Anatomy of a forest project: Why planning to prevent massive wildfires takes years

03 December 2020

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USA – The 16,000 acres of trees incinerated in the 2003 Davis Fire were a call to action for Deschutes National Forest managers.

The wide-ranging destruction caused by the wildfire convinced them that if they were going to prevent a repeat in the future, they’d have to go big.

That fire also destroyed more than 3,700 acres of Northern spotted owl habitat, highlighting a lethal hazard faced by the threatened species despite strict logging restrictions imposed on the “late successional reserve” stands, or LSR, commonly referred to as old growth forests.

“The team realized that just doing a small area here and there won’t take care of the entire LSR,” said Joseph Bowles, a district silviculturist in the national forest.

The plan

They came up with the Five Buttes Project, which encompassed forest thinning and fuels treatments at numerous sites within 160,000 acres on the eastern flanks of Oregon’s Cascade Range.

The complexity of the project underscores the challenges that national forest managers encounter when trying the ratchet down the voracious nature of wildfires that strike suddenly and unpredictably, as the catastrophic 2020 fire season that burned 5 million acres of Oregon, California and Washington state made abundantly clear.

The Forest Service realized the project’s vast scope would also make it a huge source of controversy among environmental groups that are often suspicious of the agency’s motives.

However, forest managers were reluctant to scale it back, since that would defeat the goal of establishing wide-ranging fire resiliency in the region.

“The team knew this would be a contentious project from the beginning, but they really thought it was important to do as they planned,” Bowles said.

Officials with the Deschutes National Forest had previously studied the need for such a project in that area, but it was now obvious that dangers to late successional reserves and spotted owl habitat weren’t just hypothetical.

“The tree health and fire risk were an initial concern, and then the Davis Fire burned through the center of that LSR,” he said. “I think that was the biggest factor. Seeing what the fire did in that same area. We needed to reduce the chances of another fire like that happening.”

Planning process

While low-severity fires that burn through underbrush every couple of decades are common in the dry forests east of the Cascade Range, the Davis Fire was much more intense. About 21,000 acres of the national forest were burned, with near-total tree mortality on about three-quarters of those acres.

The wildfire’s intensity and the tens of thousands of acres it consumed were a surprise to forest managers, said Mike Simpson, a forest ecologist with the Forest Service.

Never in recorded history had the Crescent Ranger District experienced such a “problem fire,” characterized by extreme fire behavior and devastation to natural resources.

“Because it caught people off guard, it got a quicker reaction,” he said, adding that the conclusion was “if we don’t get started on it quickly, we could have some disasters coming our way.”

However, the speed of the federal bureaucracy is seldom lightning-quick. That’s not because the Forest Service wanted to drag its feet, but because any forest project must comply with several layers of federal environmental laws to be defensible in court.

The Forest Service first had to assemble a multi-disciplinary team of scientists to define the parameters of the project.

Those experts then developed several alternative forest treatments and analyzed the effects of each, said Sasha Fertig, environmental coordinator for the national forest.

Planning involved ecologists, foresters, botanists, archaeologists and water specialists, as well as thorough surveys of the area proposed for treatment and a comprehensive search of applicable scientific studies, Fertig said.

There were trade-offs with each alternative, she said. Draft versions of the project were also presented for public comment several times, which informs the agency’s analysis of the alternatives.

Recommendations may be irrelevant to the project’s purpose, such as fire prevention, or the submitted research may not relate to the project’s objectives, but the agency must still respond to all the concerns, Fertig said.

“If a suggestion doesn’t fit that need, we’re not going to develop an alternative for it,” she said. “We try to explain why we think some science is not applicable if someone submits it.”

The process of scoping the Five Butte Project’s framework, studying alternatives and responding to comments was completed in 2007, when the Forest Service issued a 459-page environmental impact statement and 43-page record of decision allowing the thinning and fuels treatments to begin.

A key component of the project was breaking up large patches of tree canopy, creating open spaces that would discourage flames from easily spreading among tree crowns, said Simpson, the forest ecologist.

Removing smaller trees and vegetation closer to the ground was also crucial to prevent the “ladder effect” of flames climbing to the top of trees and torching them, he said.

“A lot of the thought process was to reduce the horizontal continuity of the fuels as well as the vertical continuity of the fuels,” Simpson said.

About 60 “units” ranging from 6 to 459 acres were slated for commercial thinning and fuels reduction, totaling about 7,800 acres within the project’s 160,000 acres. Nearly 6 miles of road construction and rehabilitation were also approved as part of the project.

“If you’re going to do something to affect the size of the fires and their intensity, you need to work at a larger scale to do that,” Simpson said.

By decreasing the forest’s density, the agency sought to ensure the project area wouldn’t be as thoroughly burned in a future wildfire, he said.

“Most of the trees that are left survive, rather than it being a stand replacement,” Simpson said of the plan. “We’re really trying to restore balance or a set of conditions that historically occurred there.”

Protecting owls

During the project’s development, forest researcher Alan Ager modeled how fuels treatments could affect fire behavior in the area.

His study determined that treating 30% of the area would reduce the wildfire risk to spotted owl habitat by half.

“The number one loss of spotted owl habitat is fire,” Ager said.

Though the specific treatments chosen for the Five Buttes Project weren’t identical to Ager’s model, he said they were consistent with the study’s recommendations.

