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The Sierra Forest Voice Newsletter

The Sierra Forest Voice

Web Edition
Vol. 7, No. 3, September 9, 2014

Inyo, Sequoia and Sierra Forest Plans: The Forest Service is Proposing Changes

The Forest Service is proposing to revise the forest plans on the three national forests in the southern Sierra Nevada and has now issued the Notice of Intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for the plan revisions. In addition, the agency has published a supplementary proposal that details the issues that drive the need for change. The public is invited to comment on the proposal.  

Our early review of the proposal indicates that there are some good ideas that will support an increased use of managed fire for ecological benefit, but aquatic habitats and at-risk wildlife will suffer under this proposal.

In a positive step, the Forest Service proposes to establish zones on the forests that promote the use of managed fire, that is, the use of planned or unplanned ignitions for ecological benefit.

Prescribed fire
Managed fire. Photo by Karina Silvas-Bellanca 

Two zones have been proposed to promote such use. One zone is for landscapes that are currently in a condition that can be safely burned, and a second zone designation where some type of hand or mechanical treatment will be needed prior to permit managed fire. We will be talking to the Forest Service about increasing the proportion of the landscape where the use of managed fire is a priority so that fire can be restored to larger areas of the forest. Bringing fire back to these fire-adapted habitats is critical to shape these habitats in ways that will improve their quality and increase their resilience.

In contrast, conservation measures to protect at-risk wildlife species are significantly less than we were expecting.  Given the serious decline in California spotted owl populations, fragile nature of the fisher population, and recent listing of Yosemite toad and Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, we had expected that the proposal would include measures to improve conditions for these species and not worsen them.  Declines in willow flycatcher and great gray owl also can be added to the list of species that are not well served in this proposal. 

Pacific Fisher
Pacific fisher   Photo credit: University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. 

For some species, such as the recently listed Yosemite toad, no changes to the plan are proposed, yet the recent decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined that current grazing practices and other actions controlled by the plans were contributing to the decline of this species. Given the recent listing, our expectation is that the forest plans must contribute to recovery of this species and not result in additional threat.  For California spotted owl and fisher, the identification of conservation measures is deferred to a later time, yet the proposal identifies new management areas and practices that would degrade habitat quality and likely contribute to extirpation of these species. Both species rely upon dense canopied forests, large snags and down wood for reproduction and foraging. The proposed action published by the Forest Service would, for example, waive standards for retaining these habitat attributes on about 36 percent of the Sierra National Forest – and most of this area without standards overlaps with a significant amount of highly suitable habitat for both species.

Degraded meadow ENF
Degraded meadow, Eldorado National Forest. Photo by Karen Schambach 

Similarly, we see that standards to protect the hydrological function of meadows have been proposed for removal from the forest plans.  These standards have been instrumental to requiring that actions not disrupt the hydrologic function of meadows.  The lowering of the water table and drying is one of the most significant stressors on meadows.  Roads, trails and other actions in and adjacent to meadow systems can degrade their hydrologic function and cause water to drain prematurely from the meadow system.    

We are working with a number of conservation organizations to comment on the Forest Service’s proposal. Comments must be received by the agency by September 29, 2014. We will be recommending that the Forest Service adopt the forest plan components we included in the conservation strategy that we prepared in August 2012.

Got Water?

Evidently not, according to a new study by UC Davis and UC Merced researchers Ted Grantham and Josh Viers titled, “100 Years of California’s Water Rights System: Patterns, Trends and Uncertainty.” The report published online in Environmental Research Letters on August 19, 2014 offers a highly rigorous and stunning picture of the “train wreck” that California has made of its water rights system.

Grantham and Viers call for major reform of the policies and procedures overseen by the state Water Resources Control Board in terms of water-rights and water-use tracking, permit processing, illegal unreported use and most importantly, the ramifications of allocated water-rights totaling “approximately five times the state’s mean annual runoff.” In the state’s major river systems, the San Joaquin and Sacramento River basins, “water-rights account for up to 1000% of natural surface water supplies.”  The study does not account for riparian water-rights or pre-1914 water-rights existing in most rural mountain counties.

Grantham and Viers verified that “water-rights allocations exceed the state’s actual surface water supply by about 300 million acre-feet, enough to fill Lake Tahoe about 2.5 times.”  The San Joaquin River water-rights allocations exceeded the river’s average annual flow by eightfold.

