WEBSITE EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an unsolicited review of Dr.Tim Ingalsbee's paper.
October 2, 1997
Review of Ingalsbee, T. 1997. Fire-related critiques of Senate Bill 1028. Western Fire Ecology Center, 8 pp. Unpublished mimeo
Prepared by John W. Menke, Ecologist, Klamath National Forest, and Range Ecologist, University of California, Davis (on leave)
Scientific critique of biophysical and managerial elements of proposed or existing land management policy should serve Federal and State agencies, landowners, Congress, and society-at-large by providing factual evaluation of existing resource conditions, practical management alternatives, and projections of outcomes from management activities based on knowledge in peer-reviewed publications or well documented management experience. In this case, the proposed Senate Bill 1028 and the passage of a similar bill in the House of Representatives is the reason for my review of an apparent scientifically-based critique. Unfortunately, in this case, the critique is biased, misleading and distorts the facts. Most disturbing, it misrepresents the factual beliefs of scientists and scientific committees that have previously analyzed existing forest conditions in the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Mountain Ranges of California.
The grassroots and diverse nature of the Quincy Library Group has helped the organization capture the support of a substantial segment of Congress. SNEP analyses identified some unique characteristics of this northern Sierra/southern Cascade region of California, where a combination of relatively long distances from urban centers, low demand for second-home subdivisions, paucity of retirement settlements, and limited alternative income sources have caused local citizens to look to multiple-use management of natural resources as one basis of their livelihoods. Frustration by Congress, given recent tendencies for public lands management to deviate from existing multiple-use policy, has probably contributed to some members choosing to support a landscape-level pilot project in the region. Whether the National Forests involved do or do not want to conduct the project is not the issue, they serve at the pleasure of Congress, the Executive Branch, and the taxpayer. This concentration of capital outlays for a project could, for the first time, test the feasibility of investing in sustainable forest management, given 1997 initial forest-fuel conditions, at a scale where results can be believed.
In an interesting and not uncommon style of writing, the author of the critique uses a combination of presentations of much factual material, denigration of faceless and unnamed land management agency representatives, and out-of-context referencing of credible scientists and scientific committees in an untruthful manner. Dated arguments and issues long-resolved are repeatedly used to lambaste past and proposed management programs and policies. Past projects on fuel hazard reduction for various purposes have 'failed' for a variety of reasons including:
Agency professionals know this history well. Exaggerated criticism of these past events is counterproductive and does not provide for solutions. We are closer to agreement on these fuel management matters today than the author is willing to admit.
Buried within the lines of the critique is a statement on page 4 referring to the Achilles heel of SB 1028, where the author unknowingly identifies the potential 'shinning value' that may emerge from this project--the learning by society that major investment will be required for sustainable resource management, but that returns from the investment may be remarkably high. Once one sorts away the chaff of the critique, it is apparent that the author agrees with the science-based manager, speaking as follows:
'If we had the budget to manage fuels among the fuelbreaks, i.e., prescribed fire with prescribed silviculture, we could manage forests sustainably and economically.'
Unfortunately, the tone of the review is all negative with respect to SB 1028. The author's intent was to discredit, not critique. In the final analysis, the project may provide an opportunity to demonstrate what science has been telling us for a long time:
'Fire must be allowed to have its natural role in western forest ecosystems.'
This is probably one of the most difficult resource management hypotheses that needs to be tested given its spatial and temporal dimensions. Considering the alternatives, and we have been considering them for as long as I have been involved in resource management (25+ years), it will likely be shown to be a financially sound pilot project investment in the long run.
Where did the author of the critique of SB 1028 go wrong?
The author apparently has such a bias against mechanical treatment of forest ecosystems that any alternative involving forest harvesting was immediately discarded. In reality, vegetation manipulation is limited to four alternatives or their combination: mechanical, chemical, fire, and biological control. Coniferous forest characteristics and current policy effectively limit the alternatives to two: mechanical and fire. Fuel loads in the study area are so high that use of fire, without pre-treatment using mechanical means at an appropriate scale, is infeasible unless initial treatment follows repeated natural wildfire conflagrations where vegetation succession has been reset to ground zero with very low fuel loading. The author has reduced the options to this alternative:
Wait for multiple conflagrations and then begin a prescribed burning program when fuel hazards are low.
Local landowners obviously don't want to accept this alternative because of a growing risk to their personal residences and other structural improvements in the area. And continuing the status quo is accepting this alternative. The fuel condition is in the private landowners' backyard, not the author's! As Drs. Harold Biswell and Marvin Dodge said years and years ago, it is not a matter of whether the forest will burn, but when, where, how much, and how hot!
