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The Sierra Forest Voice Newsletter

The Sierra Forest Voice

Web Edition
Vol. 9, No. 1, March 15, 2016


The Fire MOU -- A New Collaborative Effort to Increase Fire Use in California

Late in the Fall of 2015 saw the completion of a significant new agreement between multiple federal and state agencies, two prescribed fire councils and several conservation organizations. The Fire Memorandum of Understanding is focused on increasing fire use for ecological and other benefits. Sierra Forest Legacy led the effort to reach this historic agreement with Region 5 Forest Service, CalFire, National Park Service, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Clrub, Center for Biological Diversity, Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, and the Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire Council.

Many organizations throughout California and elsewhere in the West share a common concern regarding more than a century of fire exclusion in strongly fire-associated landscapes. Reintroducing fire into these landscapes is essential to restore ecological balance, reduce fuel loading, increase forest carbon stability and limit mega-emission impacts from uncharacteristic wildfire.  

Image left: Tools of the Trade. Image from USFS, Coconino NF

Increasing fire use in California is not a simple matter but through the Fire MOU Partnership we hope to engage all interests and address existing hurdles through collaborative engagement and problem solving, realizing that fire has become an extremely tough negotiator in recent years. The price we pay in society for trying to eliminate this key natural disturbance process through fire exclusion is no longer sustainable, whether we are measuring skyrocketing suppression costs, ecological damage, loss of life and property, or significant impacts to human health from air pollution. 

Image below: Prescribed burning on Sequoia National Forest. Image by USFS.

Sierra Forest Legacy seeks to begin a dialog with our partners regarding increasing fire use and fostering community safety and public health. To start this conversation, we offered several recommendations for consideration at a recent public hearing at the State Capitol focused on the Governor's Tree Mortality Emergency Proclamation and specifically on increasing prescribed fire use: 

  • Support State of California Office of Planning and Research to work with counties to establish limited downzoning in high and very high fire risk areas in the forests and shrublands of CA
  • Increase State support for Community Fire Safe Councils in their efforts to work with CalFire, U.S. Forest Service and county governments to increase public outreach in promoting FireWise and Fire Safe community living
  • Create 3rd party Burn Certification training overseen by CalFire and other Fire MOU Partners in support of increased fire use
  • Consider legislative relief from liability and nuisance law claims for properly permitted fire use for ecological and other (community fire protection, public safety) benefits. 
  • Provide oversight of air quality regulations and ability of land managers to apply ecologically meaningful levels of fire (consistent with fire regime and fire frequency) in fire-associated landscapes in California. 
  • Consider high emissions outputs from mega-fire when weighing smoke outputs and impacts from prescribed burns.  
  • Encourage collaborative, cross-jurisdictional burn projects including landscape level fire use. 
  • Re-think (limit) fire suppression responses where fire is burning "in prescription" and doing good ecological work such as the fires in 2008. 

The Fire MOU Partnership is open to all parties (individual, organizations, agencies) who support the purpose of the MOU. The purpose of this Fire MOU is to document the cooperation between the parties to increase the use of fire to meet ecological and other management objectives in accordance with the provisions of the MOU initially signed in the fall 2015.  

For more information, contact: Craig Thomas at Sierra Forest Legacy or 916-708-9409.

Read the Fire MOU here.

Read the press release here.
Read the Governor's Proclamation of State of Emergency here.

Visit this website to learn more about the role of fire in ecosystem function.

Learn more about fire and community safety here.

News Bytes from the Front

Vulnerable Species Not Considered in Forest Plan Revisions for Southern Sierra Nevada Forests

The Forest Service recently invited comment on a draft list of "species of conservation concern" (SCC). These are a subset of at-risk species on a given national forest for which the Regional Forester judges that there is substantial concern about their persistence.

In August 2015, we commented on prior drafts of the SCC lists and asked at that time that the Forest Service provide the rationale and science support for their determinations to include or exclude a species from the list. In the draft lists released in December 2015, the agency provided a series of tables with a row dedicated to the information about each species. The tables were presented by the agency as establishing the rationale for their determination that was supported by science information. Upon review of the tables, we found an inconsistent use of the criteria and poor to no science support provided for their determinations. We also continued to find that species judged by the Forest Service in 2013 to merit increased protection to maintain their viability still were not included on the draft SCC lists despite the extensive comments we submitted in August 2015.