In a related topic, the Forest Service is looking at possibilities for thinning forests to increase water release. While little attention is paid by researchers to the impacts to wildlife and other resources from such intense canopy reduction across a watershed or how such conditions would be maintained over time, if it was appropriate—one thing is for certain. Any additional water that appears on the California landscape, from the Sierra crest to the ocean, needs to stay right where it belongs—in the river systems of the state for environmental benefit. We have a much bigger problem than the current dry period in the past couple of years. We have a broken water-rights system, a system that has been gamed for far too long, by far too many at the expense of California’s natural environment and the Public Trust Heritage that we all depend upon.  

To read the full study go to: 

Grantham, T.E., and J.H. Viers. 2014. 100 Years of California’s Water Rights System: Patterns, Trends and Uncertainty. Environ. Res. Lett. 9.

News Bytes from the Front

Rim Fire Update

The decision signed by Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski on August 29, 2014 permits salvage logging of burned trees of all sizes on 15,374 acres with an additional 17,706 acres related to roadside salvage on 325 miles of roads. The decision results in a project that allows salvage logging on a smaller area than originally proposed in the draft environmental impact statement issued in December 2013. Salvage logging was reduced by 11,516 acres and instead allows the burned trees in this area to be managed for fuel reduction and to benefit deer movement.  Commercial sized trees would not be removed from these areas, but existing burned trees could be cut down and burned, chipped or removed as biomass.  

SFL and others submitted a comment letter on the DEIS in January 2014 that highlighted our concerns about the proposed salvage and offered an alternative that would log substantially less acreage. There is some overlap between the decision and our early proposal, especially for areas with low amounts of large trees. This summer SFL met several times with other conservation groups and representatives from the timber industry.  We attempted to find common ground for a proposal to make jointly to the Forest Service. We developed a framework of agreements, identified units for which there was mutual support to drop from salvage logging, and included a proposal to retain clumps of snags in salvage units, rather than single snags, for greater ecological benefit.  We presented this to the Forest Service in July 2014.

There is some overlap in the proposal our stakeholder group made to the Forest Service in July 2014 and the decision, but significant areas are not aligned with the conservation benefits that SFL was seeking for California spotted owl, black-backed woodpecker and the development of complex early seral forests. In our final analysis, the decision includes about 6,000 acres of salvage logging that we believe should have been dropped to benefit these important resources. We are also concerned that some areas not proposed for salvage logging are still open for “fuels reduction” which could result in the removal of burned trees used by cavity nesting birds and other wildlife and disruption of a landscape undergoing the process of regrowth and renewal.

In addition, the proposal, supported by scientists, conservationists and industry, to apply variable retention of snags in clumps was largely not adopted. This was because the Forest Service had already invested time in marking the burned stands in advance of the decision and state now that it is too late to change the marking. This outcome eliminated the pursuit of important research objectives related to clump density and distribution and will result in a less ecologically viable and resilient structure. Despite many meetings, special workshops, and input from research scientists, the agency opted to do the same thing they have always done regarding snag retention on the reduced footprint.             

On September 4, the Center for Biological Diversity and two other groups filed a lawsuit against the decision. They are seeking to reduce salvage logging on about 40 percent of the area covered by the decision. Much of the area they seek to have removed from salvage operations overlaps with areas that SFL also sought to have dropped during the public review process. 

Photo below: Susan Skalski, Stanislaus National Forest supervisor who has now retired, and Rim Fire team at the signing of the Rim Fire Record of Decision. The decision spells out the future for 154,530 acres of national forest burned in the Rim Fire on the Stanislaus National Forest, and will affect the trajectory of forest evolutionary processes for centuries.

Rim Fire Decision Team August 2014


Grazing livestock allowed to return to Rim Fire burn

In the weekly Rim Fire Weekly Update from July 15, the Forest Service reported:

“On July 10th, 65 head of cattle were allowed to return to the lightly burned portions of the Rim Fire, on two grazing allotments. On-site monitoring by Forest Service rangeland managers detected that some areas were recovering sufficiently to allow cattle back in to graze. Several allotments are not yet back in rotation due to high intensity fire behavior and the resultant effects. Grazing may resume on these more heavily impacted sites in 2015.”

The fire was a tragedy for everyone that lost property, and that included cattle ranchers with grazing permits on the Stanislaus NF within the Rim Fire area. Many lost livestock, and at least one permittee lost an allotment cabin and fences. For one permittee, the burn was the third time they lost property due to wildfire, and another lost a 25 year old plantation.