By thinning and removing fuels between natural obstacles to fire, such as lakes, lava flows and bare escarpments, the project aimed to block flames from spreading to spotted owl habitat, Ager said.

“The treatments were not just placed randomly, they were placed strategically to intercept a fire like the Davis Fire,” he said.

Environmentalists object

Assurances that the Five Buttes Project would protect spotted owl habitat against future wildfires weren’t enough to overcome the objections of three environmental groups: the League of Wilderness Defenders-Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, Cascadia Wildlands and Sierra Club.

Nearly a year after the project’s approval, the nonprofits filed a lawsuit alleging the Forest Service violated the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by authorizing it.

“You affect wildlife habitat, period. As with any project, there are winners and there are losers. In the Five Buttes Project, the losers outweighed the winners,” said Marilyn Miller, a conservation consultant who submitted a declaration opposing the project.

Removing large-diameter trees from the area, which are already scarce, degrades spotted owl habitat for decades or centuries without establishing a reliable trajectory for it to recover, she said. “We don’t know what the climate will be and how it will change the composition of tree species in the future.”

Courtrooms aren’t the ideal venues for resolving disputes over forest management and environmental health, but they’re often the last resort to stop misguided projects, said Asante Riverwind, co-founder of the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project.

An objective analysis of commercial thinning under the National Environmental Policy Act should be sufficient, as long as the Forest Service is honest about the science, he said.

“If all that were done, I don’t think a project like Five Buttes would move forward,” Riverwind said.

Chad Hanson, a co-founder of the John Muir Project who studied the project, said the Forest Service is fond of euphemisms such as thinning, which “sounds like people with pruning shears” but actually amounts to commercial logging.

“It’s about money. It’s about getting timber to the mill,” he said.

The agency’s managers tout the “fuels reduction” achieved by such projects, but they don’t focus on eliminating the fine biomass that contributes to fires, Hanson said. Instead, they remove large trees that seldom fully burn.

“They say that over and over again, like a mantra, but it’s a misrepresentation of the facts,” he said. “It’s not just unnecessary, it’s deeply counterproductive.”

Judge rules

While U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan wasn’t as scathing in his criticisms as the environmental plaintiffs, he did agree the project violated federal statutes.

The Forest Service lacked a “strong enough” argument that logging more than 600 acres of “old-growth trees” would provide “greater assurance of long-term maintenance of habitat” for spotted owls, as required under the Northwest Forest Plan, which lays out management guidelines, the judge ruled in 2008.

The agency’s “environmental impact statement” also didn’t sufficiently analyze the “cumulative effects” of past logging and the interaction of multiple activities in the project area, he said.

“Accordingly, the decision to implement the Five Buttes Project is arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with the law,” which requires the Forest Service to re-evaluate the project, Hogan said.

Appeal, or not?

When planning thinning projects, the agency faces a “tough job” because officials must comply with a lengthy checklist of environmental requirements and anticipate objections that opponents will raise in court, said Scott Horngren, an attorney who represented the Interfor Pacific timber company and the American Forest Resources Council in the lawsuit.

“There are a lot of arrows for an environmental group to draw on to try to shoot down a project,” Horngren said.

With the Five Buttes Project, though, “the government did their homework very well” by strongly supporting their fuel treatment decisions with wildfire risk analysis, he said.

The 2008 injunction against thinning and fuels treatment was a “big setback,” Horngren said, particularly since it could have discouraged the Forest Service from attempting similar projects out of fear “this opinion is going to get rubbed in our face.”

Instead of going back to the drawing board, however, the federal government decided to appeal the ruling before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

It was a difficult call, because a loss in the 9th Circuit would have affirmed the reasoning of the injunction while establishing a legal precedent for the nine Western states under its jurisdiction.

During oral arguments before the 9th Circuit in Portland, the Forest Service claimed the project’s necessity was demonstrated by the enduring impacts of the Davis Fire.

“Whereas in some cases you might have to look at models for assessing that risk, here it’s almost as if a model were run on the ground with that fire,” said David Shilton, the government’s attorney. “That makes it a very strong case to show that this action is clearly needed.”

Daniel Kruse, attorney for the environmentalists, argued the judge correctly faulted the Forest Service for authorizing the project despite finding it would cause long-term habitat degradation.

“He looks at the facts found and he looks at the conclusions made,” Kruse said. “And when they don’t line up, the agency acted arbitrarily and capriciously.”

Judges rule

More than two years after on-the-ground activities were halted, the 9th Circuit sided with the Forest Service in 2010 and overturned the injunction against the Five Buttes Project.

In a 2-1 decision, the three-judge panel ruled that the agency properly weighed the project’s risks and benefits, which should not be second-guessed in court.

The plaintiffs failed to prove the Forest Service “made a clear error in judgment” regarding spotted owl habitat or improperly analyzed the project’s environmental impacts, the ruling said.

“The Forest Service adequately considered the cumulative impact of past, present and foreseeable future actions and sufficiently considered and responded to opposing scientific views,” the 9th Circuit said.

Project completed

With the legal obstacles out of the way, the Forest Service implemented the project with four timber sales to Interfor Pacific, the timber company. Those were completed between 2013 and 2015 — 12 years after the original fire that concerned forest managers.

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