The Sierra Forest Voice

Web Edition
Vol. 9, No. 3, December 6, 2016


2016:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly State of Spotted Owl and Fisher Conservation in the Sierra Nevada

The past year was full of notable twists and turns in spotted owl and fisher conservation planning in the Sierra Nevada. For one, the Pacific Southwest Research Station published a final draft of a long awaited California spotted owl conservation assessment. The conservation assessment was created by a team of spotted owl scientists and forest and fire ecologists. The assessment summarizes some of the more important and relevant spotted owl and forest and fire ecology literature published since 1992, the last time a spotted owl conservation assessment was conducted. The final chapter, which synthesizes the findings of the preceding chapters, recognizes that “strategies that reduce canopy cover, the complexity of forest structure, or large tree density have the potential to impact spotted owl populations negatively in both the short- and long-term” and “expansion of treatments that simplify forest structure and decrease forest tree canopy cover in owl habitat could exacerbate population declines and increase the probability of extirpation of owls from the region” (p. 218). The assessment also affirms that fire managed for ecological benefits is compatible with spotted owl viability and forest restoration.   

This summer, the Forest Service regional office posted a working draft of a California spotted owl conservation strategy. In contrast to the conservation assessment, the draft strategy was not developed by owl scientists. The composition of the strategy development team and the level of contribution the team members have had in the development of the current iteration of the draft strategy are mysteries.  We attended a meeting in September, held to offer the public an opportunity to provide feedback on the working draft. Regrettably, we did not find the meeting to be a fruitful venue to discuss and provide feedback on the details of the working draft (see our letter to the Region expressing these concerns). Based on our review of the draft strategy, we find that it ignores many of the significant threats and concerns raised in the conservation assessment and does not provide a clear path to population stability. Instead of ensuring that essential habitat components will be maintained, the draft strategy proposes significant increased logging, removing large trees and eliminating dense forest habitat necessary for nesting and roosting.

Of all the twists and turns in old forest species management in the Sierra Nevada in 2016, quite possibly the most significant and disappointing event was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s withdrawal of the proposed rule to list the Pacific fisher throughout its range. Sixteen years after receiving the listing petition, ten years after finding that listing was warranted, and two years after publishing a proposed rule to list the species as threatened, the proposed rule was abruptly withdrawn in April 2016. With no new significant scientific information cited to justify the change of heart, it is evident the agency made a political decision. As a result, we joined three other conservation groups, with Earthjustice as legal counsel, and filed a lawsuit challenging the withdrawal of the proposed rule. 

This year has been a challenging one for California spotted owl, Pacific fisher, and other species associated with old forest habitats. As we highlighted in our June 2016 Newsletter, the conservation measures in the draft forest plans for the Inyo, Sequoia, and Sierra National Forests were especially weak to non-existent for these and other old forest associated species. We will be working with the Forest Service and fisher and owl scientists in the coming year to develop strong conservation recommendations and to seek their adoption in the final forest plans.

Managing Forests in Challenging Times

With the recent election results in it looks like science and even truth has been thrown under the bus. If any of the pre-election chatter proves true, the incoming national administration will have little regard for federal agencies and even less regard for environmental protection. But at least in California, the decisions about environmental regulation, climate change, water quality, air quality, endangered species (under CESA) and other issues are within the State’s realm to control.

Management of national forests under the new administration will be susceptible to the misguided and politically driven agendas of our Republican legislators representing rural counties and extractive industries throughout the West. Currently issues such as tree mortality and wildfire risk are already driving calls for ramped up logging levels throughout the State.  These recent changes in California’s forested landscapes are rarely tied back to the fundamental human causes of these profound events. This, coupled with the refusal to accept science-based recommendations that may run counter to current political trends, media sensationalism, and the philosophy of market-driven resource extraction, will only drive us farther from forest ecosystems that are healthy and sustainable.