Additionally, this 'recipe for early successional vegetation' will not be without substantial tree regeneration problems, where the overstory canopy is lost in stand-replacing events on harsh south and west facing aspects. Sustaining existing late-mature conifer trees is also problematic given current and growing fuel loads.
Two key questions need to be answered during this pilot project if SB 1028 passes, and it may take 20-30 years or more to conduct a valid test:
The author's referencing of Drs. Omi and Agee, related to fuelbreaks and firefighting, and ground fuel flammability, respectively, are out of context and not the issue. Shaded fuelbreaks are a means to reintroduction of natural and prescribed fire and prescribed silviculture at a landscape scale for fuel management, and ultimately sustainable forestry. Shaded fuelbreaks will provide a strategic network of access locations for black-lining of forest-floor fuels during wildfire as well as prescribed fire events, and control of ladder fuels, both of which will allow reintroduction of fire. Low forest-floor and regulated understory fuel volumes is the proximate goal throughout the forest--a whole forest with reduced fire hazard. Ultimately, once fire frequency approaches natural return intervals, the goal is a landscape dominated by widely-spaced larger trees resistant to disturbances of all kinds, yet structured to naturally recycle nutrients from annual needle-fall, larger branches, limb and bole materials during usual successional processes.
Opportunity for extraordinary funding for landscape-level fuel reduction and reintroduction of fire is long over due. Fire scientists and managers have envisioned similar strategies for years, but have never had an adequate concentration of support at large enough scale, and with adequate local interest and funding to carry it out. Tenured local residents who have the greatest stake in the outcome will cause a greater likelihood of continued implementation than in previous, very dispersed and limited efforts.
Criticism concerning use of the existing road network is again mistargeted because it assumes only a limited firefighting purpose for the shaded fuelbreaks--this is not the case (see above). Mechanical manipulation of fuels near roads is an opportunity which provides for minimum soil disturbance, and targets fire prevention where human-caused ignitions are most likely. Topographic limitations are more severe in this part of California than the more gentle Cascade Range pine forests in Oregon where the author may have greater experience. Certainly a strategic selection of roads to treat will be needed.
The prediction by the author of community instability is short sighted and assumes no continuation of funding for activities related to fire reintroduction and fuels management beyond the 5-years targeted by the bill. Fuel management activities will be continually required in the future and fortunately current fiscal practices (KV and BD) allow excess timber receipts to fund fuels reduction and fuelbreak maintenance. More efficient logging companies with fewer jobs is not the issue, the outside-agency jobs will focus on prescribed fire and fuels management activities. Natural fire return interval requirements, sustainable silviculture, and the scale of the area should sustain a substantial workforce forever. Such a pilot project could lead to a whole 'new ball game' in resource management. The most interesting aspect, from this reviewer's perspective, is learning how large a healthy forest is needed to sustain a local community. Overpopulation of the commingled private lands amongst dominant National Forest ownership is a greater threat to ecosystem stability than any of the contemporary Federal land management alternatives. Any repellence to excessive immigration into the area is a positive, not a negative. Non-residential recreation should be encouraged, not excessive and/or dispersed settlement.
In the latter portion of the review, the author effectively endorses an experimental use of broadscale prescribed fire which is in agreement with the long-term vision of the local supporters of the project. This could be a step along the road to reintroduction of fire in forest ecosystems. Here he gives credit to SNEP scientists who also support the concept. However, he cannot avoid one more crack at denigration of Forest Service personnel, and tries to use National Park Service experiences to chastise past programs. Well, he has it very wrong again, and here I can speak from direct personal experience. I worked with Harold Biswell, Jan van Wagtendonk, Ronald Wakimoto, Sandy Frizzell, Dave Parsons, Tom Bonnicksen and others in the State and National Park systems in the mid-1970s to reintroduce fire into Calaveras Big Trees State Park and it worked well at this scale. The author should become aware, however, that when scaled up to Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park acreage, the effort has been unsuccessful in meeting its targets. Without sustainable mechanical manipulation of vegetation it cannot happen given existing fuel loads.
The accurate information he quotes from Susan Husari, a S6,400 to S50 cost/acre margin for wildfire suppression vs. prescribed underburning, bodes well for the economic success of this pilot project. There is not a corporation in the world that would not jump at these potential income streams--and they are income streams which tap the US Treasury all too often under the status quo!
Having been trained by Harold Biswell and 6 years later accepting an assistant professor position made available due to his retirement, I will always remember his experience at Hoberg's in the Coast Range of California where he did much of his prescribed burning experiments over many years. His observations of crown fires dropping to the ground when the fire front encountered sites with previously treated ground and understory fuels, to the point that the forest was "clean, open and park-like", has always stuck in my head. Learning that John Muir saw similar stand conditions in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains during early visits to California has always given me a reference point to compare forest structures. My recommendation is that we seek similar structures, realizing that they will not control wildfire.
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