The Sierra Forest Voice
Vol. 6, No. 3, September 23, 2013
Three Big Fires in the Sierra Nevada (2013) ...
and Three Big Issues to Follow
The wildfire season continues in the Sierra Nevada and currently there are three significant fires active in the central part of the range. The American Fire on the American River Ranger District of the Tahoe National Forest, the Aspen Fire on the High Sierra Ranger District of the Sierra National Forest, and the Rim Fire on the Groveland Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. Here are the latest fire statistics, as of the publication of this newsletter.
Aspen Fire 22,800 ac (35.6 sq. miles); Terrain extreme; 95% contained; cause-lightning; costs-to-date estimate: $31.1 million. Normalized Burn Ratio for soils: 9 % high (approx. 1900 acres); 34% moderate (7440 ac); 38% Low (8500 ac) and 19% v. Low (4290 ac)
American Fire 27,440 ac (42.8 sq. miles); Terrain extreme; 100% contained but burning pockets inside the perimeter; cause-under investigation; cost-to-date: unknown
Rim Fire 257,097 ac (401 sq. miles); Terrain extreme; 84% contained; cause-human, camp fire; cost-to-date: >$121,000,000. Preliminary Soil Burn Severity: 56% no change or low; 37% moderate; and 7% burned at high severity. Preliminary Vegetation Severity mapping (9/16) suggests 35% no change or low severity; 27% moderate; and 38% high severity.
Issue #1 Air Quality Regulation in the Fire Adapted Landscape of the Sierra Nevada
Photo left: Groveland and Rim Fire. Copyright Jennifer Ketchem 2013.
Welcome to Groveland, California. This photo is from August 22, early in the Rim Fire progression. The most astonishing thing about this photo is not the enormous smoke column East of Groveland in the early days of the Rim Fire. The truly astonishing thing is the fact that the Air Pollution Control Districts (APCDs), under the Clean Air Act, count emissions from prescribed and managed wildfires toward the annual air quality thresholds--but they are allowed to write off wildfire emissions to avoid exceeding air quality thresholds.
Being in “exceedance” of air quality thresholds is costly to land managers and the APCDs. Fees must be paid by California land managers (including the Forest Service) on a per acre basis for planned or managed burns. APCDs must pay fines to the Federal EPA if emissions exceed air quality thresholds. This disincentive to expanded controlled burns places a serious impediment in the way of restoring the natural fire disturbance processes in the strongly fire-associated ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada. Limited fire use has a direct negative impact on the Forest Service’s implementation of its Ecological Restoration Initiative goals to significantly increase the pace and scale of restoration treatments. Yet, when a wildfire event occurs at any scale, including the massive Rim Fire, the APCDs don’t have to count the exceedance of air quality thresholds from these wildfires. At the end of the year these annual wildfire events can be erased from the records when deemed as “exceptional events” outside of human control.
Currently, Air Quality regulators limit implementation of much needed increases in controlled burning on Forest Service lands. Controlled burning produces significantly less emission in human communities than unplanned events. Prescribed and managed fires are a key Forest Service tool used to limit large, uncharacteristic wildfires like the ones we have experienced this summer. The APCDs are allowed to escape any responsibility for large fire emissions by simply erasing these events from their records when, in fact, they restrict permitting of controlled burns that could significantly reduce impacts from large uncharacteristic wildfires.
This situation needs to change. In West Australia, the state has an active fire program and works much more closely with their air regulators. In this team environment there is no punishment for exceeding air quality standards since their Department of Environment and Conservation works collaboratively in support of ecological burning even adjacent to large cities like Perth.
For more information on barriers to burning, visit this website, and scroll to the bottom to read Ryan et al (2013) and Sneeuwjagt et al (2013).
Issue #2 Fire Salvage needs to be revisited in the modern context of science-based Ecological Restoration
After the smoke settles and the embers die down the Forest Service will be sending burn area recovery teams out to do immediate fire damage mitigation on some of the burned landscape. Then a roadside hazard tree removal effort will follow on most of the accessible road network in the fire. Traditionally, following the hazard tree removal the debate will begin about logging the burned trees across the fire perimeter.