Why fire matters and why it is ignored

Image above: Tree mortality in southern Sierra Nevada. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

For the past 20 years Sierra Forest Legacy has borne witness to the mind boggling disconnect between science and politically driven forest management. In the early 1990’s the Forest Service in Region 5 made a heroic decision to end the practice of clear cutting and reduce the logging of individual large (often old growth) trees in the Sierra Nevada. In 2001, at the end of the Clinton Administration, the Forest Service and USDA made another historic decision to limit logging of large trees, generally greater than 20” diameter, to foster ecological integrity by firmly committing to rebuild large tree dominated forests after a century of misguided old growth logging. The other key piece of the 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework was the commitment to increased fire use. While Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck got it right, the incoming Bush Administration and timber industry did not agree with the ecological management plan for the Sierra Nevada. The use of fire took a back seat to ramped up logging, and this focus remained unchanged under the Obama Administration. Neither the Obama Administration, Forest Service leadership nor Regional leadership ever presented a coherent or holistic conservation vision for the strongly fire-associated Sierra Nevada despite 20 years of highly credible research calling out for increased fire use in the fire adapted landscapes in California and throughout the West.

This failure to follow the recommendations of a solid consensus of scientists and fire managers speaks volumes to the lack of vision and backbone that exists within the Forest Service. The social and ecological costs of ignoring climate scientists’ warnings about the disastrous effects of climate change over the past several decades will only worsen the impacts for future generations. In the same vein, ignoring fire’s role in limiting drought-driven tree mortality and uncharacteristic fire will only worsen the impacts we are now seeing in the Sierra Nevada, on an annual basis and into the future. Fire suppression around homes is always going to be a shared responsibility among the fire suppression agencies (i.e., local fire districts, Cal Fire and Forest Service) and the communities and homeowners performing their critical role of fire wise fuels reduction at the home and community scale. Consequently, if people living in the WUI take the role of fire seriously and do not rely upon fire agencies to “save them,” there will be far less property damage and fewer calls for a political over-reach and non-scientific responses in the guise of public safety.

Air Quality, mega-fires and human health

Image above: Rim Fire 2013. Photo by National Park Service

One thing that has become clear to most Californians and certainly to land managers throughout the State: eliminating fire in our fire-adapted landscapes is not possible or acceptable. There is no “no fire” solution nor should there be. Fire has played a critical role in the resilience of California landscapes for as long as rainfall. Fire exclusion is equally as wrong-headed as thinking we can eliminate precipitation, yet we wage “war” against fire while we pray for rain.

New air quality science is showing that a well-managed and broad-scale fire use program is a far better choice for the public’s health and safety than uncontrollable mega-events. Establishing the social-economic costs of increased hospital visits, missed work days, the far greater person-day impacts per area burned will help policy makers and the public understand the trade-offs of trying to eliminate fire from the landscape.

Establishing thresholds for baseline emissions that reflect the fire regimes and fire frequency of California’s forests and shrub lands is a key step in embracing the necessity of fire to manage these ecosystems. This would allow for the ecologically appropriate use of fire and limit the massive emissions resulting from the mistaken idea that we can regulate fire into submission in California. SFL is working with our Fire MOU Partners to ensure that the public and policy makers understand what the real tradeoff is: By working with fire and the resulting emissions we can have some influence on beneficial outcomes to the ecosystem and public health, rather than pretending we can over-rule nature and millions of years of fire and vegetation evolving in California.
Tossing Regulations out the window

Image below: 45th president-elect. Photo by Reuters.

Lawless land management and tossing rules that protect public resources appears to be on the new Administration’s agenda. Yet we’ve lived through the Reagan Era's trying to sell off public resources, and the Bush Era’s expanded attacks of the ESA and other important law, and we've seen that loud talk does not easily transfer into bad actions. The environmental movement will survive this pending onslaught as it has those of the past, because the American people will eventually understand that reckless disregard for natural resources harms the people, their health, heritage, and happiness, and will not be tolerated for long. Organize! Fight Back! And let’s build a sustainable,science-based future that includes all of us.

