Firery Comment

By Dave Sweitzer, Secretary/Manager, Western Hardwood Association

As my wife and I prepared to evacuate our Stevenson, WA property with 25 animals because of the Eagle Creek Fire across the Columbia River in Cascade Locks, OR, we became hot over the lack of management of our forests. We watched the fire grow and progress up the Columbia Gorge lighting up the evening skies.

For decades, the forest products industry has advocated for selective logging, cleaning the forest floor of fire starter debris, and replanting seedlings. I applaud US Rep Greg Walden’s House Resolution 3715 which calls for fast-tracked salvage logging in the burned areas of the Gorge, with the idea of removing burned and damaged trees and quickly replanting the area afterward. Walden said on the House floor, “year after year after year after year we have these catastrophic wildfires on federal lands, some of which have been set aside and managed in a way that they have no management”.

Too bad the naysayers (Friends of the Columbia Gorge) headquartered in Portland don’t see the benefits of salvage logging. They seem to think any entry into the forest, other than recreational, is detrimental to the forest recovery. The facts do not support their claim. In fact, whether logged or unlogged, researchers find there is not much difference in forest plant regeneration after a wildfire. The findings were the result of more than a decade of studying plant regeneration after the 2002 Cone Fire in California.

Salvage logging, cleaning the forest floor, and replanting will rejuvenate the forest and provide forests for our grandkids and their grandkids. Now is the time to contact your representative and suggest they support House Resolution 3715. If we don’t start managing our federal and state forest, we won’t have any forest to manage in the future.


A New Runway Doesn’t Need an EIS. Why Should a Timber Sale?

By Lawson Fite, AFRC General Counsel

The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Barnes v. FAA upheld an agency finding that constructing a new airport runway does not require an EIS. This is a stark contrast to recent district court decisions requiring an EIS for modest forestry projects, such as the Goose Project which would conduct largely thinning treatment on 2,100 acres, or the White Castle timber sale involving 187 acres of variable retention harvest. Unsurprisingly, the effects of a major construction project exceed the effects of these modest projects. Construction also involves dealing with air quality issues where there is more uncertainty than any analysis of the effects of standard forestry techniques. This case shows just how far NEPA decisions on forestry have departed from the law.

In terms of airport operations (the number of takeoffs and landings), Hillsboro Airport has been Oregon’s busiest airport since 2008. To create the capacity for continued growth, the Port of Portland began planning to add a new runway, measuring 3,600 feet long (0.7 miles) and 60 feet wide. The project also includes construction of taxiways, relocation of a helipad, and associated infrastructure improvements. The new runway would slightly increase storm water runoff, impact some 70 acres of vegetation, result in permanent loss of 2.22 acres of wetlands, affect some 50 acres of prime farmland or farmland of statewide importance, and raise electricity use slightly. After a remand from a first round of litigation, the Port and the FAA produced an EA which predicted that Hillsboro would have 11,350 more takeoffs and landings each year with the new runway than it would without the new runway. The EA estimated that the new runway would result in the annual emission of an additional 0.03 ton of lead in 2016 and the annual emission of an additional 0.02 ton of lead in 2021 – an increase of four percent. The project budget is approximately $16.5 million.

Environmental groups petitioned for review in the Ninth Circuit, claiming that the construction of the runway required an EIS. The court, in the first round of litigation, rejected claims that uncertainty of climate change effects required an EIS. It noted that there is not substantial scientific uncertainty relating to the causal connection between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. However, the Court found because Hillsboro “represents less than 1 percent of U.S. aviation activity, greenhouse emissions associated with existing and future aviation activity at HIO are expected to represent less than 0.03 percent of U.S.-based greenhouse gases. Because this percentage does not translate into locally-quantifiable environmental impacts given the global nature of climate change, the EA’s discussion of the project’s in terms of percentages is adequate.” It also held that the decision did not create “precedent” that a runway does not require an EIS because runway EAs are site-specific.

In the second round of litigation, the court rejected arguments that effects from increased lead emissions would present unique risks due to effects on children’s health, or that effects were highly controversial or uncertain, because the FAA and the Port had quantified the “de minimis” increase in emissions. By contrast, district courts in Oregon have found “significant” effects requiring an EIS even in a project, such as White Castle, that would take no northern spotted owls.

Barnes was the right decision and it shows the path forward the Ninth Circuit can and should take in evaluating forestry projects.


Sarcastic Lawsuits

by Andy Geissler, AFRC Field Forester

Last month, three organizations (Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, and Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands) filed a lawsuit against a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) timber sale called Lower Grave in southwest Oregon.  Among the claims filed was that the BLM “failed to take the requisite “hard look” at the project’s potential environmental impacts to the northern spotted owl.” 

The term “hard look” is subjective and can thus be interpreted many ways.  Here, the challenge is specific to the agency’s “hard look” at the impacts to the northern spotted owl (NSO), a species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  The primary method that the BLM uses to take this hard look is through consultation with the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS).  The vehicle for this consultation is called a Biological Assessment (BA) which is prepared by the BLM for every single vegetation management project that has a potential impact to the NSO or its habitat.  The BA summarizes the project’s impacts to the NSO following an analysis that includes surveys, habitat condition analysis on the landscape & local scale, and population trends.  Following its publication, the FWS reviews it and provides their feedback.  Typically, a single BA is prepared for each BLM vegetation management project and they average around 60 pages.  For the Lower Grave project, the BLM issued three BA’s.  Following the publication of the initial 59-page BA, the BLM made significant amendments over the next year and re-published that document twice.  These 100+ pages of analysis come in addition to a 250-page Environmental Assessment (EA).

And ultimately, this abundance in analysis and paperwork was greeted with a lawsuit claiming that the BLM failed to take a hard look.  It’s difficult to predict how a judge is going to interpret the term “hard look”, but I imagine that most rational minded people would find it hard to believe that three separate in-depth analyses in addition to a single larger analysis for a single project would fail to pass muster.  In light of what seems to be more than sufficient analysis, this lawsuit also begs the question as to whether such a claim even warrants judicial review.  It almost seems comical.  In fact, the claim resembles the kind of sarcastic response typically reserved for only the most absurd situations; i.e. “Only 350 pages of analysis?  C’mon BLM, I thought you were going to take a hard look!”  Unfortunately, these organizations are not being sarcastic, and they are likely hedging their bets on the possibility that whatever judge reviews this case won’t sense the irony in their claims.


Missing the Forest for the Fake News

by Lawson Fite, AFRC General Counsel

Hillary killed Vince Foster.  Obama was born in Kenya.  Trump is going to let Big Timber cut down the Sequoias.  Which one is “Fake News”?  The answer is “All of the Above.”

The new Administration’s review of a number of National Monument designations has emotions and rhetoric running high.  Unfortunately, the debate has become unmoored from the facts in some quarters.  One of the monuments under review is the Giant Sequoia National Monument (GSNM) in California.  A recent Sierra Club fundraising message makes false claims about review of this monument.

sierraclub

The statements above are false.  The timber industry has never expressed any interest in logging giant Sequoias.  Nor has anyone in the administration suggested any such thing.  In fact, a coalition of forestry associations recommended changes to GSNM to better protect Giant Sequoia groves.  Within the current monument area, there are 38 Giant Sequoia groves constituting about 27,830 acres of forest.  When zones of influence (buffers) are included the total acreage increases to just over 90,000 acres.  While undoubtedly well-intentioned, President Clinton’s designation of 327,760 acres went far beyond these unique forests and now restricts the ability of the U.S. Forest Service to use science-based, active forest management to thin the adjacent forests to protect the Giant Sequoia groves.

Over the past two years over 20 percent of the GSNM has burned, including over 62,000 acres in the 2015 Rough Fire and substantial portions in the 2016 Cedar Fire.

cedarfire

While it is fortunate that we have not yet lost Giant Sequoia groves in these fires, it is only a matter of time unless action is taken to reduce fuel loading and restore forest resiliency to the adjoining forests.

At a time when public confidence in the media and government is threatened by fake stories and rumors spread through social media, it is important to keep the debate grounded.  Reasonable people can disagree, but people who can’t agree on a common set of facts can never agree on more important questions.  Our whole system of government is undermined by the lack of trust.  An environment of disinformation and paranoia empowers extremist voices, leading to poor policies and suffering communities.

Clearly, there is some disagreement about the best way to protect Giant Sequoias in GSNM.  But a debate about the best policy is not moved forward by using misrepresentations to raise money.


Environmental Analysis too long to print

by Andy Geissler, AFRC Field Forester

Last summer I wrote an article for AFRC’s blog regarding the status of Environmental Analyses (EA’s) being completed on the Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when conducting vegetation management projects, including timber harvest, on their lands.  At the time, I highlighted a 418-page EA and described it as a “mammoth” document.  That description seemed fitting considering that the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) described in its 2007 publication A Citizens Guide to NEPA that The environmental assessment (EA) is intended to be a concise document that briefly provides sufficient evidence and analysis.  418 pages seemed excessive and a far cry from “concise” and at the time was the longest EA published by the BLM for a vegetation management project that I had reviewed.  Of course, there is no limit to excess, a rule that I was reminded of this month following the BLM’s publication of a 460-page EA titled “Pickett West”.  Now I’m faced with finding an adjective more extreme than mammoth.  I briefly flirted with the idea of labeling the Pickett West document as “mammoth”, but after placing a phone call into the Medford BLM office I was provided with a more apt description.