Nevertheless, the idea of releasing grazing cattle to graze in the fragile ecosystem that is the area of the Rim Fire is not supported by science,  will not contribute to ecological integrity and is inconsistent with the restoration priority of the Forest Service.  With the barest of vegetative cover in its first summer after the fire—a summer that has been marked by record breaking temperatures and drought—the plant communities in the Rim Fire allotments are unlikely to support the additional stress of grazing by herds of non-native, heavy hooved bovines. 

For many plant species that are dependent upon fire for rejuvenation of ephemeral populations, the first, second, and third years are crucial times for germination, reproduction, and replenishment of the seed bank. Grazing cattle are known to relish eating native wildflowers and riparian plants of almost every kind, and livestock are particularly damaging to wet areas, where soils are compacted and vegetation is crushed and smothered. Livestock are also notorious for being the vectors for non-native weedy grasses and other invasive plants.

We have since learned that the actual numbers of cattle that were allowed back into the Rim Fire allotments is much larger than the 65 head reported in the Forest Service Rim Fire Update. According to Forest Service personnel, in the Rim Fire area 491 cows or cow/calf pairs were permitted this summer. In addition, in allotments on the edge of the burn, where an estimated one percent of the allotment burned, 150 cows were also permitted, making a total of 641 cows and an unknown number of calves. There are a total of 13 allotments in the Rim Fire area, and most if not all of them had some level of grazing with the exception of one that was allowed to “rest” for one year. A “head” of cattle actually refers to a cow and her calf (although not all the cows had calves this year). In case you were wondering, the amount of money the Forest Service collects for each cow/calf pair is $1.35 per month. 

This large number of cattle permitted in this fragile ecosystem so soon after a devastating fire of this magnitude is staggering. Indeed, Forest Service resource specialists initially informed the permittees that the allotments would not be grazed this year, explaining that the land needed at least a year to recover sufficient vegetation cover before cattle would be allowed in. However, responding to the pressure from permittees, the regional office, forest supervisor Susan Skalsky, (who has now retired), and the county board of supervisors, the staff were asked to revise their determination, and permit cattle back in—but only to areas that were minimally burned at five percent or less of the allotment, and in reduced numbers. Permittees were instructed to keep livestock away from “high intensity” burned areas. This is accomplished by herding, yet difficult to do unless people are there to monitor the cattle’s movements. There are also no fences to keep them in place, and according to Forest Service personnel, the permittees do not check the allotments on a daily basis.

"Most members of the public would be appalled at how some of those already suffering areas of the Rim Fire are now being degraded further by intensive livestock presence," said John Buckley, executive director at CSERC. Buckley and the staff at CSERC have been actively monitoring the Rim Fire region several times a week this summer, and have found regions in the Northern portion of the fire consistently overgrazed.  

In the Rim Fire Record of Decision, just released, the Forest Service cites the need to hasten recovery of the area for the benefit of spotted owls, deer, black-backed woodpeckers and other species. The agency will soon be proposing massive tree planting efforts, watershed rehabilitation, and noxious weed eradication, all in the name of restoration. It's hard to imagine how livestock grazing of this fragile recovering area fits into these purported restoration goals.   


Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire Council - Save the Date 

The Northern Prescribed Fire Council and  Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire Council have teamed up for our next meeting to explore and discuss increasing large prescribed fires and managed wildfires in California. 

 With the current direction of the Forest Service focused on an all-lands approach and restoration, there is a need to discuss how forest managers will scale up fire-based restoration treatments. This two-day conference will highlight science, policy, challenges and opportunities to working collectively to increase the pace and scale of fire restoration. Everyone is welcome to participate in the conversation and a shared learning experience.  

The conference will be held at Lion's Gate Hotel in Sacramento, CA on December 2-3, 2014. For more information on the meeting concepts click here.  

The councils are interested in collaborative input from interested organizations and agencies for planning, participation, and sponsorship of the conference. If you are interested in joining the team please contact Karina Silvas-Bellanca.

Upcoming Training Exchanges

The Forest Service, in some official capacity, seeks to increase the pace and scale of fire restoration to return forest and woodlands to a resilient condition. In order to increase the pace and scale of treatments, we must also develop the capacity to use fire safely and effectively. As training exchanges are becoming more popular in the western United States, it is clear that increasing cooperation and coordination is essential in creating robust fire programs. Training exchanges provide high quality training opportunities that support partnership development among diverse fire practitioners and increased capacity through cooperation.