News Bytes from the Front

Increasing Pace and Scale of Restoration: More Managed Fire is the Answer

The new mantra from the Forest Service is that we must “increase the pace and scale of restoration.” For most managers this simply translates into a mandate for more logging, but more logging isn’t the answer.  The image below shows the extent of recent logging activity within the King Fire (yellow outline) that burned 97,000 acres on the Eldorado National Forest in 2014. As you can see, this was an intensively managed landscape, yet even this extraordinary pace and scale of logging was unable to effectively stop the King Fire. The landscape burned by the King Fire was also marked by a lack of fire for over 100 years. Embracing the active and expanded use of managed and prescribed fire, as has been done by the National Park Service, is the only effective way to improve resiliency and restore the landscape.

Click image to enlarge in a separate window.

Map above: The yellow boundary on this map is the perimeter for the King Fire (2014, El Dorado County). The colored polygons are treatments that occurred on national forest and public lands since 1990. This map and others for the Sierra Nevada bioregion are contained in:  Keane, John J. in press. Chapter 7: Threats to the Viability of California Spotted Owls. In: Gutiérrez, R.J.; Manley, Patricia N.; Stine, Peter A., tech. eds. [In press]. The California Spotted Owl: Current State of Knowledge. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station.

Seeking to Halt Grazing that Degrades Meadows, Fens and Harms Yosemite Toads

Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (CSERC) has been monitoring meadows, water quality and grazing management for over ten years on the Stanislaus National Forest. We partnered with them in 2006 and 2007 to submit comments and an appeal of the Bell-Eagle-Herring (BEH) Range Allotment plans. In these comments, CSERC’s monitoring results were used to demonstrate damage to meadows and fens, violations of water quality, and harm to Yosemite toad—a federally listed amphibian—from grazing. Based on our appeal, the BEH environmental assessment was set aside and the Forest Service decided to complete an environmental impact statement. A DEIS for the allotment management plans was released in early 2014, yet there was little improvement to the draft plans or the analysis. We joined CSERC in objecting to these grazing plans in early 2016. As a result of our objection, the Forest Service withdrew their draft decision. The agency now says they plan to continue working on the draft grazing plans, but have not been clear about what they actually intend to do. As it stands, about half of the meadows in the BEH allotments are at-risk due to resource damage, yet cows continue to impact the damaged meadows. Yosemite toad is similarly impacted and violations of water quality standards that are harmful to people are ongoing. We are actively working with CSERC to compel the Forest Service to revise their grazing plans to protect people, meadows and fens, and Yosemite toad and its designated critical habitat from the harmful impacts of grazing.  Stay tuned for more on the BEH allotments in the near future.  

Yosemite toad

Image right: Wire Corral Meadow, 2015. A recently metamorphosed Yosemite toad in the heavily grazed and pocked wetland area in lower Wire Corral.  Habitat and shelter is drastically affected by livestock, and they are in danger of trampling and other potentially fatal hazards that have been widely acknowledged by Forest Service scientists. Photo by CSERC.

Sierra Forest Coalition – Annual Meeting

Twenty-four dedicated conservationists met at Camp Lotus on October 24-25 to talk about pressing resource issues in the Sierra Nevada and develop an action plan for our work together in 2017. Much of the meeting focused on our ongoing work in the forest plan revision process in the southern Sierra Nevada, the Inyo, Sequoia, and Sierra national forests. We also talked about the forest plan revision process expected to start in 2017 on the Plumas, Tahoe, Eldorado, and Stanislaus national forests. We agreed to meet in January 2017 to discuss in more detail how to reach out to other groups and individuals and efficiently work together to engage in the upcoming forest plan revision process. We will also talk in January about how to expand and coordinate our media engagement on the issues that are critical to conserving national forests – protecting watersheds, wild spaces, and at-risk wildlife. In the evening over drinks, we took a moment to celebrate and reflect on Sierra Forest Legacy’s 20th year – our successes and the terrific partners that we work with.