Typically, the BLM will provide printed hard-copies of any NEPA document they publish.  Knowing this, I called the Grants Pass Field Office to request a hard-copy of the 460-page Pickett West EA.  The response I received was at first funny and bit surreal, but later simply depressing.  The BLM informed me that they would not be providing the public with hard-copies of the Pickett West EA because it is “too long to print”.  That’s correct, the BLM has officially prepared an EA that is either too costly or too time consuming for them to print on paper.  That’s when I halted my search for a single adjective worthy to represent the Pickett West EA.  If 2016 was the year of mammoth EA’s then 2017 is officially the year of “EA’s-Too-Long-To-Print”.

I can’t say that I’m shocked by where we’re at.  The digression of the BLM into the world of EA’s-Too-Long-To-Print was bound to happen.  This is an agency that constantly hears accusations that their EA’s are “insufficient” in scope and in content by opponents of timber management, regardless of how long they are (If you don’t believe me, call the Medford BLM office and request copies of the 170-pages of formal protests they received last year for all their hard work publishing over 1,500 pages of environmental analysis).  So, if a 300-page EA is insufficient, and a 418-page EA is insufficient, then I’m guessing that a 460-page EA will also be seen as insufficient.  The only relevant question now is what will 2018 bring?  The optimist in me likes to think that it will be the year that the Medford BLM District ignores the absurd claims that their Russian-novelesque EA’s are insufficient, and publishes an EA that is a concise document that briefly provides sufficient evidence and analysis (where have I heard that description before…).  But the pessimist in me suspects that I’ll be searching for a new word to describe whatever type of document gets published by the BLM next June.


BLM Timber Sale Generates Impressive Value

by Andy Geissler, AFRC Field Forester

Over the past twenty years the Bureau of Land Management has met its timber output targets primarily through the thinning of young stands.  This one-dimensional management paradigm has been criticized by several stakeholders for various reasons.  Professional foresters have questioned the validity of a “thinning-only” regime given the fact that such a practice is unsustainable.  Sustainable forestry can only occur in this region through the harvest of mature timber followed by replanting of a new stand.

The forest products industry has questioned this regime as young stand thinnings only supply a single type of raw material that can only be processed into a narrow range of final products.  County governments, who receive 50% of the value generated by timber sales on O&C Lands, have questioned the limitations in value of a thinning-only management paradigm as the value of these offerings is lower than those from mature stands.  However, in recent months the BLM across all Western Oregon has started to progress beyond the status-quo of the past twenty years by offering timber sales that regenerate appropriate stands of timber.  This progression addresses all three of these concerns as regeneration harvest of mature stands provides sustainability, a variety of forest products, and a monetary value that is significant enough to provide stable county budgets.

The latest such timber sale, called Fawn Two, was sold by the Salem Sustained Yield Unit (SYU) of the Northwest Oregon District north of Mill City for over $2 million.  The stands in Fawn Two are at a seral stage where thinning is no longer effective and regeneration harvest is the only remaining management option.  The sale consisted primarily of Douglas-fir, and sold at a rate of $615 per thousand board feet (MBF).  To put this in proper context, the other five sales that the Salem SYU offered this fiscal year were sold at an average rate of $282/MBF for Douglas-fir (the highest rate was $347/MBF).  This means the Fawn Two timber sale exceeded the average value per board foot of Douglas-fir of all the other Salem SYU timber sales this year by nearly 120%!  As mentioned earlier, the total value of the Fawn Two timber sale was approximately $2 Million.  To put that number in context, the average value of the previously cited five timber sales was $1.2 Million.  The distinction between those two numbers may not seem significant; but consider that the average size of those five timber sales was 228 acres and that Fawn Two was a mere 60 acres!  The Counties will receive $16,666 an acre from the Fawn Two sale and only $2,632 an acre from the other sales.

If nothing else, the results of the Fawn Two timber sale should silence the critics who claim that the BLM’s timber outputs cannot provide the monetary value necessary to keep County beneficiaries whole.


Tuolumne County Struggling with Unprecedented Mortality

Tuolumne County, just north of Yosemite National Park, is representative of 10 mountain counties in the central and southern Sierra Mountains is facing an extreme wave of bark beetle induced mortality covering both private and National Forest lands.  More than 100 million trees are estimated to have died in Sierra Nevada forest since 2011 due to five years of drought and overstocked stands that weakened trees and made them vulnerable to infestation by bark beetles.  Dead and dying trees threaten homes, roads, power lines, canals and other infrastructure across the region.

image001 (2)As an example of the scale of the effort required to respond to this slow-moving disaster, Tuolumne County responded with one of the most active programs to insure public safety and protect its facilities.   The County tree mortality program was recently awarded a 2017 Achievement Award in the category of risk and emergency management by the National Association of Counties, a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C.  The county formed a task force to assess and mitigate the crisis, applied for grants, and is using its reserve funds to mitigate the hazards to its facilities.  It obtained a state of California grant for the removal of dead & dying trees threatening public facilities which pays for 75% of the cost, but leaves the county to fund the remaining 25%.

The county has pledged more than $600,000 from its General Fund reserves to cover its share of the cost.  County officials estimate needing a total of about $12 million over the next three years to remove all the hazardous trees, so 25% of that would deplete the counties $2.3 million in General Fund Reserves. (from the Union Democrat, May 3, 2017)

In addition to the county effort, PG&E has removed thousands of trees from along its power lines and utility corridors, often having to use cranes to remove the trees in sections costing $1,000 to $2,000 per tree.  The state of California had had to mount a similar effort to remove hazard trees along state roads in the County, and owners of private industrial land have salvaged thousands of acres of dying trees using several different permits under the California Forest Practice Act.  Thousands of private homes and facilities in the counties must remove their dead and dying trees at their own expense if the trees do not threaten a power line or county road and have spent thousands of dollars per parcel.

Service clubs including the Lions club of Sonora recognized that elderly citizens on fixed incomes cannot afford the cost of removing hazard trees threatening their homes, and have responded by raising over $100,000 through fundraising and grants.  They developed the Tree Mortality Action Program (TMAP) to qualify, locate, measure, and contract the removal of these hazard trees for senior citizens.  These trees are also often next to houses with limited access and must be removed in sections.

Merchantable logs from salvage operations have been utilized by local mills, although much is blue stained and of low value.  Some of the devalued timber can be chipped for biomass, but the non-merchantable wood must be hauled to disposal sites which have been selected and permitted by the county. -Jerry Jensen, AFRC California Consultant


Northern Spotted Owl Extinction Watch: May 2017 Update

According to the USFWS, the Northern Spotted Owl (NSO) population has declined 52% since 1992.  At its current rate of decline, another 25% will be lost in the next 20 years even though the amount of suitable habitat is expected to increase significantly.  The cause of the NSO decline is the invasion of the barred owl whose population has exploded since 1990 and continues to increase.  Even though the USFWS only recently formally listed the barred owl as a threat to the NSO, their potential impact has been recognized for almost 40 years.

The barred owl was first detected within the range of the NSO in the 1970’s.  In the 1980’s, researchers started to become concerned about the impacts the barred owl would have on the NSO.  In 1990 when the NSO was listed as threatened, the USFWS acknowledged that the expansion of the barred owl population was of “considerable concern.”

By 2004, the preponderance of evidence led the team conducting a 5‐year status review to conclude “that the barred owl is a significantly greater threat to the spotted owl than originally estimated at the time of listing.”  By this time, the overall NSO population had declined by 30% from its 1992 level.

In 2008, the USFWS released the NSO Recovery Plan that identified competition from barred owls as a main threat to the spotted owl. Roughly a third of recovery actions address the barred owl threat, including consideration of measures relating to a barred owl removal experiment.  By this time, another 8% of the NSO population was lost.

In February 2009, a Barred Owl Stakeholders Group was formed as part of the scoping process for the barred owl removal experiment.  The final EIS and ROD for this experiment was signed September 2013.  By this time another 9% of the NSO population was lost bringing the NSO population down to 54% of its 1992 level. There is no firm schedule for conducting this experiment only that “(R)emoval activities will end when data are sufficient to meet the purpose and need.”  A maximum duration of 10 years of barred owl removal was stated for the experiment.  At the end of this 10 years, another 13% of the NSO population will be lost.

The experimental design called for a total of 3,603 barred owls to be removed from four study areas.  After four years, only 978 have been removed.  At the current rate, it will take an additional 5 years from what was originally planned where another 7% of the population will be lost.