In the intervening 5 months, the Forest Service took no action to revise the SCC lists based on the information we provided on the prior drafts. We submitted comments in February 2016 on these new lists and asked the agency to include a number of vulnerable species on the SCC list, including Pacific marten, northern goshawk, black-backed woodpecker, desert bighorn sheep and a number of plant species. To insure that these and other imperiled species are conserved in the new forest plans, they must first be named as SCC and then standards and guidelines to reduce threats need to be included in the forest plan. 

The draft forest plans are due out for public review in April or May of this year. At-risk species not included on the SCC list or that are not federally designated species will not be directly addressed in the forest plans. Furthermore, it is unclear whether such vulnerable species left off the SCC list will be evaluated in the environmental analysis for the draft plans. 

In discussions with colleagues in other Forest Service Regions, we are finding that the problems we are encountering in Region 5 are common throughout the nation. We have been in touch with leaders at US Department of Agriculture and the Washington Office of the Forest Service to raise our concerns and offer solutions. There is acknowledgement from agency leadership that there is a problem with implementation of this part of the 2012 planning rule. At this point, the solution for the three forest plans now underway in California is unclear since the date for public review of the draft plans is fast approaching. We will continue to engage the Forest Service at the regional and national levels, and other stakeholders to overcome the current deficiencies related to at risk species in the plan revision process.  

Farm Bill Insect and Disease Categorical Exclusions

The Agriculture Act of 2014 (H.R. 2642, a.k.a., the 2014 Farm Bill) amended the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 to include the designation of treatment areas for insect health and disease infestation (Sec. 8204). Under this amendment, projects within a designated treatment area and for which the purpose of the project is "to reduce the risk or extent of, or increase the resilience to, insect or disease infestation" may be categorically excluded from the environmental analysis normally required by federal regulations. A categorical exclusion (CE) is applied to a category of actions which are considered to have no significant effect on the environment, individually or cumulatively, and for which, therefore, neither an environmental assessment nor an environmental impact statement is required. 

As of November 2015, 5.3 million acres of National Forest lands in California have been identified as"designated treatment areas." Limitations on projects carried out under the insect and disease CEs are few and many are highly subjective. For example, projects must: maximize the retention of old-growth and large trees, as appropriate for the forest type, to the extent that the trees promote stands that are resilient to insects and disease; consider the best available scientific information to maintain or restore the ecological integrity, including maintaining or restoring structure, function, composition, and connectivity; and be developed and implemented through a collaborative process. The Forest Service Washington Office has provide a guidance document on the use of the Farm Bill insect and disease CEs.

We are aware of and have commented on three projects in the Sierra Nevada that have been proposed as CEs under the 2014 Farm Bill insect and disease authority. It remains to be seen if and how the Forest Service will address the cumulative effects of the categorical exclusions to at-risk species and other sensitive resources as a result of designating 5.3 million acres of forestland in California as treatment areas. There are also important questions as to what constitutes a "collaborative process." It is highly likely we will see a significant number of Farm Bill CEs proposed throughout the Sierra Nevada over the coming years. We will continue to comment on projects and track the cumulative effects of the CE provision to at-risk species and other sensitive resources in the Sierra Nevada. 

2014 Farm Bill, Forestry Title VIII
2014 USFS Key Messages Regarding Forestry Title from Farm Bill
Nov. 15, 2015 Letter from Chief Tidwell to Region 5
More information (USFS Farm Bill website)
Read SFL's comment letters on the CE's and more here.


