The Sierra Forest Voice

Web Edition
Vol. 10, No. 1, March 21, 2017


Aligning Smoke Management with Ecological and Public Health Goals

January 2017 saw the release in the Journal of Forestry of an exciting and important research paper presenting a multifaceted approach to resolving the challenges associated with increasing the use of managed fire to restore forest resilience, while addressing public health goals for air quality. The authors, Jonathan Long, Leland Tarnay, and Malcolm North, provide a framework and case study demonstrating new tools that can be used to achieve alignment of these goals. The approach offered by this team of forest and physical ecologists is exactly what is needed to address complicated natural resources issues, often referred to as "wicked problems." Escaping the often-isolated disciplines and bureaucratic silos which exist in the complex ecological and cultural landscape is critical if we are to restore resilience in forest systems and address important public health issues regarding air pollution and smoke management.

This new paper brings to the forefront the use of advanced smoke monitoring technology to more accurately capture real time smoke impacts. The paper also addresses the significant cumulative human health and economic impacts of emissions during mega-fires like the Rim Fire example below, in comparison to fires that are managed for resource objectives. In addition, the paper calls out the need for improved collaboration between fire managers, air regulators and the downwind.

An important theme in the paper is the use of "strategies and tactics for undertaking larger-scale burns that can minimize smoke impacts, restore forest ecosystems, and reduce the potential for more hazardous wildfire and smoke events."

Deeper collaboration between fire managers and air regulators to jointly pursue minimizing public health impacts while restoring more natural fire regimes is a goal on everyone's mind in the California fire-human landscape.

Recommendations from the paper:

  • Incentivizing reduction of human exposure to hazardous smoke levels over space and time rather than use of the generalized metric of area burned
  • Pace fire spread based on airshed capacity to disperse emissions;
  • Improve communication with the public to reduce exposure in downwind populations; and
  • Communicate more robustly with the public regarding the benefits of managing wildfires for resource objectives.

The paper cites several needed adjustments in the measurement of smoke impacts and the authors highlight the limited scale of cumulative impacts assessments often lacking in regulatory permitting processes, citing the Rim Fire mega-emissions as the example.

Issues of interest in the paper include:

  • There is misalignment in general use of area burned or pre-determined smoke limits when some areas experience frequent fire while other areas have decades of fuel accumulation which will present highly variable smoke production levels.
  • New maps depicting smoke plume density (NOAA 2006) provide a better picture of surface levels of PM 2.5 and can objectively define areas of influence of a particular fire.
  • There are new methods to assess the size and vulnerability of affected populations using census data within the area of smoke influence for the duration of the fire. This will help policy makers, fire managers, and air quality regulators better understand and disclose the direct and cumulative emissions trade-offs of limiting or allowing fires to approach fire frequencies of ecological scale.
  • Using greater coordination with air regulators and techniques to increase or reduce fire spread demonstrated by the BlueSky modeling framework to encourage or slow fire growth, based on smoke dispersion potential in monitored concentrations or modeled concentrations

The paper concludes that active fire use where fire managers and air regulators engage in managing fire spread and smoke dispersion, coupled with detailed cumulative impacts disclosure and improved public health notification of downwind populations, provides a better path forward in reaching our shared goals of forest resilience and protection of public health in the strongly fire dependent landscapes of California and elsewhere in the U.S.

Rim Fire Satellite Image

Figure above: Rim Fire smoke plume, August 23, 2013 Source: NASA public domain.

Rim Fire from Long, J. et al 2017

Figure above: Rim Fire smoke plume, August 23, 2013 Source: Jonathan Long, Leland Tarnay, and Malcolm North. From slide presentation: "Can we accommodate more smoke in forest restoration efforts?"

Jonathan W. Long, Leland W. Tarnay, and Malcolm P. North. 2017, in press. Aligning Smoke Management with Ecological and Public Health Goals. J. Forestry 115:000-000. Published online January 19, 2017.