After the experiment is completed (sometime after 2027), if they find that removing barred owls leads to an increase in NSO’s which is likely, the USFWS will then have to go through a lengthy regulatory and legal process to develop a barred owl removal plan.  This could take yet another 10 years at which time the NSO population will only be at about 25% of its 1992 level and perhaps will be extirpated from major portions of its range.

The adoption of a plan, however, does not mean the plan will actually be implemented.  To implement the plan, it will have to withstand lengthy legal challenges from opposing environmental groups and if successful, convince Congress to allocate millions of dollars every year to carry out the plan.  In the 20-30 years it will take to maybe start barred owl removal, the spotted owl will have already become extinct throughout much of its range.

In the meantime, the USFWS is focusing on maintaining and increasing suitable NSO habitat claiming that since the NSO population is declining so rapidly “habitat is more important than ever.”  The fallacy of this concept is that there are already hundreds of thousands of suitable NSO habitat that is devoid of any NSO’s because of the presence of barred owls.  Any new habitat that is created will be occupied by barred owls and therefore of no use to the NSO.  The result of this fixation on “habitat” as opposed to addressing the real problem is that the much needed fuels reduction and restoration work needed on our federal lands is being thwarted by the USFWS insistence on maintaining all of the existing nesting habitat and major reluctance to allow treatment of foraging and dispersal habitat.

It is understandable that the USFWS is reluctant to address the real threat to the NSO as killing barred owls at the level that would make a difference to the NSO will be met with major resistance from environmental groups and Congress is not likely to continually fund a multi-million dollar removal effort.

It should be obvious that to only practical solution to ensuring that the NSO will continue to exist in the wild is to identify refuges across its range that could be maintained through barred owl removal at a level acceptable to the public and Congress.  A captive breeding program should also be started to ensure there sufficient genetic diversity is maintained if NSO’s need to be reintroduced where they have been totally displaced by the barred owl.  These efforts should begin now rather than waiting another 30 years at which time the NSO will be extinct in much of its range. -Ross Mickey


When a Take is Not a Take: The Regulatory Quagmire of the ESA No-Take Provision

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) states that it is unlawful to “take” any endangered species of fish or wildlife.  50 CFR Part 17.31 expands the prohibition to take endangered species to wildlife species listed as threatened. The term “take” means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct. Harm is further defined in 50 CFR §17.3 to include significant habitat modification or degradation that results in death or injury to listed species by significantly impairing behavioral patterns such as breeding, feeding, or sheltering. Harass is defined as actions that create the likelihood of injury to listed species to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavior patterns which include, but are not limited to, breeding, feeding or sheltering. All of the “takings” alleged to have occurred due to habitat modification caused by timber sales on federal land are in the form of harassment. The Secretary is also authorized by the ESA to permit any taking if such taking is incidental to, and not the purpose of, the carrying out of an otherwise lawful activity.

Incidental Take Guidelines for the Northern Spotted Owl

The USFWS issued “Procedures Leading to Endangered Species Act Compliance for the Northern Spotted Owl” in July of 1990.  This document defined how take would be determined when associated with “degradation or the destruction of suitable spotted owl habitat”.  These guidelines were established based on limited research done in the 1980’s that showed a tenuous relationship between the amount of suitable habitat and spotted owl occupancy and reproductive success.  Based on this limited research, the USFWS determined that there is a high likelihood of take if the amount of suitable habitat within the home range falls below 40%.  The actual research this was based on showed that stands over 21% suitable habitat functioned as well as those with greater amounts of habitat. (Bart, J and E.D. Forsman 1992)  The USFWS formally rescinded the take guidelines in October 1991 but has continued to use the 40% standard as ‘the best scientific information”.

As a result of a ruling in a case called ONRC vs. Allen. The USFWS, USFS and BLM developed the Owl Estimation Methodology (OEM) which updated the habitat conditions that would determine the likelihood of take.  They retained the 40% of the home range determination and modified the threshold conditions within the nest site and core areas.  The OEM also defined that a take would occur if any suitable habitat is removed within a 300 foot radius circle around the nest tree or the amount of suitable habitat falls below 50% of the core area which range in size from 5,720 acres in northern Washington to 500 acres in Oregon and California.  The OEM was formally withdrawn in 2015 after Judge Leon ruled its use by the federal agencies was illegal but the USFWS still utilizes the three habitat criteria to determine if owls will be “taken” due to changes in suitable habitat conditions.

Take Determination on USFS and BLM Timber Sales

When a timber sale is being planned, the action agency (USFS or BLM) must determine how it will affect the spotted owl.  There are three affect determinations.  The first is that the project will have no effect in which case the action agency does not have to notify the USFWS about the project.  The second is a “may affect but not likely to adversely affect” the spotted owl.  In this case, the action agency must obtain a “letter of concurrence” from the USFWS.  The third determination is one that “may affect and is likely to adversely affect” the spotted owl.  Currently, the USFS and BLM have been directed by the USFWS to treat projects that remove or downgrade any suitable spotted owl habitat regardless of the presence of any spotted owls as being “likely to adversely affect” spotted owls.  In this case, the action agency submits a Biological Assessment to the USFWS who then prepare a Biological Opinion that must conclude that the proposed actions will not “jeopardized the existence of the specie” or “adversely modify critical habitat”.  If either of these occur as a result of the project, the project will not go forward.

If the project receives a no jeopardy and no adverse modification determination, the USFWS then determines if any take will occur as a result of the project.  If so, they will prepare an incidental take statement which allows the agency to proceed with the project since the take “is incidental to, and not the purpose of, the carrying out of an otherwise lawful activity”.  In determining take, the USFWS uses the take guidelines found in the Owl Estimation Methodology.  The amount of take that is assumed to occur if habitat is below one of the three thresholds is 2 adults and 1.5 young per home range.

How the Thresholds are used in Determining Take on Timber Sales

Using hard line thresholds for take determination leads to a number of very bizarre situations.  The first of these occur in southern and eastern Oregon and northern California.  In these provinces, over 90% of the historic home ranges do not contain 40% suitable habitat in their natural state.  This is due to climate and soil productivity factors that limit stand density.  It also frequently occurs on land managed by the BLM because of their checkerboard ownership created by the O&C Act.  Since the home ranges in these areas are below threshold levels naturally, removing any “suitable habitat” will result in a take determination of 3.5 owls. This determination will be made regardless of the known presence of any spotted owls.  If even a small amount of suitable habitat is removed a short time later in another project, another 3.5 owls will be said to be taken.  This could go on ad infinitum leading to the ridiculous conclusion that hundreds of owls could be “taken” from a single home range even if no owls were using the area.

Because the take determination for timber sales rely on the prohibition of harassment, the USFWS should be determining if the proposed action will “create the likelihood of injury to listed species to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavior patterns”.  Since they do not do this and rely on the three hard line thresholds, a take would not occur if a home range currently had 41% habitat and would be reduced to 40% by a project yet a take would occur if a home range had 40% suitable habitat and a project would reduce it to 39%.   The same would occur concerning the 50% threshold for the core area.

No-Take Requirement within the Western Oregon BLM RMP’s

The BLM recently adopted new Resource Management Plans (RMP’s) for the lands they manage in western Oregon.  Due to the precipitous decline in the spotted owl population being caused by the barred owl, the BLM agreed to not “take” any spotted owl until the USFWS adopts a barred owl management plan.  If this plan is not done in seven years, the BLM will have to re-consult with the USFWS on their RMP’s causing major disruptions to their land management and perhaps triggering revisions of the RMP’s.  There is zero probability that the USFWS will adopt a barred owl management plan in seven years and it is not likely to occur in the next 20 years if ever.

It should be noted that the USFWS has determined that without a drastic reduction in the size of the barred owl population, the spotted owl will become extinct in most of its range regardless of how much habitat is protected or created.  They recognize the importance of reducing the size of the barred owl population and realize the only mechanism to do this is by lethally removing them.  They therefore embarked on a research project to determine the effectiveness of lethal removal.  This study stared in 2013 and was to remove a total of 3,603 barred owls from four areas within four years.  This effort is going much more slowly than expected.  Between 2013 and 2017, only 819 barred owls have been removed.  Even if the rate of removal doubled, it will take another six years to complete the field work.  This will be followed by 10-15 years of analysis, development of a plan, environmental analysis of the plan and public involvement.  In the best case scenario, a plan may be adopted in 20 years.

The adoption of a plan does not mean the plan will actually be implemented.  To implement the plan, it will have to withstand lengthy legal challenges from opposing environmental groups and if successful, convince Congress to allocate millions of dollars every year to carry out the plan.  In the 20-30 years it will take to maybe start barred owl removal, the spotted owl will have already become extinct throughout much of its range. -Ross Mickey


What I Learned in Court

At AFRC one of our most important tools – and one of the most important services we offer our members – is our legal program.  AFRC not only advocates for responsible forest management on public lands by working directly with the agency and interested stakeholders.  We also have a legal team that aggressively defends good projects in court when challenged by opponents of active management.