Update on Forest Planning on National Forests in the Southern Sierra Nevada

We and our coalition partners submitted comments in August on the draft forest plans and environmental impact statement for the three forest plans under revision in the Sierra Nevada.  Our comprehensive comments covered many issues, including the active use of fire as a management tool, protections for at-risk species, conservation of aquatic resources, evaluation of wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers, and much more.  As you may recall from our June newsletter, the draft plans fell far short of our expectations for nearly all resource areas. One important exception was related to fire management where we saw significant improvement in the ability to use managed fire across the landscape compared to existing forest plans. This fall the Forest Service Planning Team has been evaluating our comments along with those of over 30,000 others to assess the issues we all raised and develop proposals for addressing them. In January 2017, we expect to have a better sense of how the agency intends to proceed with revising these forests plans.  We have been hearing that it is likely that the draft environmental impact statement will be revised or supplemented, but is not yet clear how much the draft plans might change.  We will be actively promoting adoption of substantially improved plans into 2017 and beyond.  


Field Organizer Needed

Sierra Forest Legacy, with our coalition partners, is seeking a highly skilled and passionate organizer to help us extend our reach and build support for conservation in the central Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Forest Organizer will work with us to develop and implement strategies to organize targeted constituencies in support of forest conservation and to increase public awareness and favorable media coverage about key conservation issues. This position will be hired by Sierra Forest Legacy and supported by an advisory team composed of representatives from Defenders of Wildlife, The Wilderness Society, CalWild and Sierra Forest Legacy. The full job description and application process is posted here.

Science Synthesis for Lassen and Modoc National Forests

The Lassen and Modoc National Forests are developing a science synthesis in preparation for revision of their forest plans. The public is invited to learn about the science synthesis, meet the scientists involved, and discuss the topics and questions the synthesis will cover.

When: December 8, 2016, 10 am to 4 pm

Where: Lassen County Fairgrounds in the Jensen Hall Building, 195 Russell Ave., Susanvilled, CA 96130. A map of the fairgrounds can be found here.

For more information, click here for the LNF website, or contact Lassen National Forest at 530-252-6698.

Science in Brief

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

Climate Change Refugia, Fire Ecology, and Management

Wilkin, K.M., D.D. Ackerly, and S.L. Stephens.  2016.  Climate change refugia, fire ecology, and management.  Forests 7, 77; doi:10.3390/f7040077

Climate change is shifting vegetation type distributions and altering disturbance processes, both of which will have dramatic effects on the abundance and distribution of many wildlife species. Fire is one example of a disturbance process being altered by climate change, increasing the length of fire seasons (Abatzoglou and Williams 2016) and decreasing our ability to effectively suppress wildfire (Moritz et al. 2014). Climate change refugia are areas buffered from extreme climatic variation that allow species to persist under changing climatic conditions. One such potential climate change refuge are cold-air pools (CAPs). CAPs have lower minimum and maximum temperatures and often have greater moisture availability compared to the broader landscape (Lundquist and Cayan 2007 and Lundquist et al. 2008). Because temperature and moisture are important variables in fire ecology, Wilken et al. (2016) sought to determine if CAPs have distinct fire regimes compared to surrounding areas.

Using the methodology of Lundquist and Cayan (2007) and Lundquist et al. (2008), Wilken et al. (2016) modeled locations where the potential for cold air pooling was absent, marginal, or present throughout the mixed conifer forests of Yosemite National Park. The authors then compared the fire frequency and fire severity where CAPs were absent, marginal, or present. As hypothesized, CAPs were significantly less likely to have burned, burned less frequently, and were more likely to burn with less severity than areas where CAPs were absent. Wilken et al. (2016) also created a model (Figure 1, below) to demonstrate how CAPs could interact with wildfire and therefore have distinct fire regimes compared to surrounding areas.

Figure 1. The interaction of fire and CAPs may be dependent upon fire behavior including the fire’s direction, magnitude, and intensity. The yellow background indicates where fire occurred and the golden arrows indicate the fire’s direction of movement. (A) Fires which move slowly (low magnitude) and release little energy (low intensity) may respond quickly to a refugium’s microenvironment and not penetrate the CAP, whereas (B) fires with high magnitude and intensity may respond slowly to a CAP (burn a buffer around the perimeter); (C) and/or a larger region near the flame front; (D) create a spot fire ignites within the CAP which grows especially during dry windy conditions; or (E) can burn the entire CAP. (F) There also may be a CAP fire shadow where a reduction in fire extent or severity occurs because of its proximity to a CAP and the subsequent reduction in fire presence or severity. (Image and text from Wilken et al. 2016).