Incorporating the Science on Between-Tree Cooperation into Sierra Nevada Forest Management

California recently experienced the most intensive drought in more than 1,200 years, a drought that occurred under unprecedentedly warm temperatures. This "warm drought" triggered an extensive tree mortality event that killed more than 100 million trees, with no area hit harder than the southern Sierra Nevada. Understandably, this unique tree mortality event has alarmed managers and scientists, and we are now seeing a call to arms to drastically increase climate and drought resilience throughout the Sierra Nevada. The strategy most often promoted by managers and forest scientists in our region to increase climate and drought resilience is focused almost entirely on reducing between-tree competition. The foundation of this strategy is simple: reduce tree density, often through logging, and the remaining trees will have more resources and therefore be healthier and more resistant to climate change and drought. If only forest ecology was so simple.

In 1997, Suzanne Simard et al. published the first of many papers showing that trees of the same and different species can communicate and share resources through below-ground fungal pathways in natural settings. The work of Simard and her colleagues has resulted in some stunning revelations-e.g., some trees routinely share resources with each other in times of need, including trees of different species; some tree species do not share with other species; dying trees can share resources and communicate with neighbors of the same and other tree species; and some species will share more with their offspring than with unrelated trees. In other words, it is not all about survival of the fittest and it is not as simple as reducing tree density to increase forest health.

Trees are capable of communicating with each other and sharing resources in extremely complex ways. Most of Simard's studies have been in the forests of British Columbia. We do not know how trees communicate and share resources in the Sierra Nevada. Regardless, it is highly likely there are complex interactions between trees in our region as well. Which tree species are connected? Does the presence of overly crowded small trees and/or too many offspring disproportionally tax larger "mother" trees? Until we have a better understanding of these and many other related questions, we should approach forest thinning for climate change and drought resilience thoughtfully and acknowledge there are highly complex interactions we have yet to understand.

Fungal networkFigure right: Net work model of fungal linkages between Douglas fir trees showing the presence of highly connected large mature "hub" trees in dark green. More highly connected trees tended to be larger and more mature and had a greater potential for below-ground resource transfer of nutrients and information (Beiler et al. 2010).

Beiler, K.J., D.M. Durall, S.W. Simard, S.A. Maxwell, and A.M. Kretzer. 2010. Architecture of the wood-wide web: Rhizopogon spp. genets link multiple Douglas-fir cohorts. New Phytologist 18:543-553.

For more information on Suzanne Simard's work, we highly recommend the following:

Ted talk: Suzanne Simard, How Trees Talk to Each Other July 2016

Radiolab: From Tree to Shining Tree

Article in Scientific American: Dying Trees Can Send Food to Neighbors of Different Species

Link to Suzanne Simard's publications page


News Bytes from the Front

Stakeholders and the SOFAR Cohesive Strategy

In 2014, the El Dorado National Forest launched the South Fork American River (SOFAR) Cohesive Strategy initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to undertake an all-lands approach to wildland fire management on a landscape scale. The project area is approximately 410,000 acres in the South Fork American River watershed, and includes fifty percent of the King Fire, forty-nine miles of the Highway 50 corridor, and seventy-five percent of the total watershed.

The initial projects developed for the strategy in 2016 were the result of collaboration among several federal, state, and county agencies and the Shingle Springs Rancheria. In mid-2016, a general invitation was made to invite stakeholders to join a stakeholder group that would work with the Forest Service and other agencies to develop and implement future projects to support the cohesive strategy. Ben Solvesky and Craig Thomas joined the group on behalf of Sierra Forest Legacy and have assumed leadership roles to support the work of the collaborative group. Ben is serving as Co-chair of the Landscape Planning Work Group, and Craig is a member of the Steering Committee. In the coming months, the Steering Committee will be developing a draft charter and planning the work of the collaborative group. The Landscape Planning Work Group's first priority is to develop a landscape strategy for the area that will be used to help set priorities for the next projects to undertake.

The SOFAR Cohesive Strategy presently includes the Caples Ecological Burn, a collaborative project with El Dorado Irrigation District, the El Dorado National Forest and other stakeholders. With support from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, this 10,000-acre prescribed burn will be implemented starting in the Fall 2017 through 2019.