Wild and Scenic River and Wilderness Evaluation Comments 

New Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River designations are extremely important during forest plan revisions. The need to apply valid criteria to the evaluation process is paramount to ensure that areas that meet the criteria for these designations are not overlooked. In this regard, the Forest Service has fallen short in the revision process for the Inyo, Sequoia, and Sierra National Forests. Read our coalition comments on the process thus far:  

February 1, 2016 Wilderness Evaluation Process and Areas Identified for DEIS Analysis
February 1, 2016 Comments on Wild and Scenic River Evaluation

New Timeline for Forest Plan Revisions

In February 2016, the Forest Service released a new projected timeline for forest plan revisions for the three "early adopter" forests, the Inyo, Sequoia, and Sierra National Forests:

Spring 2016:  Expected notice of availability for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. This begins the 90-day public comment period. Tribal Forums and Public Workshops: draft environmental impact statement and draft forest plans.

Winter-Spring 2017: Notice of Availability of Final Environmental Impact Statement published. Begin 60-day objection filing period.

Spring-Summer 2017: Objection resolution period.
Fall 2017: "Notice of Plan Approval" published. Implement forest plans 30-days after Notice of Plan Approval.

More information is available here. 

Science in Brief

Highlighting what’s new in published science that’s relevant to Sierra Nevada forest conservation

Managing the Mountain Pine Beetle Outbreak

Six, Diana L., Eric Biber, and Elisabeth Long. 2014. Management for Mountain Pine Beetle Outbreak Suppression:  Does Relevant Science Support Current Policy?  Forests 5:103-133.

California is currently experiencing the most extreme drought in 1,200 years, and the last few years have been among the warmest ever recorded. Such climatic conditions have stressed trees throughout the Sierra Nevada and triggered a tree mortality event in the southern Sierra that is more severe than any previously observed in the mountain range. Although some trees are being killed by drought stress alone, many are being killed by bark beetles. As of October 2015, it was estimated that 8 million trees over 15 inches dbh (1 billion board feet of timber) had been killed on the Sierra National Forest and the mortality event is by no means over. It is not clear if mortality events will occur in the central and northern Sierra, but small pockets of beetle-killed conifers have been popping up at lower elevations, on lower quality growing sites, and in densely stocked stands.

Diana Six is a Professor of Forest Entomology and Pathology and Chair of the Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences at the University of Montana where her research has focused on the ecology of bark beetles, including the symbiotic relationships between bark beetles and certain species of fungi. In order to examine how well treatments are succeeding at managing bark beetles and place policy in the context of the best available science, Six reviewed 143 scientific research papers along with UC Berkeley law professors Eric Biber and Elisabeth Long. The following summarizes the findings in this important literature review and conclusions.  

Outbreak and Mortality Causes

Warm temperatures and drought stress trees at regional scales, resulting in forested landscapes that are susceptible to beetle attack. Landscape-level drought-stress can allow beetles to kill drought-weakened trees until populations grow to a critical threshold. Once this critical threshold has been passed, tree defenses lose their importance in regulating beetle populations and an outbreak ensues. Drought occurring many years before an outbreak may predispose trees to be more susceptible to bark beetle attack, an effect that may continue even after average precipitation has returned. However, tree sensitivity to drought, and therefore, susceptibility to beetle attack appears to have a genetic component.

Direct and Indirect Control Methods

Treatments are designed to either reduce or eradicate beetle populations (direct controls) or treatments are designed to increase tree vigor or modify stand conditions to be less favorable for beetles (indirect controls). Examples of direct controls include felling of infested trees; prescribed burning of infested trees that have been felled; use of pheromone to attract beetles to "trap trees;" debarking infested trees; and application of insecticides or toxins. According to the authors, virtually all evidence suggests that direct control methods cannot succeed without "massive sustained efforts with extremely high detection rates." As a result of the high cost and intensity of treatments required to successfully implement direct control methods, the U.S. Forest Service has recommended that direct control measures only be applied to higher value stands.

The primary indirect control method is thinning. There are two hypotheses on why thinning may reduce tree mortality during an outbreak. One hypothesis is that thinning reduces competition between trees for water, nutrients, and light, enhancing greater tree vigor and thus, residual tree defenses against beetles. Although a few studies have found that thinned stands produced more defensive resin, several studies have reported negative or non-significant responses in resin production.

