, we question whether valid scientific answers to these very complex questions can be obtained from this relatively crude and short-lived study. How could the effects of past treatments be reliably separated from the effects of new treatments? How many years does it take to be sure that variations in past management activities no longer have enduring effects on owl population dynamics? We do not see how these possible effects can be properly considered, much less accounted for and dealt with, when the Proposed Action does not mention the wide variations in previous management activity among the Treatment Units. There were large differences in both the type of activity and its intensity.

f. The proposed study may well yield new correlations, but it does not seem likely that these correlations would be any stronger than previous owl studies have produced. A new suite of weak correlations would be a very mixed blessing, because we've already endured too long a history of having spotted owl correlations elevated to mistaken notions of cause and effect.

3. Could the proposed Admin Study be legally implemented?

The Administrative Study described in the NOI and Proposed Action cannot legally be implemented, because it is not consistent with the Herger Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act (the Act). The Act is the law, and it must be given precedence over a discretionary action of the Regional Forester, no matter how well intentioned that action.

The Administrative Study is not consistent with the Act for at least the following reasons:

a. The Study and the Pilot Project established by the Act have different purposes. The Pilot Project is intended to demonstrate the effectiveness of specified management activities for a relatively short period, monitor and evaluate the results, and consider those results immediately in a forest plan amendment process specified by the Act. In contrast, the Study is a scientific experiment that: (1) would impose treatment regimes different from those adopted in the HFQLG EIS, and do them on large areas of the Pilot Project landscape; (2) would impose longer term treatment regimes that pre-empt or bias the decisions required to be made in the forest plan amendments specified by the Act, and (3) would study the results over a long period in which other management activity would probably be discouraged or prohibited in the Study area, so as not to interfere with the Study.

b. It is conceivable to reconcile the two purposes, by implementing the Pilot Project exactly as intended by the Act, and simultaneously conducting a scientific study based upon, but not changing or interfering with, the Pilot Project. Unfortunately, the Study, as it is now proposed, is not designed to be done without interference, and in various ways the Treatment Regimes specified in the Proposed Action do not comply with the Act. Examples of non-compliance:

(1) At least two significantly different Defensible Fuel Profile Zone (DFPZ) prescriptions are proposed for the Study, one of which meets the current Owl Guidelines (i.e. those adopted in the SNFPA ROD) but is already known not to be adequately effective in reducing the fire hazard and is far from cost-effective, while the other one would probably be more effective at less cost, but fails to meet the current Owl Guidelines. These prescriptions obviously cannot meet the requirements of the Act, which are to follow the current Sierran Province Owl Guidelines and at the same time use the most cost-effective means available in constructing the DFPZ network. Furthermore, we do not see how it is possible to change the DFPZ prescriptions in the Study so that DFPZs themselves would provide any significant part of the spread of effects said to be necessary, while still meeting the requirements of the Act.

(2) The Study proposes two implementations of group selection and one no-groups regime, on relatively large Treatment Units. The group selection required by the Act was intended to be conventional group selection as understood by silviculturists and described in standard texts. QLG has published a “white paper” that outlines the intended implementation, and that paper is available on the QLG web site, www.qlg.org. The intended distribution and size of treatment units was to be spread across the landscape at the scale of planning watersheds, whereas the Study TUs are less well distributed, and are in units five times the intended size or larger. One reason given to QLG for the large TU's is that smaller units dispersed on the landscape would not be as likely to have measurable effects on the owls, and measurable effects are needed in the Study. But one of the very reasons that the HFQLG Pilot Project was based on more widely dispersed group selection units was to minimize any potential adverse effect on owls. The proposed size and distribution of Treatment Units do not comply with the purposes of the Act regarding group selection.

(3) The intended rotation age was to be approximately 150 years on “high” sites and 200 years on “low” sites, as determined by Dunning productivity ratings and stand characteristics, whereas the Study is based on a nominal rotation age of 175 years for all stands.

(4) The Study proposes to add large areas of Strategically Placed Area Treatments (SPLATs) in all eleven of the Treatment Units. As noted above, this would bias or pre-empt a decision required to be made in the forest plan amendment process specified in the Act. Area treatments -- even the particular kind of area treatments called SPLATs -- might very well fit a long-term strategy adopted in the forest plan amendments, but the Act requires that decision to be made in the specified forest plan amendments, not in an Administrative Study EIS.

Furthermore, the Study designates three large areas, totaling 145,000 acres, to be given only defective and inadequate fuel reduction treatments (Treatment Regime A), with the assumption that this condition will persist so that it can be studied for ten to twenty years. Has anybody told the residents of La Porte that this Study places them right in the middle of a large unit that would receive only ineffective DFPZ and area treatments?

c. The Act requires management activities for the Pilot Project to comply with the Spotted Owl Sierran Province Interim Guidelines or the subsequently issued guidelines, whichever are in effect. The SNFPA ROD claims to have provided the subsequently issued guidelines, but those guidelines are very likely to be changed by a supplemented EIS and ROD resulting from the Review currently under way. Therefore, we now have subsequently issued guidelines that are very likely to be superceded by different subsequently issued guidelines.