Sierra Forest Legacy has several concerns regarding logging burned forests:
- Large burned trees have significant ecological value. The policy of immediately “salvaging” burned trees fails to recognize burned wood’s contribution to wildlife habitat, soil stability, soil nutrients, carbon sequestration, water retention and other values needed in the future forest.
- In fires like the Rim Fire the burned landscape will not contain new large diameter snags or large logs for hundreds of years in the future. Ecological restoration principles would argue for maintaining the large wood on the burned site to support ecological processes and forest structure until a new forest has aged enough to provide those large-tree attributes again.
- Snag retention guidelines for green forests where snags and logs are regularly replenished are inappropriate to use for severely burned forests which can not produce new large snags or logs for hundreds of years.
- Contrary to the above principles, large dead trees are often the prime target of post-fire removal (see photos below).
For more information and post-disturbance logging science, find additional detailed information and recommendations for maintaining and restoring forest structural diversity, read Conservation Strategy, section IV.B-1: Structural Diversity of Forests and Adjacent Habitats. More information can also be found on the SFL fire salvage page.
Issue #3 Reforestation—the Failed Model of Plantation Forestry
Post-fire reforestation done under the old industrial forestry model is not sustainable.Looking back at the Cleveland Fire on the Eldorado National Forest (1992) and the history of re-burns on that landscape or the recent incineration of the massive 1987 Stanislaus Complex Fire reforestation effort on the Stanislaus National Forest during the Rim Fire, it is clear that the Forest Service needs to develop a new ecological model for the restoration of burned forests. Will we look back on the Rim Fire landscape in 25 years and wonder why it burned at high severity, again? Plantations, with their even-aged, even-spaced and uniform tree crowns present a perfect opportunity for large fires. The costs of planting, thinning and major use of chemical herbicides to control competing vegetation offer uncharacteristically uniform forests, prone to fire and disease and with little hope for the re-establishment of natural evolving conditions and resilient, diverse forest structure.
The photo panel below displays recent fire history along the Highway 50 corridor on the Eldorado National Forest and lands owned by Sierra Pacific Industries. The photos are of reburns of the Cleveland Fire perimeter. The Cleveland Fire burned older Forest Service plantations intermixed with old Michigan-Cal Lumber Co. clear cuts. The landscape was planted back to the same even-spaced plantations after the 1992 Cleveland Fire and burned again in the St. Pauli Fire in 2002 and again in the Fred’s Fire of 2005. Just east of these fires was the Kyburz Fire in June of this year.
Photos below: All photos copyright Sierra Forest Legacy, except for Kyburz Fire in lower right corner, courtesy CalFIre Twitter feed
The good news is Forest Service managers and Sierra Pacific Industries have been voicing concerns that suggest that they may both be re-thinking their intensive forestry strategies in light of the low prospects for continued survival of plantations in the likely future of expanded fire seasons, droughts, and warming temperatures.
Sierra Forest Legacy is encouraging conservation groups to engage in strong collaboration with Forest Service researchers, the Regional Ecology Team, and local land managers to create restoration designs for burned landscapes (where needed) with the best available science and creative ecological thinking so we don’t re-create the unsustainable conditions of the past. Resilience in a changing climate should be on all of our minds.
From Jerry Franklin, Professor of Forestry, University of Washington:
“However, timber salvage will rarely achieve any positive ecological benefit...Timber salvage should be viewed as a “tax” or debit on the recovery process. Removal of large, decay resistant snags and logs is particularly negative because of impacts on long-term recovery and stand development processes.” --Testimony to Congress, 2004
“By creating such plantations we are simply creating the conditions—the fuel--for the next uncharacteristic stand-replacement fire!” –Testimony to Congress, 2005
“The ecological impacts of salvage logging have the potential to substantially exceed those of green logging, even traditional high-intensity silvicultural systems such as clearcutting.” – P. 169 in Salvage Logging and Its Ecological Consequences, by David Lindenmayer, Philip Burton, and Jerry Franklin, 2008.