The second hypothesis for why thinning may reduce tree mortality is that thinning treatments alter microsite conditions that reduce beetle development rates (i.e., increasing temperatures on bark surfaces in summer and decreasing them in winter), as well as disrupting beetle pheromone communication by increasing wind flow within treated stands. However, there is no empirical evidence that the effects of thinning on microsite conditions has any effect on beetle epidemics. 

Studies do suggest that thinning can have significant effects on beetle infestations at the stand-level during non-outbreak conditions. Nonetheless, thinning may still fail to protect stands during outbreaks. Although studies often show that more trees are killed by bark beetles overall in unthinned stands during outbreaks, these same studies typically find that the unthinned stands retain a greater number of surviving mature trees as they entered the post-outbreak phase. Lastly, the unthinned stands are likely to return to pre-outbreak stocking levels sooner than thinned stands.

The Ecological Effects of Beetle Outbreaks  

After an outbreak, tree spacing is uneven, resulting in a clumpy arrangement of living trees and heterogeneous stand conditions. Extensive patches where all trees are killed are seldom large, and help create a structural mosaic. Although extremely high bark beetle densities may override genetic resistance of trees to attack, evidence is mounting that beetles choose trees that have particular qualities that likely have a genetic basis. These include lower growth rates, less defenses, and higher water stress. While tree qualities can be influenced locally and regionally by site conditions and climate, outbreaks likely result in a natural selection event, with beetles killing trees with genetic profiles that are unfavorable under the prevailing climatic condition. However, when humans thin forests, trees are removed without consideration of genetics, and trees that are potentially best adapted to surviving beetle outbreaks and changing climatic conditions are as likely to be removed as those that are not adapted.

Although beetle outbreaks have short-term negative effects on timber values and aesthetics, their natural role in many forest ecosystems is seldom considered, and beetle suppression is often perceived as something that must be conducted at all costs. Humans often thin forests to increase resistance and resilience to disturbances, rather than to promote adaptation. Resilience is the ability to adjust to gradual changes related to climate change and to recover after disturbance. But, like resistance, resilience is not a long-term solution. In the long term, forests must be able to adapt to change. Adaptation involves genetic change driven by natural selection. Managing strictly for resistance or resilience may impede true adaptation. For the long term persistence of our forests, it will be imperative to begin to incorporate management approaches that promote adaptation.

Ted Talk with the scientist Diana Six 
Video by FS employee Steve Dunsky

Spotlight on Species: Western Pine Beetle  (Dendroctonus brevicomis)

Image above: Bass Lake beetle kill, Sierra National Forest. Image from USFS

Western pine beetle (D. brevicomis) is one of approximately 6,000 species (500 in the U.S. and Canada) in the sub-family Scolytinae of weevil beetles that specialize in attacking and weakening or killing trees by feeding and breeding in the inner bark or phloem tissue. Under normal conditions, they serve an important ecological role. They act as disturbance agents of change that are necessary to regenerate forests, and they help to increase diversity through creation of small openings in forest stands. Killed trees - snags and down wood - are essential for food and habitat for numerous species ranging from invertebrates to woodpeckers and fisher.

But a historically unprecedented epidemic of bark beetles is now occurring throughout the boreal forests of the planet. The west has been hit the hardest, where the mountain pine beetle (D. ponderosae) has devastated approximately 90 million acres of forests in North America, from the forests of New Mexico to British Columbia, and its range is expanding north and east. While bark beetle outbreaks have occurred historically in response to periods of drought, experts like Six (see Science in Brief, above) say that the current epidemic is different, and the reason is unprecedented climate change. Record breaking warm temperatures and drought have created the perfect storm of conditions that have led to multiple feedback loops, making conditions optimal for the bark beetles and resulting in unchecked beetle reproduction and tree mortality.

Image left: Adult Western pine beetle. Image from USFS.