Instead of complying with the Guidelines, the proposed Study EIS would establish an exception to those Guidelines, in order to implement a large part of the very Pilot Project that is required by law to comply with the Guidelines.

If a study is to be conducted in the HFQLG area during the term of the Pilot Project, it must be in full accord with the California Spotted Owl Sierran Province Guidelines then in effect. But we cannot know the actual content of those guidelines until the supplemented SNFPA EIS and ROD are finalized. And since finalization of the Guidelines cannot be expected before late 2003, it is not possible to process a valid Study EIS on the proposed schedule, which was intended to produce a Study decision by mid 2003. Therefore, if the Administrative Study EIS adopted the Proposed Action on the intended timeline, that decision would prove to be either unlawfully devious or completely futile.

d. The HFQLG Act required the Forest Service to conduct one EIS within 300 days of passage of the Act, in order to support implementation of the Pilot Project. That EIS was done, and there is no authority in the Act for the Forest Service to require a second EIS to permit Pilot Project implementation. Yet the proposed Study EIS would further delay Pilot Project implementation for a purpose not consistent with the Act, and impose changes in implementation of the Pilot Project that are contrary to specific provisions of the Act.

e. According to the NOI, “Both TR-B and TR-C would include a project-specific, non-significant forest plan amendment for the proposed deviation from current diameter and canopy cover standards.” Table 2 of the Proposed Action shows that over 132,000 acres of treatment are to be done in TR-B and TR-C, on a total landscape of 348,000 National Forest acres in those Treatment Units. These treatments would take place over a period of at least six years.

Both common sense and the established planning rules are stretched to the breaking point by the claim that these deviations from current standards can be done legitimately on very large areas by means of project-specific, non-significant forest plan amendments. First, the treatments, as proposed, could not be done at all without deviation from current diameter and canopy cover standards. Second, this is not really a “project-level” decision, because the proposed treatments, if done, would require the individual implementation of many different projects over a considerable time period on large parts of the affected Forests. In truth the required deviations are very significant, because they go right to the core of standards and guidelines that have been the subject, for more than ten years, of repeated, very expensive, and universally unsuccessful efforts to formulate permanent California Spotted Owl Sierran Province Guidelines.

f. The Study, as now proposed, does not provide sufficient assurance that funding and other resources intended for implementation of the HFQLG Pilot Project would be protected from diversion to support the Study. It appears from the 2001 Forest Service Report to Congress on Pilot Project implementation, that about two percent of the HFQLG budget was spent in preparation for the Administrative Study. We have questioned whether those expenditures were strictly for Pilot Project implementation, or were in part for other Study purposes, and have not received a satisfactory explanation. These questions are of even greater significance regarding expenditures in FY 2002 and beyond.

If a study is to be conducted simultaneously with Pilot Project implementation, the study plan must define, require, implement, and report upon some strict and effective processes to prevent redirection or diversion of HFQLG resources.

g. The Study is misrepresented as an “administrative study” when in fact it is a “research study,” according to any reasonable comparison of Forest Service Manual section 1991 (Administrative Studies) and section 4000 (Research Studies). This is not consistent with the agency's obligation under NEPA and other regulations, to provide accurate information to the public on its proposed actions.

4. Other deficiencies of the Proposed Action.

a. No provision is made for effective fuel reduction in Defense Zones and Threat Zones of the Wildland Urban Interface. Instead of the different treatment levels for the WUI that are provided in the SNFPA ROD, the same prescription would be applied to all DFPZs in a Treatment Unit, including those in the WUI.

b. The Proposed Action dated December 10, 2002, does not agree with the list of Projects that would be implemented in each Treatment Unit according to the file “99_to_07_projects” posted in early December on the Forest Service's HFQLG web site. The differences are not trivial. For example, the total DFPZ acreage planned for implementation in the 11 Treatment Units is said to be about 49 thousand acres in the Proposed Action (Table 2, pg 17), but is said to be about 71 thousand acres in the project summary. Which is right? How can the public make informed comments on the Proposed Action when the Forest Service publishes two quite different action plans within a few days of each other?

5. Could a properly designed and implemented Research Study provide some of the needed research while complying with the HFQLG Act?