Today, we understand that fire is a key driver of change and is a vital process for shaping composition and structure of ecosystems in the Sierra Nevada. Fire in conifer-dominated systems is well documented and understood. In contrast, the relationship between fire and meadow ecosystems--and the degree to which current fire effects are outside the range of natural variability--remains somewhat elusive.
Several fire studies in dry meadow systems characterize burn frequency as similar to upland vegetation, especially in areas where conifers are the dominant upland vegetation. Van de Water and North (2010) sampled three locations in the northern Sierra Nevada in Jeffrey pine, white fir, and mixed conifer forest both in riparian sites and upland forested sites. Their findings suggest that fire moved into these riparian areas with the same frequency as the uplands, although there may be some slight differences in fire properties due to topography, microclimates, fuel loads, fuel moisture, and species composition (Agee et al. 2002). These studies give some indication of fire frequency and fire regimes in riparian areas dominated by fire-resistant conifers. It is also evident that fire suppression has contributed to conifer encroachment in Sierran meadows.
Few studies examine post-fire effects in wet meadows and high elevation wet meadows. The effects of fire on meadow recovery appear to be short term (DeBennetti and Parsons 1979). However, an increase in high intensity crown fires due to climate change coupled with fire suppression and other anthropogenic impacts is likely to reduce meadow recovery after such fires (Viers et al 2013).
More research is needed to characterize fire frequency and the patterns of fire in meadows (Frissell et al 2012). Underestimates in fire frequencies in meadow systems can be attributed to unreliable methods commonly used for developing fire history (Gross and Coppoletta 2013, draft USFS report) which may only capture large fire events. Past and current land management practices, such as logging and road building, livestock grazing, reduction in beaver populations, increase in invasive plants that alter fire behavior, and dams and flow regulation, further confound analysis of fire effects. Also, meadows and riparian areas are often lumped together in fire studies, and while this may provide some insight for characterizing fire history it may not be the best approach for assessing differences in fire patterns. Further understanding of human influences and the relationships between fire and riparian systems are needed (Dwire and Kaufmann 2003).
References cited in this article
Agee, J.K., Wright, C.B., Williamson, N., Huff, M.H., 2002. Foliar moisture content of Pacific Northwest vegetation and its relation to wildland fire behavior. For. Ecol. Manage. 167, 57–66.
DeBenedetti, S.H., and D.J. Parsons. 1979. Natural fire in sub-alpine meadows: a case description from the Sierra Nevada. J. Forestry 77(8):477-479.
Dwire, K.A., and J.B. Kaufman. 2003. Fire and riparian ecosystems in landscapes of the western USA. Forest Ecology and Management. 178:61-74.
Frissell, C.A. M. Scurlock, and R. Kattelmann. 2012. SNEP Plus 15 Years: Ecological & Conservation Science for Freshwater Resource Protection & Federal Land Management in the Sierra Nevada. Pacific Rivers Council Science Publication 12-001. Portland, Oregon, USA.
Gross, S. and Coppoletta, M. 2013. Draft Historic Range of Variability for Meadows in the Sierra Nevada and South Cascades. In draft; USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region, Vallejo, California.
Van de Water, K. and North, M. 2010. Fire history of coniferous riparian forests in the Sierra Nevada. Journal of Forest Ecology and Management 260, p. 284-295.
Viers, J. et al. 2013. Montane Meadows in the Sierra Nevada: Changing Hydroclimatic Conditions and Concepts for Vulnerability Assessment. Center for Watershed Sciences Technical Report (CWS-2013-01), University of California, Davis. 63 ppd.
Livestock Grazing on National Forests – A clear need for change
Meadow and riparian ecosystems in the Sierra Nevada are dynamic and provide a suite of valuable functions and ecosystem services for plant, wildlife, and human communities alike. Meadows occupy nearly 2 percent of the Sierra Nevada range, approximately 192,000 acres and are currently among the most at-risk and highly impacted ecosystems in the range. Alterations in meadow condition and function are a result of past and current manipulations and include livestock grazing, railroad grades, diversions and ditches, culverts and roads, and fire suppression.