Last week, I was at the Federal Courthouse in Eugene to observe oral arguments of a legal challenge to one of those projects.  Within minutes of walking into the courtroom, I was struck by the irony of the exercise.  To my left, to my right, directly in front of me, and directly behind me were 20-foot high wood-paneled walls (probably manufactured locally by an AFRC member).  The lawyers – including the environmental plaintiffs – were sitting behind ornate wood desks and the audience sat on wood benches and wood chairs.  The judge called the hearing to order by wrapping the gavel made of wood on her, wait for it, wood dais.

And the topic of discussion for the day: is it ok to use some of the billions of trees in Oregon, a renewable resource, to make the very things right in front of our faces?

After the judge thanked legal counsel for their extensive briefing materials, which amounted to hundreds of pages of legal analysis, maps, and discussion of all the steps the Forest Service undertook to design the project, the “show” began.  Not knowing the intimate details of the project (AFRC monitors 45 national forests and BLM units on 75 million acres of public land), I was anxious to understand the premise of the plaintiff’s legal challenge.  I was waiting for the fireworks.

Was the plaintiff going to claim the Forest Service was planning a massive “clearcut” of “old growth” near a favorite campground?  Such accusations always get the public’s attention.

Or, perhaps the plaintiff would argue the Forest Service was planning to authorize logging on the banks of Umpqua River near a well-known fishing hole?  That would get people fired up.

Or, maybe the plaintiff was simply going to claim that managing a tiny fraction of the Umpqua National Forest would mean the extinction of the spotted owl?  I mean, no judge wants to greenlight the extirpation of an entire species, right?

As it turns out, the legal challenge had little to do with the substance of the proposed project at all.  In fact, the project was aimed at thinning overstocked forests, restoring meadows, and making the landscape more resilient to fire.  The project was also planned on forestlands zoned as “Matrix” – the very lands intended for timber production under the Northwest Forest Plan.  I was confused.  So, what’s the problem?  Isn’t this exactly what environmental activists want the Forest Service to be doing?

The problem, according to the plaintiff, was the process.  The Forest Service had only spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars preparing an “Environmental Assessment” (EA).  The plaintiff argued such analysis and public outreach was insufficient – the Forest Service should have prepared a longer, more expensive document called an “Environmental Impact Statement” (EIS).  Forget that an EA is more than legally sufficient to disclose the impacts of the project to the public.  Forget the Forest Service made changes to the project to accommodate concerns from the public.  The plaintiff wanted an EIS (the same document used when analyzing a massive, permanent infrastructure project like building an interstate), not an EA.

Why, you ask?  That’s the question the judge was trying to get to the bottom of.  The Forest Service had already completed a comprehensive, multi-year, six-figure, taxpayer-funded EIS for the overarching forest plan that governs management of the entire Umpqua National Forest.  Should the Forest Service be required to complete a second EIS for every project that is tied to the forest plan?

Would such a requirement lead to significant changes to the project? Highly unlikely.  The requirement would lead to the very same outcomes but take significantly more time and cost more money.

Would such a requirement encourage more members of the public to learn more about the project and engage with the Forest Service?  No.  In fact, the opposite is likely to occur.  The public will be even less likely to read a 500 – 1,000 page document than a 200-page document.  Public disclosures required by the National Environmental Policy Act should be more accessible and consumable by the average person interested in public lands, not less so.

So, what is the whole point of this exercise?

As someone who served in Federal government for eight years, I deeply respect the checks and balances of our government.  Holding our government accountable, demanding that it be transparent, and petitioning the government when it blatantly violates the law provides the very foundation of our democracy.

But in this case, and in dozens of cases AFRC defends in court, that rarely seems to be the point of the legal challenge.  It’s not about the owl.  It’s not about clean water.  It’s not about public access, or even about “protecting” our forests.  Unfortunately, all too often, legal challenges focus on extremely technical components of the process, rather than on the substance of the project and whether or not the project violates the well-intended Federal statutes to protect the public, the environment, and those that depend on our public lands.

And that’s not a good thing for the judicial system (what happens when there’s a truly legitimate claim or grievance?), for engaging and educating the public about land management decisions, the taxpayer who foots the bill for the legal proceedings and often the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, the morale and expertise of the Forest Service, or for the timely and science-based management of Federal forests in response to climate change, fires, disease, and insect infestations.

We need a better process.  There has to be a more equitable way of holding our government accountable while not incentivizing or rewarding obstructionist behavior.  At AFRC, we want to work with those truly interested in a different, more efficient, more accessible, more transparent approach. -Travis Joseph


The U.S. Forest Service and the "T" Word

As AFRC’s field forester in western Oregon I am responsible for reviewing vegetation management projects with a timber harvest component across four national forests.  All four of these Forests provide some level of timber products every year as a component of these projects.  I stress the word ‘component’ here as these are integrated projects, meaning that their objectives are numerous and diverse.  A garden-variety project may aim to improve wildlife habitat, expand recreation opportunities, and provide timber products.  A good project strives to strike a balance of these diverse objectives and offer up a sort of symbiotic relationship amongst them.  Naturally, the first step in achieving this symbiosis is to identify and acknowledge the various objectives.  For many years, the Forest Service took this first step in a straightforward and tacit manner: they knew what their objectives were and they listed them in no particular order.  Over the past few years I have noticed a change.  The change is simple: the omission of timber as an explicit objective alongside the other objectives.  Timber products are still being provided on these projects, they’re just not being acknowledged in the blueprints.  It’s almost as though the Forest Service is a bit ashamed of harvesting and selling logs.

Faced with this trending practice of veiling timber harvest from small-scale projects, I decided to turn to the forum where the agency is most visible and accessible at the large-scale: their website.  This is where most people would go if they were interested in what the Forest Service does and what its mission is.  Sure enough, the agency’s mission is identified clearly on the web:  The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.  Like most mission statements, this one is a bit abstract.  What are these “needs” that our generation gets from our forests?  Fast-forwarding past my trudge through the agency’s webpage I came to the conclusion that our generation apparently does not need wood products; at least not according to the Forest Service, otherwise I would have been able to locate the word “wood” or “timber” somewhere on their website.  I read about other resources: air, water, soil, recreation, wildlife, etc.  In this regard, the Forest Service’s website mirrors those vegetation management projects that I review in western Oregon.  By that I mean they provide wood products to the American public, they just don’t like to boast about it.

I suppose in an age where it seems that image is everything and substance is an afterthought, the Forest Service’s policy of hiding the fact that they permit the cutting of trees to provide wood products to the American public shouldn’t come as a shock.  Although it does to me.  Why not take pride in the fact that they are providing a renewable resource that every member of the public uses every day?  Why not take pride in the fact that this provision comes via integrated projects that achieve a swath of other resource objectives?  These are loaded questions of course.  I’m not that naïve.  The cutting down of trees, regardless of the reason, makes most people at worst distraught and at best a bit uncomfortable.  This is fine.  What isn’t fine is that the lead government agency tasked with providing the nation with all of its needs from our national forests seems to be tailoring it’s messaging to assuage these sentiments rather than tailoring it to reflect what the nation’s needs actually are.  In other words, their website, and the messaging it contains, seems to be handling the public with kids gloves.  Not only is this approach disingenuous, and a bit insulting to their audience, but it’s also leading down a questionable path.  If the Forest Service treats their timber products resource with such shame, why shouldn’t the rest of the American public? -Andy Geissler


The Worst Type of Government Waste

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance is typically the most costly part of implementing any type of vegetation management project on federally managed land.  Documents exceeding 200 pages are commonplace to comply with NEPA.  In 2015 the Roseburg District of the Bureau of Land Management completed one such analysis called Olalla-Camus.  This analysis focused on treatments designed to fulfil the BLM’s O&C mandate to provide a sustained production of timber on lands allocated for such production as directed by their 1994 Resource Management Plan.  Like all NEPA documents completed by federal agencies attempting to conduct active forest management and timber harvest, Olalla-Camus included an in-depth analysis on everything from wildlife habitat to carbon storage and beyond.  The timber sales analyzed under this document were estimated to provide about 16 MMBF of timber.

Next month the BLM will be offering the only timber sale generated off the Olalla-Camus EA for a total of 6.7 MMBF.  The remaining 10 MMBF considered in this EA will never be implemented.  This is due to the BLM’s new management plan completed in 2016, inconveniently finalized between the publication of the Olalla-Camus EA and the planned implementation of the treatments it considered.  Like the 1994 RMP, the 2016 RMP set aside many acres where sustained timber production cannot occur.  The only difference is that these “set-aside” acres grew exponentially.  Part of this “growth” includes the majority of the land included in the Olalla-Camus EA.  The BLM could have included a “grandfather clause” that would allow projects conceived and analyzed under the old management plan to move forward, but they didn’t.  The unfortunate result is the worst type of government waste-investments consuming large sums of money and time being squandered. -Andy Geissler


Winter Logging

The months of December, January and February are very important to sawmills trying to get their winter decks of logs in before the rains and wet conditions of spring arrives.  These months of winter logging provide sub-freezing temperatures that allows loggers to operate over frozen ground conditions in the forests and remove the timber with little damage to the soil and to the roads they are driving on.

