Forsythe II Proposal – Does It Pass Muster?

Fire in the WUI (Wildland Urban Interface) is a threat. The question is how to best address it and minimize the risk. I think most of us want it all: a safe place to live, a vibrant ecosystem with varied wildlife, and a place to find joy. The question is whether that is possible.

It has been a year since we halted the Forsythe Project in Boulder County, CO and the USFS has a “new” Forsythe II Proposal. Despite a year of meetings, field trips, and input from the community, the new proposal looks a lot like the old one. While their justifications and reasons have changed, they are following a pattern they have used for many years – cutting trees – despite recent science that contradicts their justifications.

What are they proposing and why shouldn’t we believe they know best?

The proposal states the intention to

  1. “Restore” the mixed conifer to a more characteristic and historic pattern,
  2. Increase aspen stands and meadows,
  3. Improve wildlife habitat to benefit species,
  4. Protect the watershed from the impacts of fire, &
  5. Decrease risk of crown fire, particularly next to homes.

That all sounds reasonable and good, but do their proposals succeed in achieving these objectives? Let’s look at each objective and see whether they pass or fail.

  1. The first contradiction in the message is that they intend to “restore” mixed conifers, while at the same time create an artificial structure of mixed age lodgepole pine. The second and more problematic aspect of the plan is that they are using an idealized, static image of a historic forest that could apply to forests at lower elevations (below ~7000′), but not to the forests in this 8000-9000′ range. They plan to achieve this with aggressive thinning, clearcuts, and patch-cuts. Their imaginary picture sees this forest as an open, park-like area with large meadows, large aspen stands, and widely spaced conifers with a few small clumps (2-12 trees). While this may sound visually attractive, it is not characteristic of this Upper Montane area. “Historically, this area was not predominated by frequent low-severity fire, nor was it predominantly open forest.” (Kaufmann, Veblen, Romme 2006) This forest was characterized by dense stands of lodgepole on north-facing slopes and variable stands, predominantly dense, of mixed-conifer elsewhere. Some gentler south-facing slopes may have had some open stands of ponderosa pine, with some smaller meadows and periodic patches of aspen. “This landscape probably was never characterized by large, homogeneous stands with low tree densities. On the contrary, variation in forest structure was important across the area, as were changes over decades and centuries. For these reasons, creating large landscapes with uniformly low tree densities probably would be unprecedented in the ecological history of this area.” (Kaufmann, Veblen, Romme 2006).
    For this aspect of the plan – FAIL.– The cutting of additional (let’s not forget they cut a lot last year) patches of lodgepole, by their own admission, is not in accord with a historical fire regime. The stated reason is to create age variability to promote insect & disease resilience. Having different age groups of lodgepole side by side increases the risk of crown fire. The young dense regenerated trees act as significant ladder fuel to ignite the crowns of the older stands. They do not necessarily give protection from insects, as masses of dead regeneration near Cameron Pass prove.
    Patch-cuts and clearcuts get a FAIL.
    Thinning regeneration is a good idea, as long as it isn’t taken to excess. Regeneration from previous cuts can be thinned to create moderately dense and slightly more open forests, as long as it is done with variability.
    It will depend on the task orders, but we give this aspect a PASS.
  2. Increasing aspen stands isn’t an objectionable goal. They don’t necessarily fall into the historical pattern, but there is variability and aspen stands fall into that category. They are less flammable, so help from a fire-mitigation perspective and they are good animal habitat. The problem is that one won’t necessarily expand an aspen patch simply by cutting the conifers around it. There are other conditions that have to be met, including the right amount of soil moisture, soil type, and wind protection. To expand a patch, you have to pick the right patch. Also, conifers that existed before the aspens grew cannot be said to be encroaching and obviously have not inhibited growth of the stand. Therefore there is no need to cut conifers over 6″ out of an aspen stand. And if USFS predictions of increasing temperatures and dryness are correct, aspen stands will increasingly depend for their survival on the shade and wind protection large conifers provide.
    For the idea to increase aspens PASS, Implementation methods FAIL.– Expanding meadows is a little more problematic. We may want to retain meadows that we have by cutting out young trees, but cutting any tree over 6″ DBH is creating meadow that is not historically accurate. Well, does that matter? Wouldn’t it be better to have more larger meadows? Remember that any large opening has the potential to increase fire behavior, by increasing wind speed and providing more ladder fuels and thus higher flames that can lead to crown fires. So, no; more larger meadows are not always good.
    PARTIAL PASS, if larger trees are retained.