Despite the findings, the authors suggest that CAPs are still at risk of high severity fire under extreme fire weather conditions and management actions should be taken to reduce the risk of high-severity fire in CAPs. However, they caution that fuels reduction treatments could have unintended consequences if treatments are too intensive because tree canopies also moderate climate. They also recommend that the areas surrounding CAPs be managed to reduce fuel loading to protect cold air sources and to reduce the potential for high intensity fire in the areas surrounding CAPs from killing trees within CAPs.

The results of Wilken et al. (2016) affirm an important tenet of GTR 220 (North et al. 2009):  wetter and cooler areas naturally burned less frequently and at lower intensity and therefore management in these areas should focus on removing surface and ladder fuels. This is also a strategy we have been advocating in forest and project planning; identify wetter and cooler areas with higher potential productivity and limit treatment intensity in such areas to what is necessary to increase fire resilience. However, it is our experience that these areas are often targeted for logging because they contain higher densities of large trees. 

Literature Cited

Abatzoglou, J.T., and A.P. Williams.  2016.  Impacts of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests.  PNAS 113:11770-11775.

Lundquist, J.D. and D.R. Cayan.  2007.  Surface temperature patterns in complex terrain: Daily variations and long‐term change in the central Sierra Nevada, California. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 112(D11).

Lundquist, J.D., N. Pepin, and C. Rochford.  2008.  Automated algorithm for mapping regions of cold‐air pooling in complex terrain. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 113(D22).

Moritz, M.A., E. Batllori, R.A. Bradstock, A.M. Gill, J. Handmer, P.F. Hessburg, J. Leonard, S. McCaffrey, D.C. Odion, T. Schoennagel, and A.D. Syphard.  2014.  Learning to coexist with wildfire. Nature 515:58-66.

North, M., P. Stine, K. O’Hara, W. Zielinski, and S. Stephens.  2009.  An ecosystem management strategy for Sierra mixed conifer forests. USDA Forest Service, General Technical Report PSW-GTR-220. Pacific Southwest Research Station, Albany, California.

Spotlight on Species: Ceanothus

Ceanothus is the scientific name for a genus of shrubs in the Buckthorn or Rhamnaceae family with a widespread distribution in California. The genus is represented by 70 species and named varieties, some of which are our most beautiful and beloved native shrubs. Many are widely used in the nursery trade and landscaping. In the Sierra Nevada, deer brush or mountain lilac, buck brush, whitethorn, snowbrush, and pine mat are among the most familiar shrubs in the genus, providing a multitude of ecological benefits. These benefits include building soil nutrition through nitrogen fixation with symbiotic soil bacteria, providing a “nurse” micro environment to shelter the establishment of pine, oak, and other trees, preventing erosion, and providing a reliable source of food and habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. These include deer, bear, small mammals and birds, as well as butterflies, moths, bumblebees and other invertebrates that are so important to the food web, and which are attracted to the sweet fragrance of blooming Ceanothus in the spring and summertime.

Images below: Ceanothus parvifolius, by V. Parker, Sierra Forest Legacy; Ceanothus integerrimus (Deer brush), © Barry Breckling, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0; Close-up of Ceanothus cuneatus (Buck brush) © Kier Morse, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0. Ceanothus parvifolius

We highlight Ceanothus in this issue of The Sierra Voice because--despite its important role in the ecology of western forests--it is routinely targeted for destruction by forest managers using an agricultural model of forest management. In the context of a cropping system, Ceanothus is considered a weed that competes with the pine “crop” for water, nutrients, and sunshine. Usually, herbicides are the preferred tool to facilitate their eradication.