Here we focus our spotlight on Western pine beetle (D. brevicomis), which is just one of the dozen or so species of bark beetles that feed on California pines.Western pine beetle is host-specific to only ponderosa pine and Coulter pine, unlike its relative, D. ponderosa, which is found on all species of pine except Pinus jeffreyi. This nomenclature is really only the start of the identification confusion, because during a beetle outbreak trees may be infested with multiple species of bark beetles. Western pine beetle is the species that is most active in the wildland-urban interface in California, and is currently killing large swaths of forest - particularly plantations -  in the central and southern Sierra. While mountain pine beetle (D. ponderosae) and Jeffrey pine beetle (D. jeffreyi) are more commonly found at higher elevations in California, the die-off has been patchier and not (yet) vast in scope here. Western white pine is especially threatened by mountain pine beetle.   

Life cycle and ecology

The attack begins with a female Western pine bark beetle boring into the bark of a ponderosa or Coulter pine. If she is successful at this endeavor, despite the tree's natural defenses, she signals with pheromones to attract a mate and to alert other beetles that she has found a suitable host. Both female and male adults contribute to excavation of long sinuous galleries under the bark that are indicative of this species. Eggs are laid alongside the galleries. The larvae mine through the phloem-cambial region in the trunk, blocking its flow. This species is also symbiotically associated with a blue-staining fungus, Ceratocystis minor. The spores of the fungus are carried in special pouches in the insect's head. The fungus establishes rapidly and contributes to the demise of the tree by blocking water conduction.

After pupation, the adults either overwinter or emerge and attack a new tree. It takes approximately two months from egg to adult. During an outbreak, large numbers of the beetles can aggregate and a heavy infestation will most likely kill the tree.  Warming temperatures are contributing to multiple generations of the beetles, and Western pine beetle may have four generations per year.

Healthy trees are able to mount a more effective defense than weakened or stressed trees. When attacked, the trees release a sticky resin (pitch) that is designed to flush out the beetles and block their progress. Drought stressed trees are not able to make sufficient pitch to stave off the beetle assault. During attack, spots of pitch (pitch tubes) appear on the bark of the tree where the beetles have tried to invade. If the tree cannot make enough pitch to stop the invasion, the pitch will be replaced by holes exhibiting dust from the beetles' boring. Tiny holes in the bark are also made by the adults as they exit. Tree death is believed to occur from several intersecting causes with the beetle infestation including fungus symbiosis, drought, over crowded trees and fire suppression, and warming temperatures that are interrupting normal ecological cycles.

Over 80 species of insect predators and parasites have been found on trees infested with Western pine beetle. Under normal circumstances these predators keep beetle populations in check. Woodpeckers also provide significant control.

In the Sierra Nevada, ponderosa pine plantations have been the hardest hit, in the south central Sierra Nevada where infestations have been most extensive. Perhaps this is nature's way of restoring biodiversity into these homogenous, ecologically depauperate installations. Indeed, scientists at the Xerces Society and Six have argued for the potentially beneficial role that insect outbreaks may be having if managed correctly (see links, below). Widespread thinning and clearcutting of affected trees and adjacent trees may thwart evolution's natural selection process for survivors that are genetically more fit for current conditions.  

According to the USFS and CalFire, drought and beetle kill have resulted in 29 million trees dead in California (view map here). This is unprecedented in recorded history, and exceeds the ability of any county or agency to address. As a result, the Governor has called for a state of emergency. In addition, the governor's office has created a special tree mortality task force, in which Sierra Forest Legacy is among the stakeholder members.  

It is safe to say that climate change and drought have triggered the ongoing western pine beetle outbreak. Protecting human life, safety, and property will be the first priority.However, what the appropriate ecological response should be is not as clear. The task force will be grappling with these issues in the coming days and weeks ahead.

What you can do now:
1)      Reduce fossil fuel consumption
2)      If you have a ponderosa pine near your house, watering it will increase the likelihood that it will be able to survive an attack.

Further reading:
Forest Service brochure, Bark Beetles in California Conifers. This is an excellent guide. 

Black, Scott Hoffman, Dominik Kulakowski, Barry R. Noon, and Dominick A. DellaSala. 2013.  Do bark beetle outbreaks increase wildfire risks in the Central U.S. Rocky Mountains? Implications from recent research. Natural Areas Journal 33(1):59-65.

Article with Diana Six from Mother Jones, 2015. 

Link to Sierra Voice Newsletter article December 2014 on whitebark pine.


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