The degradation of meadows, seeps, springs, fens and water quality in watersheds has been linked to livestock grazing on the national forests. Sheep and cattle numbering in the millions have grazed the Sierra meadows for 150 years. While the numbers of livestock have been reduced, the impacts of historical and ongoing grazing in the region continue today. Livestock impacts include physical damage to stream banks that from trampling, compaction of wet areas, widening of stream banks and increased levels of sedimentation during precipitation, alteration of soil chemistry from urine and feces, and shifts in native vegetation composition and facilitation of non-native weed invasions. Physical damage and alteration of meadow ecosystems adversely impact plant, animal, and human communities.
John Buckley, Director of Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and his staff have been monitoring water quality in heavily grazed areas on the Stanislaus National Forest since 2009. According to Buckley, “Few people understand how widely contaminated forest streams are from livestock pollution. Our [CSERC] water quality sampling proves that before cows arrive most streams are fairly clean [in terms of pathogenic bacteria] but once cows hang out along wet meadows or riparian areas, pathogenic bacteria levels quickly rise, often beyond safe health thresholds.”
Photo above: John Buckley, director of CSERC, standing above trampled streambank
Results from the water quality testing showed elevated levels of fecal coliform following introduction of livestock, which exceeded the State of California’s safety thresholds for recreational contact (water quality reports available here). From a health and safety perspective increases in E. coli following livestock grazing are very alarming, since ingestion of contaminated water can cause severe illness and even kidney failure. High elevation meadows and streams are the most at-risk from contamination.
”Generally, the smaller the stream, the more vulnerable they are to degradation and contamination when compared to streams at lower elevations and with higher stream flows. The areas that pose the highest risk to humans are those in wilderness and roadless areas, where many people recreate and consider streams to be safe for drinking,” says Buckley.
The watersheds in the Sierra Nevada provide abundant and clean water to a significant number of Californians and support a biologically diverse flora and fauna. Management on national forests in the southern Sierra Nevada presently is undergoing a comprehensive review. This is a pivotal time to seek changes to the way meadows are managed. As part of our coalition work, we are aiming for better management and monitoring of grazing in the Sierra Nevada by using the best available science to redefine suitable and capable rangeland. Standards to achieve better management of grazing should include suspending grazing in riparian conservation areas that contain perennial wet meadows and preventing grazing in seeps, springs, fens, and other unique wetland areas; permitting grazing only where livestock can be prevented from entering riparian and wet meadow areas; development of ecological objectives for aquatic and riparian habitat that are affected by livestock and packstock management, through landscape analysis and allotment planning; establishment of (at minimum) 6 monitoring stations for E. coli and other pathogens that pose a risk to human health in high recreation areas and meadows; and restriction of grazing in areas that have persistent levels of E. coli for 2 years.
Additionally, Buckley advocates, “In areas where livestock pose the greatest conflicts with recreation, water quality, and sensitive high quality habitat, livestock should be removed – especially in mid to high elevation meadows where the growing season is the shortest and meadows have the shallowest soil. We can reduce conflicts from water resources and grazing if we keep an open mind and limit livestock grazing to areas where the least damage to resources is caused.”
Read more, and find detailed recommendations for forest planning and further research needs:
Restore and Maintain Aquatic Ecosystems. Chapter IV. C-1. in National Forests in the Sierra Nevada: A Conservation Strategy. 2012.
Viers, J. et al. 2013. Montane Meadows in the Sierra Nevada: Changing Hydroclimatic Conditions and Concepts for Vulnerability Assessment. Center for Watershed Sciences Technical Report (CWS-2013-01), University of California, Davis. 63 ppd.
Update: Revising the Forest Plans for the Inyo, Sequoia and Sierra National Forests
Early this year, the Forest Service began in earnest the process of revising land management plans for the Inyo, Sequoia, and Sierra national forests. In an effort to be inclusive and transparent in the development of the assessments, the Forest Service developed a “wiki” called the Living Assessment where stakeholders have been invited to post information relevant to trends and conditions for each forest. Drawing on information in the Conservation Strategy and other sources, SFL and our partners have been contributing information to the wiki over the past seven months.