During these winter months, sawmills must deck up enough logs in their yards to allow them to operate during the months of March, April and part of May when conditions in the forests are wet and the soil and roads are too moist to operate on.  Winter logging can be tough on equipment and tough on the loggers working in the woods, often in sub-zero temperatures.  Equipment can freeze up, more breakdowns occur during this time, and with the deep snow and ice, accidents are more prevalent.

So the next time you see a log truck going down the road with snow on top of the logs, think about the loggers working hard in the woods helping the sawmills get in their winter decks before the spring breakup takes place and all of the loggers and their equipment have to exit our Forests.

Below are some pictures from Vaagen Brothers Lumber log yard, as they are building up their winter decks.  On a recent trip to the Colville and Kettle Falls area, the temperatures were dropping to -15 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Forest Service Roads: Why We Need a New Road Maintenance Model

I was in the middle of writing this piece when Russ Vaagen posted “Roads are not the Enemy” on his blog, theforestblog.com. At first I thought about scraping my article but after reading his, I think the two pieces are complementary to each other. Mine is from the perspective of a forest engineer who has spent most of my career dealing with forest roads, both new construction and maintenance. Nearly all this work was on private and state trust lands in Washington State. I think this provides a unique perspective on the forest road issue, especially on U.S. Forest Service lands.

If you look around much of the road infrastructure – road surfacing, culverts, bridges, etc. of federal forests are crumbling away, much as we see across the federal highway system. For the most part this is not due to a lack of will or desire on the part of the hard-working field level staff of the Forest Service. Really, it is mostly due to the significant underfunding of road maintenance needs nationally on the Forest Service road system. This lack of maintenance of key infrastructure, admittedly primarily built for timber but providing access now for a broad range of users, has and continues to have negative impacts on access and the environment. Failed culverts, washed out roads, plugged ditches, and aging culverts and bridges are just a few examples of the type of issues impacting water resources or limiting access. Often cutting off recreational and economic opportunities in the forest.

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What can we do about this?

Many people look at the success of the Washington State Forest Practices Road Maintenance and Abandonment Plan (RMAP) process and wonder if it can be applied elsewhere. Perhaps even on the National Forest? According to a Washington Forest Protection Association 2015 report, private forest landowners and state lands (mostly DNR Trust Lands) have spent over $300 million dollars since the year 2001 in Washington state, “resulting in removal or repair of more than 5,600 barriers to fish migration, which has restored nearly 3,900 miles of historic fish habitat.” While this figure primarily captures the investment in fish passage, there is another monetary metric that was not well captured in how DNR collects data.

That metric is non-fish passage road maintenance work, such as adding or installing larger cross drain culverts, road surfacing upgrades, and road abandonment. Additionally, there is the routine maintenance, not tracked through the RMAP program. Ongoing road grading work, culvert and ditchline cleaning, and road side vegetation management. All work to maintain a transportation system not only for regulatory reasons but also operational reasons.

As an engineer, I have spent much of my career identifying, designing, and complying this type of work. I have lost track of the number of truckloads of culverts I have overseen the installation of, but it is a substantial number. Private landowners and DNR trust lands have and are investing millions of dollars into the ongoing maintenance and upgrades of their transportation systems. This benefits, water quality, provides economic benefit from the work, and in many cases, enhances recreational access.

Is this a potential model for Forest Service transportation systems?

Ultimately, yes! A similar model on Forest Service lands can be developed, but some hurdles need to be overcome. Roads are such a contentious issue, especially on the National Forests. Can interest groups with such diverse opinions, those that want to keep every road and those who would like to see significantly less if not all roads obliterated come together on common ground? Some roads may need to go away, but conversely there may need to be new permanent road constructed to maintain access needs. Relocating roads out of flood plains or similar areas to higher ground are one example of the need to build new road while eliminating some existing road. Can agreement be reached?

Funding is the major road block to getting work done. Some Forests are using Stewardship dollars to conduct restoration level road maintenance, but this does not meet the overall need. Private and state trust lands harvested trees to pay for much of the RMAP work they conducted. A similar program can be used on Forest Service grounds, while still meeting ecological goals and within the confines of federal land management regulations. But it will require increasing “pace and scale” while also seeing congress add more funds to the Forest Service budget to accomplish this work.

In the end a new model needs to be built for the Forest Service because it is the right thing to do for many stakeholder interests. The RMAP program grew out of the Washington State Forest Practices Forest and Fish HCP. It was an effort to balance the needs of water quality and fish habitat with a viable and sustainable forest products industry. An effort that to date appears to be very successful on state and private forest land ownership.

On Forest Service lands this work would not only benefit access needs for recreation and vegetation management but also water quality and fish habitat. A successful program would enhance the environment while helping to maintain and enhance the economic infrastructure of road maintenance, logging, and milling. This could go a long way in working to create family wage jobs in rural communities.  – Matt Comisky


Reconciling Forest Needs in SW Oregon

Managing forest stands to put them on a trajectory that will increase their resiliency to wildfire, insect & disease, and climate change seems to be at the forefront of both the Forest Service’s (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) priorities over the past few years.  This concept is often characterized as “forest restoration” by both agencies.  The importance and validity of this priority is illustrated well in the current state of the federal forests of southwest Oregon.  A century of fire suppression in the region has resulted in a level of fuel accumulation that puts these forests at the risk of wildfires that would burn at unnatural levels of intensity.  The remedy to these issues is simple but often controversial: removing the in-growth; essentially cutting and removing the trees that have grown due to a century of fire suppression.  In fact, a paper titled A new approach to evaluate forest structure restoration needs across Oregon and Washington, USA published in Forest Ecology and Management in 2014 by the Nature Conservancy and others, describes these conditions and remedies for southwest Oregon.  Here, the authors describe much of the lands in southwest Oregon as having “moderate to high active restoration needs”.  The authors of this paper determined that these “forest restoration needs were dominated by the need for thinning” and that “disturbance alone cannot restore forest structure”.

The nice thing about such a remedy is that it addresses multiple resource objectives.  It restores forest stands to a more resilient condition while also providing timber products to the local industry.  Unfortunately, these types of forest treatments are often unimplementable.  The obstacles appear to be the management plans and regulatory guidance that direct the actions of the very agencies (USFS & BLM) that aim to prioritize such treatments.

In a recent environmental assessment published by the Medford BLM district the agency stated:  due to competing management objectives, some stands proposed for treatment (approximately 23% of the proposed treatment acres) would not meet the long-term objectives of shifting the trajectory of stands to more optimal growth and resiliency.  How is it that the objectives of the management plan of an agency whose priority is to increase forest resiliency conflict with actions that would increase forest resiliency?

One of these objectives is the recovery of the northern spotted owl (NSO), which is a species listed as threatened under the endangered species act.  BLM vegetation management projects, and subsequent timber sales, must always consider the effects of said project to the NSO and its habitat.  These effects are often measured by the level of forest canopy retained after any vegetation management is applied due to the NSO’s need for some closed canopy conditions.  However, in southwest Oregon where current closed canopies are unnaturally high due to the aforementioned fire suppression, the presumed habitat needs of the NSO conflict with the treatments necessary to meet the needs of forest resiliency.  The same environmental assessment referenced above goes on to state: retaining canopy cover in select stands would not allow for forest health objectives to be met. 

A rational mind would think that a native species of fauna would thrive in a setting composed of native levels of flora.  In other words, if the “natural” condition of forested stands in southwest Oregon is one of lower forest canopy density, shouldn’t those species of wildlife dependent on them thrive under such conditions?  The answer, according to vegetation management projects like the one referenced above, seems to be no.  Reconciliation of this strange relationship would be a neat trick. -Andy Geissler


You Can’t Thin Forever

Since the inception of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in Western Oregon have limited their timber management paradigm to one of nearly exclusive thinning of young forest stands where post-harvest residual closed forest canopies make regeneration of Douglas-fir impossible.  This is an ecological truth: Douglas-fir seedlings need at least partial, but preferably full sunlight to grow and thrive.  AFRC has often clamored regarding the near-sighted nature of this management regime and questioned its long-term sustainability.  In recent months some federal agencies have come to terms with the same truth that AFRC and most foresters who practice their trade in the Pacific Northwest know well: you can’t thin forever.

The Salem BLM District recently published an environmental assessment that considered just how long they could manage their timber resources with a young stand thinning-only approach.  The results were disturbing but not surprising.  The EA, dated April, 2016 read: At the current rate of harvest it is likely the Salem District will exhaust most commercial thinning options in 40-80-year-old stands in a little over a decade.  In other words, the BLM timber program as we have come to know it, will expire in ten years on the Cascades Resource Area without a major shift in management practices.  And really, this timeline is likely pretty similar on other BLM Resource Areas, give or take five years.