Such thinking predates ecological understanding of how forests develop, and continues to dominate forest management. Nevertheless, environmental laws and policy require National Forests to be managed to provide for the needs of all the endemic species of the forest ecosystem, and it is important to understand Ceanothus’ role in forest ecology.

Ceanothus integerrimus B. Breckling

Ceanothus cuneatus K. Morse

While Ceanothus can be found growing in mature California forests, it is predominantly an early successional component of forests. As such, it is destined to slowly disappear from the forest understory over time, without any intervention whatsoever. Initially, it is one of the most common groups of species found in forests that are naturally regenerating after a major disturbance has removed the dominant overstory trees. The agent of this disturbance is most commonly fire, but may also be insect outbreaks, windfall, and volcanic eruptions. Chainsaws may also be the agent that causes the “reset” of the forest succession clock. In any case, when that button has been reset, the development of a natural forest over time begins with the sprouting of species that have been alive in the soil in the form of dormant seeds. On forest soil types that support rapid growth, in the first three decades or so,  annual species, shrubs and hardwoods will be the predominant layer.  After that, the evergreen conifers rise into the sunshine and take their place as the dominant layer. They will remain so, perhaps for hundreds of years, until the forces of nature require the process to begin anew. If viable seeds remain in the soil from the previous generation of species, the natural diversity of the stand will be preserved. Dormant Ceanothus seeds may remain viable for 200 years or more (575 years in literature).    

The seeds of Ceanothus species are generally dependent upon fire for regeneration, but many Ceanothus can also regenerate via stump-sprouting, if the tops have been killed by low intensity fire. While low intensity fire may not be hot enough to stimulate seed germination, stump-sprouting provides a flush of highly nutritious forage for browsing animals such as deer. Higher intensity fire is needed to sufficiently scarify seeds for sprouting, while at the same time causing the complete mortality of existing shrubs. However, there is evidence that uncharacteristically hot fires—those that incinerate the soil to a depth of 4 inches—may destroy the seed bank, including Ceanothus.

Ceanothus silk moth CAS
Image above: Ceanothus Silk Moth (Hyalophora euryalus) Image by Stennett S. Heaton © Calif. Academy of Sciences 

The ability of Ceanothus to capture nitrogen from the air and store it in nodules on its roots has been known for over half a century. As nitrogen is the most limited element in the growth of plants, and is especially limited in ponderosa pine forests, this fact should be of vital importance to any forest manager interested in growing healthy trees and sustaining them under increasing threat of climate change. Ceanothus may account for nearly a quarter of the nitrogen in the forest ecosystem. This nitrogen is transferred throughout the food web through the utilization of Ceanothus by browsing deer and other wildlife that eat Ceanothus leaves, fruits, and roots. Ceanothus flowers are a rich source of nutrients in the form of pollen and nectar as well, and Ceanothus is a host for many butterfly and moth species. Ceanothus is also the preferred nesting habitat for many forest songbirds, and deer and other wildlife utilize dense Ceanothus stands for thermal cover, birthing and denning. It also provides essential habitat for the dusky footed wood rat and other small mammals. For these reasons, Sierra Forest Legacy and our conservation partners advocate for the maintenance of naturally recovering post-fire forest ecosystems that include vibrant populations of Ceanothus. 


Busse, M.D., Cochran, P.H. and Barrett, J.W. 1996 Changes in ponderosa pine productivity following removal of understory vegetation. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 60, 1614–1621.

Conard, S.G., A.E. Jaramillo, K. Cromack Jr., and S. Rose, comps. 1985. The role of the genus Ceanothus in western forest ecosystems. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-182. Portland, OR: USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station. 72 p.

Delwiche, C. C., Zinke, P. J., and C.M. Johnson.  1965. Nitrogen Fixation by Ceanothus. Plant Physiology, 40(6), 1045–1047.

USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information Service (FEIS).



Sign up for the newsletter and get the Sierra Forest Voice delivered to your inbox quarterly. We will never disclose your address or personal information to anyone.

Help Protect Our Sierra Nevada Forests

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.   

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise."
~Aldo Leopold

Return to Top