The Forest Service has taken information posted on the wiki and created a draft Forest Assessment for the Sierra National Forest. The Forest Service is accepting comments on this draft until September 19 and of preparing detailed comments. The draft Forest Assessment for the Sequoia National Forest was released on September 9; comments on this draft will be accepted until October 16. We expect that the draft Forest Assessment for the Inyo National Forest to be available to review and comment at the beginning of November.
In public meetings to discuss the draft Forest Assessment, staff on the Sierra National Forest invited comments from stakeholders on improvements to make to the assessment as well as ideas about how the Forest Plan should change based on the trends and conditions presented. Undertaking an analysis of the “need to change” the forest plan is the next step in the forest plan revision process. We are pleased that the Forest Service has invited comment on the changes to the forest plans that we think are needed. The Conservation Strategy has recommendations for changes that we believe should be made to the forest plans. We will be presenting those ideas to the Forest Service in our written comments on the Forest Assessments for each national forest. Recommendations that we will be making include:
- Direction on increasing the use of managed fire for ecological benefits to fire-adapted ecosystems;
- Conservation measures to protect and restore degraded meadow systems;
- Conservation measures for at-risk species including California spotted owl, fisher, Pacific marten, Yosemite toad, great grey owl, and willow flycatcher;
- Actions to enhance habitat diversity and promote complex early seral conditions; and
- Use of the Citizen’s Roadless Area Inventory, assembled by California Wilderness Coalition and its partners, to evaluate potential wilderness areas and to complete habitat connectivity analyses. (See maps of these roadless areas for the Sierra and Sequoia national forests.
Save the date: November 5-6, 2013 Inaugural Meeting for the Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire Council
The Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire Council is pleased to announce its Inaugural Meeting on November 5-6th at the Veteran’s Memorial Building in Clovis, CA. This meeting will expand on the 2012 Fire and Smoke Symposium. We are seeking to create an open dialog for understanding fire and smoke policy and discuss coordination and training opportunities for increasing fire use and management in the Southern Sierra. Registration is now open and no registration fee is required. Please visit our webpage for more information on the council and to register for the meeting at www.sosierrapfc.org.
Black-backed Woodpeckers and Fire Watch this excellent new educational video and share with your family and friends. Produced by the Forest Service Restore Video podcast series, this film shows the value of high severity burned forests, and their critical importance to the life history of the Black-backed Woodpecker. You can watch the video below, or watch it on You Tube.
Sierra Forest Legacy Bookshelf
Birds of the Sierra Nevada / Their Natural History, Status, and Distribution by Edward C. Beedy, Edward R. Pandolfino. Illustrated by Keith Hansen. 2013. University of California Press. 430 pages.
Written by local veteran bird experts Ted Beedy and Ed Pandolfino, with original illustrations beautifully rendered by professional bird artist Keith Hansen, this richly useful new natural history resource is a welcome and essential addition to the growing number of Sierra Nevada focused natural history books. You will want to read it cover to cover, and it is sure to become the trusted reference you will turn to first when looking for detailed information about our beloved Sierra avifauna.
In addition to identification characteristics, the book includes bird family descriptions, origins of bird names, a detailed natural history for each species, discussion on conservation issues including threats and rarity status, and population trends. The authors have included a checklist, a glossary of terms, an extensive bibliography, a section with topographical maps showing ecological zones and key locations, locations of Breeding Bird Survey routes, and detailed descriptions of ecological zones. There is also a section titled, “Unanswered Questions about Sierra Birds” that is guaranteed to inspire thoughtful further explorations.
Meet one or more of the authors at the following book signing events:
9/19/2013 Sacramento Audubon Meeting
9/25/2013 Santa Clara Audubon in Cupertino
9/27/2013 Marin EAC event, Inverness
10/1/2013 Ohlone Audubon Meeting, Pleasanton
10/3/2013 Plumas Audubon, Quincy
10/16/2013 Central Sierra Audubon, Tuolumne
Spotlight on Species:
Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa Yosemitensis)
The Great Gray Owl is one of the rarest birds in the North America, and the Sierra Nevada subspecies is among the rarest of all birds. Their population is estimated at 100 – 200 birds in total in the region, with an estimated effective breeding population of only 14 owls. At such low numbers, the population is vulnerable to inbreeding as well as unpredictable events, such as disease and uncharacteristic wildfire. Great gray owl is considered in danger of extinction, and was placed on California’s Endangered Species List in 1980. Habitat loss is considered the main cause of great gray owl population decline.