I for one was elated when I read this.  It’s a gloomy outlook, but at least it’s realistic.  It’s akin to the longtime addict finally accepting that they are indeed an addict: Until the BLM overcomes the state of denial and accepts that their past twenty-year thinning-only regime is ultimately unsustainable then the likelihood of altering the trend is grim.  It appears that the Cascades Resource Area is on the path to recovery.  Perhaps an intervention is warranted for other Resource Area’s, or the Forest Service for that matter.  –Andy Geissler            


Is the BLM Over Cutting?

It is often said that the BLM is not managing their lands sustainably and they are “over-cutting”.  Elsewhere in this blog we have explained how one determines the amount of timber that can be sustained over time.  Using those concepts, is the BLM overcutting?  The answer is, it depends.  It depends on if the BLM is managing its land consistent with the assumptions made in doing the sustained yield calculation.

For example, if the sustained yield calculation was based on managing 2 million acres and was one billion board feet per year and for various reasons the BLM felt it could only manage 1.5 million acres and they still were selling one billion board feet then, yes, they would be overcutting IF all 2 million acres were established and maintained under the same assumptions as were made when doing the sustained yield calculation.  If on the other hand, the 1.5 million acres contained a higher volume than the managed stand used in the sustained yield calculation, they would not be overcutting and could maintain a sale level of one billion board feet until that excess inventory was gone.  Are you confused yet?

Let’s use an example.  Using the process described in the previous blog, the BLM calculates that the average acre within the one billion board foot sustained yield calculation was based on growing a 21” tree in 60 years for an average volume per acre of 40,000 bf.  If the 2 million acres within their land base consisted entirely of stands under 60 years old and were being managed in a manner that their volume per acre at 60 years was 40,000 bf, then if they continued to harvest one billion board feet per year when their land base was reduced by 25% then they would be overcutting.  If the land base is reduced by 25%, the sustained yield would go down 25% to 750,000 bf if the potential of all acres is identical.

Now let’s assume that the 1.5 million acres the BLM is left with after removing 25% from the land base contained stands that were older than 60 and contained 80,000 bf/ac.  This is way more than what is expected under the sustained yield scenario.  In this case, every acre cut contains twice the volume of a sustained yield acre.  The BLM would not be overcutting if they maintained a harvest of one billion board feet.  They could actually harvest 1.5 billion BF for 60 years from those 1.5 million acres at which time they would have to reduce their harvest to 750,000 bf which is what the managed stands can sustain over time.

Another instance where they could harvest above their sustained yield level is if they aren’t managing their lands using the land management practices that were assumed to be used when doing the sustained yield calculation.  For instance, they might not plant areas with the same genetic characteristic, might not apply fertilizer, might not control stocking or might not regenerate and plant new trees as assumed in the sustained yield calculation.  Under these conditions, the lands would not be growing as anticipated and they could be over cutting.

The industry is worried that this might be the case as the BLM has not followed the management practices that were assumed when they did their sustained yield calculation 20 years ago.  Since the NWFP was adopted, the BLM has not regenerated and planted new trees as anticipated but rather relied on thinning existing stands to produce their ASQ.  While this has increased the standing inventory beyond what was anticipated, it has created a 20 year age gap that will affect future sustained yield calculations.

The BLM has never “over-cut” their lands as the vast majority of their stands contain way more volume than the sustained yield acre as in the example above.  Claims that they are doing so are merely attempts to discredit the agency and deceive the general public and have no basis in reality. -Ross Mickey


The Principles of Sustained Yield

The lands (and the trees that grow on them) managed by the USFS and BLM are governed by numerous laws that require these lands to be managed sustainably.  The O&C Act, which governs the management of over 2 million acres of federally owned forestland in western Oregon, is very specific on this point.  It states that the O&C lands “shall be managed . . . for permanent forest production, and the timber thereon shall be sold, cut, and removed in conformity with the principal of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply”.  So what is the “principle of sustained yield”?

In its simplest form, this means that the federal agencies cannot cut more trees than it can grow.  The next question is how one knows that they are doing this?  That’s complicated.  It is done by collecting reams of field data which are compiled and feed into computer models developed by teams of PhD’s from a wide range of specialties.  Understanding the interplay between all of these biological, social and technical factors form the basis of Forestry Programs developed by our major universities.  Short of that, I will give you my synopsis of a Sustained Yield 101 course.  I will start by assuming that I own ten acres of land and want to grow Christmas trees to supplement my income.  These same principle apply to growing trees to produce building materials.

To determine my “sustained yield” of Christmas trees, the first thing I need to know is the productivity of the soil.  My ten acres consists of one acre of really good soil, eight acres of OK soil and one acre of rather poor soil.  The next thing I need to know is how long it will take to grow the size of Christmas tree I want to sell.  To determine this I need to know the characteristics of the trees I am going to plant (genetics), what supplements I might add to the soil (fertilizers), what management practices I will employ as the trees grow (thinning, weed control, etc.) and how big of a tree I want to grow. I then combine the soil productivity and the tree data to find out how long it will take to grow the size of tree I want and how many trees per acre I can expect to have.

Doing this I find that I can grow 1,500, six foot trees in five years on my one acre of really good soil, 1,250 trees on my OK soil and 750 trees on my poor soil.

I decide to start small and just plant my one acre of good soil.  What is my sustained yield?  Well it is 1,500 trees every five years.  Most of the time, sustained yield is displayed on an annual basis and is referred to as the Allowable Sale Quantity (ASQ).  This is because our federal forestland is also managed under another forestry principle which is called “non-decline, even flow management”.  What this does is ensure that the communities and businesses that rely on a predictable, constant supply of timber will not be hurt by huge swings in the amount of timber being sold every year.  On our case, it means that instead of selling 1,500 trees every five years we would sell 300 trees every year. (1,500 divided by five years)  Our ASQ would then be 300 trees.

What would happen if I wanted to plant all ten acres?  I could grow 1,500/acre on one acre, 1,250 /acre on eight acres and 750/acre on one acre.  Doing the math, this pencils out to 12,250 trees every five years or an ASQ of 2,450 trees.  In order for this to truly be sustainable, 300 trees would come off the one good soil acre, 2,000 from my eight OK soil acres and 150 from my one acre of poor soil.  I would also have to immediately replant the acres that I cut.  Planting baby trees is the heart of sustained yield management.

As you can see, calculating the sustained yield combines many factors and is based on the assumption that you start with bare land.  What happens to the sustained yield when you start with land that already has trees on them? The answer is…nothing.  Sustained yield is calculated on the potential growth based on the myriad of factors mentioned above.  What existing trees do determine is when you can start selling at the sustained yield level.  In our Christmas tree example, we can’t start until five years from now.  When our federal agencies ask the same question, they look at the size of the inventory that they start with and determine if it can be metered out at the sustained yield level.  If not, they must lower their ASQ until such time as the inventory is sufficient to maintain the sustained yield level.  If the inventory is very high, they could actually sell more than their sustained yield level for a period of time but the principle of non-decline, even flow prohibits this.  -Ross Mickey


NEPA Run Amok

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) states in its 2007 publication A Citizens Guide to NEPA that “The environmental assessment (EA) is intended to be a concise document that briefly provides sufficient evidence and analysis”.  In an attempt to meet that guidance and to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Medford BLM District compiled 1,559 pages of environmental analysis in 2016 in order to implement that year’s vegetation management program; a program that generated less than 60% of the District’s assigned timber outputs.  So much for brief and concise.

So how did the Medford District digress from this simple guidance by the CEQ?  How did brief and concise morph into embellished and verbose?  The answer can partially be found by skimming through the 170 pages of written protests received in 2016 by the Medford BLM in response to the 1,559 pages of analysis.  Many of the points embedded in these protests begin with phrasing such as “the EA failed to consider…” or “insufficient analysis in the EA…”  Apparently not everyone shares the vision of brevity that the CEQ had in 2007; perhaps brevity is not in everyone’s best interest.  The Code of Federal Regulations permits anyone the right to file a written protest to any BLM forest management decision.  The Code of Federal Regulations does not however limit or cap the scale of these protests.  In other words, you as a citizen can submit a ten-page protest or a 100-page protest; or a thousand-page protest for that matter.  This last scenario is a bit absurd and may seem to be an exercise in futility, but considering that the BLM has taken the position that every single protest point embedded in each protest demands its own written response, you might reevaluate; that is if it’s in your interest to generate more paperwork for the BLM.

To illustrate, put yourself in the shoes of a BLM NEPA writer who just completed a 418 page EA (if you don’t believe me follow this link), who then, in response to the recently completed mammoth document,  receives over 60 pages of protests with over 80 individual protest points embedded that warrant written response.  The term blinded by paperwork comes to mind, or more accurately mired in paperwork.  Now, put yourself in the shoes of an opponent/protestor of the BLM’s forest/timber management program.  Suddenly the mire you created for the BLM doesn’t seem so bad, or futile.  If halting the BLM’s timber management program is unattainable surely slowing it down is the next best thing.