The Northern California Prescribed Fire Council is hosting two prescribed fire-training events this coming fall. Northern California - October 13-26, 2014 and Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training, Orleans, CA - October 1-11, 2014.

Last year, the trainees participated in a total of 17 prescribed burns and treated more than 450 acres in the Region.  Click here for a TREX summary of last year. For more information on the following training exchanges contact Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Spotlight on Species:

Farewell-to-Spring (Clarkia spp.)

C. williamsonii Photo left: Fort Miller Clarkia (Clarkia williamsonii) growing in Rim Fire burn. Photograph © Steve Laymon.

In this issue of the Sierra Forest Voice, instead of featuring a single species, we are spotlighting a genus: Clarkia. Clarkia are generally fire-following annuals. They are members of the Onagraceae or Evening Primrose Family, and there are a total of 66 accepted Clarkia taxa – 62 in North America and one species with four subspecies in Chile in South America.

There are 62 taxa in North American, of which 59 are found in California and three are in Oregon and north to Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia. Of the 59 taxa in California, 37 are found in the Sierra Nevada, where at least 16 different species and sub-species are rare species requiring protection under state and federal policy and law. Eighteen taxa have been found in Tuolumne Co. in or near the area of the Rim Fire, including these rare species:

  • Clarkia australis (Small’s Southern Clarkia) which is found primarily in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties (a few records from Madera and Calaveras counties)
  • Clarkia biloba ssp. australis (Mariposa Clarkia) which is nearly endemic to Mariposa and Tuolumne counties (there are 2 records from El Dorado county, but none in between)
  • Clarkia lingulata (Merced Clarkia) which is endemic to Mariposa County
  • Clarkia rostrata (Beaked Clarkia) which is endemic to Mariposa, Tuolumne, and Stanislaus counties
  • Clarkia virgata (Sierra Clarkia) which is endemic to the central Sierra Nevada from El Dorado to Mariposa counties.

According to biologist and Clarkia expert Steve Laymon, "California is the epicenter for the genus," and he would know, as Laymon and his wife Pam have traveled extensively throughout the state discovering and photographing Clarkia for the last four years. Laymon's goal is to photograph every Clarkia species in the state, certainly no small task. "There are a large number of species with small ranges and some that are endemic to a single county and some whose known range is restricted to one to five populations," Laymon said. "Twenty-seven of the fifty-nine taxa in California are considered special status species by CNPS and five are listed as threatened or endangered by the state or federal governments.  Besides that they are beautiful!!!"

It's not a stretch to say that the Sierra Nevada is a hot spot for Clarkia speciation. As many of the members (perhaps all) of the genus are fire followers, the recent fires in the region are currently fostering new populations, and creating renewed opportunities for the species to reproduce and replenish seed banks in burned areas. 

Clarkia williamsonii

Dudley's Clarkia (Clarkia dudleyana) flourishing in burned area in Rim Fire. Photograph © Steve Laymon.

Clarkia is named for William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, after the explorers discovered the first in Oregon, which would later be named Clarkia pulchella (or, "beautiful Clarkia"). "Farewell to Spring" is a common name for the genus, aptly since they are among the last of the annual wildflowers blooming in early summer. "Godetia" is another name for some members of the species, but is no longer commonly in usage. Clarkia seeds are among the most common small-seeded plant found in prehistoric archaeological sites. The seeds were eaten by the native Miwok people and other tribes throughout the state.  

Several rare Clarkias in the Sierra Nevada are limited to a handful of populations in total. One species, Merced River Clarkia, or Clarkia lingulata, is found in only two sites, near a big bend in the South fork of the Merced River. This species, like most Clarkia, requires disturbance, preferably fire, to remove competing vegetation and stimulate the seedbank. The Merced River canyon and tributaries are considered a hot spot of Clarkia speciation and evolution, according to botanist Harlan Lewis, a renowned UCLA botanist (now deceased) and an early pioneer in the field of the genetics of plant speciation. He and his wife Margaret studied Clarkia for many decades, starting in the 1940s, publishing dozens of papers and the original monograph on the genus.

Clarkia bee

Hesperapis regularis, a Clarkia specialist bee. Photo © by Hartmut Wisch, used courtesy of Discover Life. 