Below: Great Gray Owl Photo By Joe Medley
In 2010, the Sierra Nevada subspecies of great gray owl was identified as genetically distinct and is now named Strix nebulosa Yosemitensis. It is estimated that this population has been distinct and separate from the nearest northern population for 24,000 years.
Sierra Nevada great gray owls are primarily associated with old growth mixed conifer and red fir forests, and adjacent montane meadows. Breeding habitat occurs at 3000-8000 ft. elevation. Old growth forests are preferred sites for nesting and roosting, and large wet montane meadows are required by this species for foraging.
Foraging also occurs in younger forest stands if they have a robust forest understory and uneven-aged structure. Several owls have been found in recent years nesting in foothill conifer and oak forest. The prevalence of complex structures in these locations that include trees with low limbs, broken tops, chambers and cavities appear to be essential to aid juvenile owls when they are learning to fly. Loss of mature forest habitat with structural diversity for nesting, and the degradation of montane meadows from grazing or other developments, are considered the major cause of habitat loss.
The great gray owl is a huge owl, standing nearly two feet tall with a wing span of nearly five feet in width, and is thought to be the world’s largest owl. It has a large round head, with the largest facial disk of any raptor. Although large in appearance, their bulk is mostly feathers, and the owls are surprisingly light weight for their size (1 to 4 lbs). They are equipped with superb hearing.
Breeding in the Sierra Nevada begins in late February with the peak of egg-laying in mid-April through late May. The young remain in the nest area until they are four to five months old. Fledged owls do not fly immediately, and spend a lot of time on the ground, where dense vegetative cover and leaning trees for climbing are important.
Voles are the chief prey species for great gray owls. Voles cannot survive if meadow vegetation is grazed below approximate 10 inches. Great gray owls can hear voles under deep blankets of snow in the wintertime, and can plunge their heads a foot or more into the snow to capture their prey.
Adult owl mortality is alarmingly high for such a small population. Auto collisions are a significant source of adult mortality. Approximately twenty-six great gray owls have been reportedly hit by vehicles in the greater Yosemite area between 1955-2005, including at least twelve in Yosemite since 1985. Currently, a multiagency team of researchers are developing a conservation management plan the owl.
Research on the great gray owl by UC Davis ecology doctoral candidate Jon Medley has led to a new method of tracking the rare birds. The technique utilizes a remote audio recording technique that Medley developed. Medley also uses DNA analysis of the birds’ feathers to monitor populations in Yosemite National Park.
Sierra Forest Legacy recommends the following conservation measures for great gray owl to inform forest management planning. Additional recommendations can be found in the complete species assessment in Appendix A of Sierra Forest Legacy’s Conservation Strategy for the national forests of the Sierra Nevada. These recommendations can be used to inform forest plan revisions now underway on the Sierra, Sequoia, and Inyo National Forests, and on the Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
- Establish and maintain a protected activity center (PAC) that includes the forested area and adjacent meadow around all known great gray owl nest stands
- Exclude meadows associated with great gray owl PACs from grazing allotments and fence if necessary to exclude cattle.
- Retain all possible nest trees including all snags in PACs. Maintain 70-100 percent canopy closure in the forested areas of the PAC
- A 500-foot buffer around the nest trees should be managed to limit habitat alteration, i.e., no mechanical activity and limited hand work associated with controlled burning. Maintain the existing canopy cover in the immediate area of the nest trees, where nesting birds and fledging young are most likely to occur. Fledgling owls need multi-story vegetation and leaning trees to climb up and for cover
- Maintain a limited operating period (LOP) between March 1-August 15 within ¼ mile of a great gray owl nest stand or PAC boundary
Read more about Great Gray Owl in Appendix A of Sierra Forest Legacy’s Conservation Strategy.
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