As for our aforementioned BLM NEPA writer: following what must be an exhausting exercise in defending and justifying the recently completed 418-page behemoth in writing, and with the stack of last year’s EA’s, protests, and protest responses still sitting on your desk, that BLM NEPA writer gets started on writing next year’s EA’s.  Make no mistake, the excessive and constantly expanding verbiage generated for each new BLM EA is indeed a function of years and years of protests demanding more and more verbiage.  And really, what better way to undermine an agency’s ability, and desire for that matter, to operate efficiently than to force that agency into generating more paperwork?  With 2017’s timber sale program just around the corner I can already hear the opposition to that program cracking their knuckles in anticipation.

–Andy Geissler, AFRC Western Oregon Forester


“Taking” Northern Spotted Owls

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) prohibits the “take” of any species listed as “endangered” but provides more latitude to species listed as “threatened”.  The Northern Spotted Owl (NSO) is listed as a threatened species and therefore should not be subject to the take prohibition.  The USFWS, however, has arbitrarily decided to extend the prohibition of take to all threatened species.  This decision is currently being challenged in court.  Until this issue is resolved, it is unlawful for anyone to take a NSO unless such take has been authorized by the USFWS via an incidental take permit or Habitat Conservation Plan.  So what constitute a take?

Take is defined in the ESA as any activity that “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound” or “kill” a member of the listed species. The “harm” form of take includes land-use activities that indirectly affect listed species such that a “significant habitat modification or degradation … actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding or sheltering.”  The courts have further clarified what constitutes harm. To demonstrate harm to wildlife one must prove (i) there is or will be death or actual injury (ii) to an identifiable member of a listed wildlife species (iii) that is proximately caused by the action in question.  Sadly, these three criteria are not being used by the USFWS when determining if any NSO’s will be taken on land managed by the USFS and BLM.

Since the early 1990’s, the USFWS has relied on two very simple standards to assess if take may occur.  These are if the amount of “suitable” habitat falls below 50% of the acres in the immediate 1,000 acres around an “activity center” or below 40% within the home range which varies in size across its range.  The USFS and BLM use these guidelines when designing projects and avoid doing anything that would reduce the amount of suitable habitat below these amounts.

One of the main problems with this one-size-fits-all criteria is that it doesn’t take into account the variation in habitat use within the different geographical areas and ecosystems that the NSO is found. These range from the dense Douglas-fir regions of Washington and NW Oregon, to the drier mixed conifer forests of SW Oregon and northern California to the lush redwood forests of coastal California.  These criteria are especially problematic for the drier mixed conifer regions of SW Oregon and northern California.  In this region, the natural forest conditions where over 90% of the historic NSO’s have lived do not contain the amount of habitat required to avoid “take”.  According to the guidelines the owls that have lived there for many, many years should be dead.

This leads to a very bizarre scenario.  Due to lack of management, much of the federal land in this region has become overgrown such that the likelihood of a catastrophic, uncharacteristic wildfires occurring is extremely high.  The agencies need to reduce the amount of vegetation on these lands to a more historic level but in areas where NSO’s have ever been detected they are ham strung from doing so because these areas do not have enough habitat to meet the no-take standards.  If the agencies pursue obtaining an incidental take permit so they can thin these forests (something the BLM is not allowed to do under its new RMP’s), one pair of owls can be “taken” thousands of times since every time habitat is removed (i.e. one tree is cut) from an area where the habitat is already below the guideline level, the USFWS considers that a take has occurred.

It would be refreshing if the USFWS, USFS and BLM utilized the standards set forth in the ESA and clarified by the courts when deciding if an activity will take a NSO by determining that there is or will be death or actual injury to an identifiable NSO that is caused by the removal of habitat instead of relying on their one-size-fits-all criteria.  It would also be nice if the general public and judges realized that the USFWS is not using this criteria and that when they issue an incidental take permit to allow the take of NSO’s that the number of NSO’s that will be there after completing the project will be the same as were in the area prior to the action and the same NSO can be taken thousands of times.

-Ross Mickey


Travis Joseph: I am an environmentalist. I also work for the timber industry.

I am an environmentalist.  I also work for the timber industry.  Some people might see that as a contradiction.  But in the timber industry, that’s the norm.

I grew up in Springfield exploring Oregon’s incredible natural treasures.  I have hiked Oregon’s volcanoes, rafted down our state’s wild and scenic rivers, got lost in the woods, and swam and fished in our ice cold lakes.

I plan on living in Oregon for the rest of my life and hope to share these same, amazing experiences with my kids and grandkids.  My coworkers and colleagues feel the same way.  That’s exactly why we work for the timber industry: to keep Oregon’s forests healthy, the environment clean, and to ensure our rural communities are vibrant and safe.

But we have a lot of work to do if we want to protect Oregon’s special places.  The truth is, our state is facing an environmental crisis.  Climate change, disease and bug infestations, drought, and catastrophic wildfires are threatening Oregon’s public forests and the extraordinary economic and ecological benefits they provide.

The impacts of our forest health crisis are already apparent in California, where more than 65 million trees are dying or dead.  Leaders in California are asking the Federal government for emergency relief to treat and replant its dying forests.  But under current Federal rules and regulations, it would take years and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars before restoration work could even begin.

The more likely scenario will be for millions of California trees to rot, burn, and spew stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – to say nothing of the economic loss and public safety risk.  With the resulting lack of replanting and a changing climate many of these forests will instead become brush fields.

Oregon should take note and then take action.  Now, more than ever, we need a plan to save Oregon’s public forests through proactive management and local and regional partnerships.  Congress has passed new laws, such as the Good Neighbor Authority, that would allow the State of Oregon to work hand-in-hand with the Forest Service to thin hundreds of thousands of acres of unhealthy forests before it’s too late.

Under current policy, Federal agencies are only treating hundreds of acres at a time.  That’s not good enough.  Oregon has 30 million acres of forest land and the Federal government owns more than 60 percent.  In order to avoid California’s fate, land managers must increase both the pace and scale of forest restoration projects.  Additional tools and money are needed from Congress to accelerate planning processes and implementation of work in the woods.

If Oregon takes action now, it can also help avert another crisis: the economic and social collapse of our rural communities.  As the Portland metro-area continues to pull itself out of the Great Recession, rural Oregon is being left behind.

Real unemployment in southern and eastern Oregon communities is still in the double-digits.  The number of students eligible for free or reduced lunches in rural Oregon – a key indicator of poverty – is staggering.  Sadly, more than 63 percent of kids in my hometown school district, Springfield, are eligible for the program.

In places like Josephine County, a county that recently lost its last remaining sawmill, one in four Oregonians lives in poverty and 30 percent rely on food stamps.  To make matters worse, essential county government services like law enforcement, search and rescue, mental health, education, and roads – are being slashed as county revenues from federal timber sales remain at historic low levels.

Oregon’s timber industry is perfectly positioned to help the State of Oregon solve the looming environmental crisis and our state’s rural economic crisis.  Our industry could put thousands of unemployed and under-employed Oregonians back to work thinning our forests, transporting materials to local facilities, manufacturing carbon friendly wood products, and generating renewable energy by using every scrap of wood that comes from our forests.

Exciting new advances in technology, engineering, and architecture put Oregon’s timber industry at the forefront of innovative and game-changing products, such as cross laminated timber.  As Portland continues to grow up and out, Oregon could use its own raw materials, made by local workers, in local mills, to build some of the most sustainable and beautiful buildings, schools, and houses in the United States.

Oregon faces serious ecological and economic challenges.  But these challenges provide very real opportunities to protect our incredible natural treasures for current and future generations, grow our economy, and put rural Oregonians back to work.  Now is the time for a vision and action, or else we may watch our state’s unparalleled natural beauty go up in smoke with the fate of Oregon’s rural communities not far behind.

-Travis Joseph


Trust Land Transfer – Good or Bad…Sure! – Part 3

by Matt Comisky
AFRC Washington State Manager

What can we do about it?

In part 2 we covered some of the reasons you should care about the TLT program. In part 3 we will identify some ways to address the issue. While well intentioned, this program is broken and needs a tune up. Much like a new car off the lot, TLT was a shiny new program that worked at the time. Many miles later, it needs new tires, brakes, and transmission work to carry it over the future miles it must travel. The agency does need a mechanism to reposition underperforming assets just as any other trust manager would consider. But this system needs to be reformed for the benefit of the beneficiaries both today and tomorrow. But what can we do about it?

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In the near term, there are several different ways to work on effecting change to this program, but all require engagement. Just at different levels and with different groups that can help to create change. Either individually or as a group (PTA, School Board, etc.,) get involved with the Advocates for School Trust Lands (formerly CLASS) or the Washington State School Directors Trust Land Task Force. These are the primary groups engaged on many of these issues. Look for other groups advocating for the sustainable maximum management of DNR trust lands, such as your local beneficiary tax district. Talk to your legislative representatives. Tell them your concerns over specific parcels or the program. Comment to the Board of Natural Resources on the topic or when transfer parcels come up for approval by the Board. And express your concerns to DNR staff and the Commissioner of Public Lands throughout the process. Ask for more transparency. Advocate for a broader picture of the immediate, future, and unintended consequences of transfer of the proposed parcels. All before the decision is made by the legislature.