One of the interesting facts about Clarkia is that two or more species may be found growing near one another, yet inter-specific hybrids are rare. This is due to the tight specificity of Clarkia pollinators, the tiny solitary oligolectic bees which maintain their preference for particular species of Clarkia even when foraging among multiple species. Clarkia species growing near one another can also look very similar. These species appear to exhibit phenotypic plasticity, in other words, plants may exhibit differences in appearance depending upon environmental conditions. Certainly Clarkia bees hold many of the secrets to the mysteries of speciation among the genus in California. 

Recent work by plant evolution scientist Leslie Gottlieb at UC Davis (now deceased) published confirmatory evidence for species designation for Clarkia australis and Clarkia virgata, although both occur near one another (in the Rim Fire area) and are almost identical in appearance. The two species will not produce viable seeds if they are hybridized. 

C. australis

Small's southern Clarkia (Clarkia australis) photographed in the Rim Fire. Photograph © Steve Laymon.

Identifying Clarkia species is no easy task. Laymon's Clarkia photographs provide the exacting detail necessary to correctly differentiate the taxa. Documenting rare plant populations with photography is a specialized skill and a great improvement over the old method of collecting specimens, especially from rare species populations with existing herbaria documentation.

The Rim Fire boundary contained many populations of rare Clarkia australis and Clarkia biloba ssp. australis before the fire, and new populations of these rare Clarkias are being documented this summer in places where plantation trees burned. Some of these were populations of rare Clarkia species documented after the 1987 Complex fires as well, but the Stanislaus National Forest went ahead with plans to salvage log and plant within the rare plant populations. Populations within plantations were allowed to perish, an action that is not in compliance with Forest Service policy. It is hoped that the plants will be protected this time, after the Rim Fire. Currently, the Forest Service is preparing to log approximately 33,000 acres of the Rim Fire, and is currently in the process of developing the reforestation plan. Further, the Stanislaus National Forest has permitted hundreds of head of cattle for grazing in the fragile ecosystem, with passing regard for the impacts upon rare species that may only be viable for a few short years after the fire under the best of circumstances--even without  grazing pressure and logging impacts. 

In 2004, Monica Geber, Professor of Evolution and Ecology at Cornell University, wrote the Groveland Ranger District expressing her concerns about a proposed project (the Larson project) to spray herbicides and increase plantation installations in the aftermath of the 1987 Stanislaus Complex fires. According to Dr. Geber, "Eradication or suppression of Clarkia species at the local scale and even the regional scale could have negative impacts on populations of native specialist bees, and this in turn, can further endanger Clarkia...These solitary specialist bees use only Clarkia pollen to provision their nests. They nest locally and do not travel large distances between Clarkia populations. Most of these bees nest in the ground or on stems of small plants and are likely to be affected by toxic inputs through spraying. Herbicide spraying will therefore not only affect the plants directly but indirectly through their pollinators and could lead to the extinction of both," said Geber. 

Dr. Geber has worked extensively in the Sierra Nevada with Clarkia. Her work suggests that reproduction (seed output) is highest when multiple species of Clarkias are present at a site, because the known pollinators for Clarkia are most abundant where they are supported by sites where there are more than one species of Clarkia pollen. Clearly, there is much yet to be learned about Clarkia bees and the flowers that depend upon them. 

Citing concerns about reforestation activities in the area, she noted that there are twelve Clarkia including the rare C. australis in the area and "herbicide use would negatively affect these species as well."

Impacts to species such as Clarkia--and their specialist pollinators--exemplify the types of unintended consequences that are rarely considered during post-fire salvage operations and replanting activities. The process of post-fire salvage logging and reforestation (tree planting coupled with herbicide applications) truncates or skips ecological processes, targets other native forest species for elimination, and simplifies forest structure and composition in order to maximize economic return and convert native forest into tree crops.  

Rim Fire Hazard Tree Removal

Photo above: Hazard tree removal in Rim Fire. Although areas adjacent to this site contained Clarkia and other plant species, no vegetation was seen surviving in the deep trenches and churned up soil created just inches from the creek in this logged area. Photo by Vivian Parker.

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The work we do to protect the forests, with all of their unique and rare plants and animals, and the many wild places of the Range of Light cannot be done without the generosity of our supporters. Please help us to keep up our efforts. You can make a safe and secure donation from this website. Thanks to all who have so generously supported our work - together we form a multitude of voices. Join us in saying, "Si, se puede" on behalf of the wild forests of the Sierra Nevada.   

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~Aldo Leopold

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