Yes, but only if any such study is designed and implemented so as to assure scientific rigor, full compliance with the HFQLG Act, no interference with Pilot Project implementation, and no diversion of resources intended for Pilot Project implementation. “Full compliance” and “non-interference” require that implementation requirements must take precedence over study requirements.

a. Since the Act requires adherence to the Sierran Province spotted owl guidelines, and use of the most cost-effective means available, it is not acceptable for a Study to create exceptions to the guidelines or to provide a “spread of effects” by using methods that are not equally the most cost-effective means available. Therefore it seems likely that identical standards would have to be applied in each category of treatment: for fuel reduction in DFPZs, for group selection harvests, and for follow-on area thinning. Furthermore, the same standards would have to be applied within the Study area and in non-Study areas of the Pilot Project.

(1) With regard to DFPZs, it does not seem possible to create a significant spread of effects by means of differences in the treatment standards or the timing and extent of treatment. The Act requires demonstration of the effectiveness of the DFPZ network, and requires it to be completed within a relatively short time by the most cost-effective means available. There is no leeway for significant changes of standards, extent, or timing in those requirements.

(2) With regard to group selection, it may be possible to create some spread of effects during the period of the study by varying the timing and extent of group selection implementation from TU to TU. Whether this would create a sufficient spread of effects for purposes of a study is a question that requires further analysis but is not addressed in the Proposed Action.

(3) With regard to SPLATs or other follow-on area treatments, a commitment to implement such treatments at this time would not comply with the Act, for the reasons cited above. Therefore, what kind of follow-on treatments, and whether they could provide a sufficient spread of effects for a Study, are questions that cannot be decided at this time. While it would seem possible to design a suite of area treatments that would create a spread of effects, those issues must be considered and decided in the forest plan amendment process specified by the Act.

b. Non-interference with the Pilot Project requires scrupulous separation of Pilot Project “implementation” from “study” of the Pilot Project. If such separation is actually provided, then there is no need for a Study EIS that would create exceptions to implementation guidelines, since the existing HFQLG EIS and ROD, implemented under the subsequently issued Sierran Province spotted owl guidelines, are fully sufficient to cover the intended Pilot Project implementation. An EIS to cover study of the Pilot Project, if one is needed, can and must be done separately and without delaying or affecting implementation.

c. To prevent diversion of resources intended for Pilot Project implementation, any Study plan must assure strict separation of funds and other resources, with full accounting to guarantee no mixing of resources. The Act provides for specified evaluations of Pilot Project results, and places a limit on the funds that can be spent on those evaluations. The existence of the Pilot Project provides an opportunity for other parallel and independent studies, but the Pilot Project cannot be used as a source of funding or other resources to support such studies.

In summary, we believe it is possible to design a Research Study that could be done in parallel with the Pilot Project and would be consistent with the Act, but the current Proposed Action does not meet those design requirements.

6. Decision to be Made.

As noted in the 1992 CASPO Report, and either stated or implied in all subsequent efforts to establish permanent spotted owl guidelines, additional scientific study is needed on a number of crucial issues. While QLG acknowledges those needs and recognizes that Pilot Project implementation provides an opportunity for research, we must also conclude that:

a. The proposed Administrative Study is not well designed to study Pilot Project results;

b. The Proposed Action would interfere unlawfully with Pilot Project implementation;

c. The Proposed Action does not provide safeguards to assure that implementation is separated from study, and that no funds intended for Pilot Project implementation would be diverted to the Study.

Therefore we must conclude that the only option under Decision to be Made that would be both legal and feasible is number 3: “Take no action at this time.”

7. Recommendation.

“Take no action at this time” leaves a question: “What action when?”

QLG does not oppose legitimate scientific study of Pilot Project implementation. It is called a Pilot Project for very good reason. The purpose of the HFQLG Act is to demonstrate the effectiveness of particular management activities, monitor and evaluate the results, then use those evaluations to correct and improve the management. Additional scientific study of Pilot Project results could, if properly done, add significantly to the value of the demonstration.

Therefore, having noted in detail how the Administrative Study is not acceptable as proposed, we would like to close by suggesting “what action when.”

a. Initiate a study only after the final SNFPA decision on the Sierran Province owl guidelines has been made. That decision is not expected to be finalized until late 2003, and may well take longer.

b. Call the study what it really is, a Research Study not an Administrative Study, and design it to appropriate standards of scientific rigor.

c. Design the Research Study to comply fully with the HFQLG Forest Recovery Act. In practice we do not believe this can be done unless the final owl guidelines permit both cost-effective fuel reduction and group selection silviculture (essentially the same as the “forest gap regeneration” called for in the SNFPA Final EIS).

d. Provide strict separation of the Research Study from Pilot Project implementation, so that the Study does not interfere with Pilot Project implementation and does not divert funds or other resources from the Pilot Project.



/S/   /S/
Michael Yost   George Terhune

Corresponding Secretaries



Senator Feinstein
Congressman Herger
Congressman Doolittle

Saturday, January 25, 2003 04:05:15 PM