Soon AFRC hopes to bring forward some concepts and ideas to tune up the program. Concepts to protect the corpus of the trust, protect future generations while providing for the current, and to allow the trust manager, DNR, the needed ability to reposition assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries. Why do we care? Because without the vibrant customer base our members provide, the value of the trust asset is greatly reduced. The reduction in harvest volumes due to decreases in available acres means potential curtailments or shuttering of customer milling facilities. Which means a reduction or loss of customers who competitively bid on timber sales. This ultimately is not good for our members or the communities our members and their employees live, work and play in. Nor does it support the beneficiaries; schools, libraries, fire districts, etc. today or in the future. Maintaining the maximum working forest land base in Washington is good for today’s generation and tomorrow’s.


Trust Land Transfer – Good or Bad…Sure! – Part 2

by Matt Comisky
AFRC Washington State Manager

Why Should You Care About the TLT Program?

In part one we covered the basics and overview of the TLT program. In part 2 I am going to address the second question; Why should you care?

The answer; quite honestly the primary reason you should care about TLT is that it continues to erode the corpus (body) of the trust assets for near term gain at the potential detriment of future generations. So not only is the corpus of the trust eroded but the intergenerational equities (benefiting one generation over another) issue is also at play. But these are just the primary reason, there are many others, some broad and some finely nuanced, including the undivided loyalty concern.

What do I mean by erode the corpus of the trust? The corpus or body of the trust in this context is primarily timberlands managed by DNR. Under this program, the acres within the Common School trust are decreased through transfer or inter-trust exchanges. While providing the expectation of the agency buying replacement lands. In June of 2013 the DNR reported in its 2013-2015 Biennium TLT proposal document, there had been a disposal of 113,280 acres and only a purchase of 49,683 acres. This is a 66,772-acre loss of trust lands, mostly timber lands, from the TLT program alone. A decrease that is roughly 1.5 times greater an area than the City of Tacoma. This means that under DNR’s fiduciary obligation of inter-generational equities, today’s generation has been compensated but tomorrows generation may or may not be compensated through trust revenues. Especially in the current situation where the deficit of acquired lands is so large. While we are aware of some small acreage purchases since the 2013 report, we are working with DNR to learn what the current actual shortfall of replacement lands is. Reports published since the 2013-15 report have not included the totals for disposal and acquisitions under this program. It is our belief that the acquisition of lands still lags far behind the continued disposal, eroding the corpus of the trust.

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The other nuance to this erosion issue is the inter-trust exchange process. I know this is going to be a bit dense in information but it is critical to understand this aspect of the process. Since Common School trust lands are the only ones which can be removed from trust status, other than County Trust lands re-conveyed to a county for park uses, TLT parcels which are not already Common School trust lands must be exchanged for similar value Common School parcels. For example, a 120-acre parcel of County Trust lands (State Forest Transfer lands) with high value timber is identified for TLT transfer. In order to accomplish this transfer, the 120 acres must be exchanged for Common School trust lands of the same value and preferably in the same rough geographical location. Often the Common School trust lands have younger trees growing on it. This means it takes more acres to create the same value. So the swap may equate to more like 120 acres in exchange for 250 acres of younger growth trees. While the dollar amount is the same, the county lands increase by 130 acres and the Common School decreases by 250 acres. The Common School trust gives up 250 acres in exchange for 120 acres that are then immediately transferred out of trust management. See the table below for the flow of acres.

Flow of Acres in an Inter-trust exchange followed by TLT disposition.
120 Acres of County Trust desired for TLT program with 85 year old trees 250 Acres of Common School Trust needed for equal value with 15 year old trees
Transfer 120 acres to Common School Transfer 250 acres to County Trust
Receive 250 acres from Common School Receive 120 acres from County Trust
Keep 250 acres Dispose of 120 acres to TLT (deposit to Common School Construction account and Real Property Replacement account per percentages)
Net gain of 250 acres in County Trust Net loss of 250 acres from Common School

 

This has impacts on both current and future generations. Also since most of DNR’s planning efforts are based on managed acres, this has varied impacts on individual trusts and ultimately the number of acres available for sustainably managed timber harvest. This process raises concerns over inter-generational equities, undivided loyalty, and preserving the corpus of the trust.

Additionally, there are concerns over the process the TLT program takes in approving the parcel list that is submitted to the legislature. Ultimately there is not an open public process which allows for public input and engagement on the program from a broad perspective. While it is true the agency sometimes holds local community education meetings for specific parcels, there is no opportunity to look at the big picture impacts to the trust and the beneficiaries. Because the complete appraisals are not conducted until after the legislature approves the list, it is not possible to fully understand some of the negative impacts. This is especially true with the inter-trust exchange aspect as those exchange acres are identified later in the process.

There is also controversy over the role the Board of Natural Resources plays in the approval of the list. While the Board has the general power to “[e]stablish policies to ensure that the acquisition, management, and disposition of all lands and resources within [DNR’s] jurisdiction are based on sound principles designed to achieve the maximum effective development and use of such lands and resources…” RCW 43.30.215(2). The Board prior to approval by the legislature only has informational briefings on the proposal. As described in DNR’s own documents the information is “…assembled into an informational package that is presented to the Board of Natural Resources and then to the Governor’s Office for submission to the Legislature.” The Board does not weigh in on the policy, documentation, appraisals, impacts to the trust or other issues of concern related to the TLT proposed package. No discussion. No in depth review. No vote. No Board Resolution. Usually just a head nod and DNR staff proceed. A transfer parcel list developed by DNR staff, appraised by DNR staff, and ultimately disposed of after funding from the legislature by DNR staff, with little to no input from the beneficiaries or the Board other than a rubber stamp of approval of one transaction at a time.

These are just a few of the reasons why you should care about this program. Ultimately the concerns over fiduciary obligation, intergenerational equities, and undivided loyalty, play heavily into the impacts to the trusts both for today’s generation and tomorrows. And I did not even cover the lost revenue when these parcels are no longer managed. In part 3 we will explore what we can do about it.


Trust Land Transfer – Good or Bad…Sure! – Part 1

by Matt Comisky
AFRC Washington State Manager

This is part 1 of a 3-part series about the Trust Land Transfer program in Washington State. In this series we will cover 3 basic questions. The first question will be “what is trust land transfer?” In our following post, we will explore “why should you or anyone care?” And in our third post we explore “what can we do about it?” Let’s get started.

What is Trust Land Transfer or TLT?

Trust Land Transfer Program or TLT as most people refer to it, is a Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) managed program which began in the late 1980’s. The program involves DNR staff identifying (prior to each legislative biennium) certain trust lands that which they view as underperforming as revenue generators due to their difficulty to manage, but otherwise “provide greater social benefit through non-revenue generating activities.”

The list of cimg_0909andidate trust lands is reviewed by DNR staff, other agencies and the Commissioner of Public Lands. Staff presents the list to the Board of Natural Resources for informational purposes and once approved by the Commissioner it is forwarded to the Governor’s office. The list is submitted to the legislature, and approved lands are transferred out of the trust land base to conservation status under DNR management or other public agencies to be managed for non-revenue, generally conservation and recreational, purposes. The transfer package approved by the Commissioner, Governor, and Legislature is “authorized and funded as a section in the Capital Budget Bill.” The legislature funds the program by authorizing the transfer and providing an appropriation for the value of the land (which goes to the Real Property Replacement Account) and timber (which goes to the Common School Construction Account).

As the biennium proceeds individual transactions are brought before the Board of Natural Resources for approval of each transfer. In some situations, where the proposed TLT parcels are not currently Common School Trust, an inter-trust exchange must first take place. Typically, in these situations the parcels proposed for transfer are County trust lands. These lands must first be exchanged for Common School lands of similar value. Often the acres and timber age classes are different, but the dollar values are roughly the same. This creates potential issues of intergenerational equities, undivided loyalty, and erosion of the corpus of the trust. All issues we will explain in part 2 of this series.

Upon BNR approval of the transfers, and inter-trust exchanges if needed, DNR staff completes the necessary work to complete the real estate transactions. The appropriated funds are then distributed to the two accounts based on the values identified in the appraisal presented to the Board of Natural Resources.

One caveat to the program is the expectation that the parcels selected have an 80% “aggregate timber value” with 20% of the total value in the land. This is to assure the maximum amount of the appropriation is deposited into the Common School Construction Account. This does however create challenges when some parcels which are perfect candidates for this program have a lower timber to land value ratio. Often these parcels are viewed as unsuitable for the program and they remain in trust management status.

This covers the TLT program mechanics at a high level. While there is guidance in the selection of proposed parcels, there traditionally has been very little oversight of the true need to transfer parcels and whether DNR is adhering to its trust mandates. These mandates include its fiduciary obligations to generate revenue, undivided loyalty, inter-generational equities and to protect the corpus of the trust. In part 2 we will explore some of these issues in our effort to answer the question “why you should care?”