  3. How can we go wrong with improving wildlife habitat? “Generally, the response of wildlife to specific changes in landscape patterns of forest structure is poorly understood.” (Dickenson et al 2014) “The goals of fuels reduction to decrease the likelihood of severe wildfires and restore historical forest structure and species composition are complementary in ecosystems where fuels and fire severity have increased [lower elevations], yet are incompatible elsewhere and threaten ecosystem integrity and ecosystem services.” (Sheriff, Plat, Gartner) We are unaware of any long term, systematic inventory of wildlife species here, other than our own in the 1990’s. It is hard to know for certain whether changes are benefiting species, unless you know the diversity of species present. While some species may benefit from an open, park-like structure, with more understory and shrubby meadows, these same characteristics will be detrimental to other potentially important species.
  4. Another stated purpose of the plan is to “reduce the effects of wildfire to limit erosion from contaminating municipal water sources.” The proposal is to create roads and use mechanical thinning, patch-cutting, & clear-cutting, despite the fact that this has the worst impact on soil erosion. Trees hold the soil in place. They shade the soil, retaining moisture and preventing crusting that reduces the soil’s ability to absorb water. Trees shade the snowpack allowing it to melt slowly and reduce high runoff. Trees provide resilience and help to prevent flooding. The impacts of fuel treatments and the necessity to repeat them at frequent intervals are more damaging than the pulsed disturbances of fire. Treatments would have to be repeated every 10-20 years for 340-700 years before 50% of the treatment areas would’ve been affected by high-severity fire. (Rhodes & Baker 2008). Given the low probability of damaging effects from fire and the guaranteed effects of continuous, chronic damage from treatments, it makes more sense not to treat to protect the watershed.
  5. Okay, this is probably the objective you are most interested in – saving homes and forests from devastating crown fires. There are two parts to this.
    • The good news is that the proposal includes an opportunity for homeowners living next to US Forest lands to complete their defensible space (home mitigation zones) into those lands. They have been a bit over-zealous here, by allowing a 300′ zone. Boulder County and Wildfire Mitigation Partners recommend a 100′ zone, expanded to 200′ if your home is uphill from dense forest. Computational modeling, laboratory, and field experiments that describe the heat transfer required for ignition have shown that the large flames of burning shrubs and tree canopies (crown fires) must be within 30′ to 100′ to ignite a home’s wooden exterior. Homes are more likely to ignite from fuels actually touching the house, or from neighboring (within 40′) structures on fire. (Cohen 2008, Quarles 2010) The upshot of this is that YOU can do more to protect your house than the USFS can do, especially if they allow completion of 100′ zones.
      Mostly PASS.
    • Decrease of crown fire elsewhere within the project area is a much more complex problem. “Thinning treatments at higher elevations of the montane zone [here] will not return the fire regime to an historic low-severity regime, and are of questionable effectiveness in preventing severe wildfires. Based on present-day fuels, predicted fire behavior under extreme fire weather continues to indicate a mixed-
      severity fire regime throughout most of the montane forest zone. Recent large wildfires in the Front Range are not fundamentally different from similar events that occurred historically under extreme weather conditions.” (Sherriff, Plat, Gartner) The potential for passive crown fires is reduced most efficiently by the reduction of surface fuels followed by a reduction of ladder fuels. Conversely, thinning from above, or removal of overstory dominant and co-dominant trees, decreases fire resistance.” (Stephens et al 2012) Thinning may add to surface fuels (and increase surface fire intensity) unless the fine fuels that result from the thinning are removed from the stand or otherwise treated. (USDA FS 2004) The occurrence of mixed-severity fire prior to fire exclusion is also well supported by another line of evidence: the potential behavior of wildfire as affected by weather and climate. Based on direct observations of fire behavior, high winds may subject virtually any conifer forest, regardless of fuel density, to crown fire. (Odion, Hansen, et al 2014)
      As the methods employed in this proposal are to remove trees (overstory) and not remove surface and ground fuels, AND as they are notoriously bad at removing slash piles, AND as thinning provides questionable results, they FAIL.

What have been left out of this proposal are the aesthetic and social effects of treatment.

Over the last year, we have pointed out that these treatments, with large cuts, raw areas full of stumps, invasive weeds, and slash piles have a deleterious effect on the community, both those that live here and those that live elsewhere and recreate here. These are not insignificant effects. The physical and mental health of the public require areas of wild & natural beauty for exercise and solace. A manufactured forest, especially one that will take 100 years to grow back does not meet these needs. Unfortunately, it is evident from this proposal that the USFS either doesn’t care or doesn’t know how to deal with this. We are better off facing the odds of the 250 year fire regime cycle (of this area), than the certain destruction wrought by unnecessary cutting. It is important to remember that fire is an integral part of the ecosystem, so as devastating as it seems, it is also restorative and essential. We aren’t going to save the forest from fire and any promises from the USFS that this treatment will do that are empty ones. You can make a difference by mitigating around your home, if you live in the WUI. You may save your home from fire. The USFS is requesting comments on this proposal and we recommend that you provide some (look at the “how to comment section” near the bottom).

Read more on the background information and science.

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