Ben and Craig have been promoting the development of additional projects using managed fire. To date they have received a good deal of support for this from other stakeholders and the Forest Service. In addition to seeing significant areas treated with prescribed fire, SFL is also promoting thinning and other types of vegetation management of the significant number of plantations in the strategy area. These plantations, created following wildfires and salvage logging over the past fifty years, are often uniform and lack important habitat elements, like large snags, downed wood, and structural complexity. Ben has been talking to forest managers about practices that put these stands on a path toward one day resembling a natural forest. In the coming months, we will be working on developing a landscape strategy with the collaborative that addresses these and other concerns in an effort to restore the SOFAR landscape and improve its resilience to extreme fire.

Additional background on the SOFAR Cohesive Strategy.

Link to the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy Brochure




Forest Plan Revisions

On March 20, the Forest Service announced their progress in reviewing comments and release of the final documents for the plan revisions for the Inyo, Sequoia, and Sierra National Forests. For the Inyo National Forest, the agency expects to release their responses to public comments, a final Environmental Impact Statement 9EIS), and draft Record of Decision later this fall.

For the Sequoia and Sierra National Forests, a new supplemental draft EIS to address changed vegetation conditions is now projected for release in early 2018. This will be followed by a new public comment period, and then a final EIS for the Sequoia and Sierra that will address public comments.

See this website for more information about the process and to review documents. Questions about the plans can be addressed to planning team leader Nevia Brown at 707-562-9121 or

You can read our comments on the draft plans here.

Our New Sierra Forest Organizer Joins the Coalition

Jamie Ervin

Image above: Jamie Ervin in the Eastern Sierra

This March, Sierra Forest Legacy with our coalition partners welcomed new staff member Jamie Ervin to help us expand our reach to other organizations and stakeholders who support conservation in the Sierra Nevada. Jamie will be focusing his work on national forests in the central Sierra Nevada - the next forests beginning the revision of their forest plans.

Jamie grew up in North Carolina and holds a Master of Science in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont, as a well as a Master of Environmental Law & Policy from Vermont Law School. His graduate research focused on forest structure in old growth montane cove forests throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains. Prior to graduate school, he worked with private landowners on land protection and stewardship projects with a land trust called Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy in Asheville, NC. Jamie is also an avid rock climber and looks forward to exploring the people and places in his new bioregion.

Science in Brief

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

Managed Fire Reduces Demands for Water and Increases Fire and Drought Resilience

Our understanding of the critical role that fire plays in maintaining forest ecosystems in the Sierra Nevada is increasing daily. Recent papers by Boisramé et al. (2016) and van Mantgem et al. (2016) examined the relationship between managed fire, availability of ecosystem water, and resilience to fire and drought. Both found positive associations with the occurrence of managed fire.

Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks in the Sierra Nevada provide a long history actively using fire to manage the landscape. Using the national park ownership as a treatment, Boisramé et al. compared annual runoff there to watersheds with no or very low levels of wildfire during the 40-year period. Annual runoff ratio (ratio of annual runoff to precipitation) appears to be increasing or stable since 1973 in burned watersheds compared to declines in runoff for nearby, unburned watersheds. This suggests that periodic fire resulted in a lower demand by the upland plant communities for water and contributed more water to the stream system. Their preliminary results also indicated that the treatment area was relatively unaffected by the recent and widespread drought-related tree mortality.

Within the national parks, van Mantgem et al. examined the tree mortality response in areas where prescribed burns had been applied at least once in the prior 28 years compared to areas that had been unburned. They found the probability of mortality to be significantly lower on sites that had been burned compared to unburned areas. Tree density was also lower on burned sites, leading them to conclude that the reduced demand for water likely contributed to the lower mortality levels in areas that had experienced prescribed fire.

Both studies identify the positive contribution of managed fire--either prescribed fire or management of unplanned ignitions--to reducing impacts from drought-related tree mortality and improving resiliency to wildfire. These studies also illustrate the damage to forest ecosystems that has been caused by fire suppression.

van Mantgem, Phillip J., et al. Does prescribed fire promote resistance to drought in low elevation forests of the Sierra Nevada, California, USA. Fire Ecology 12(1):13-25.

Boisramé, Gabrielle, et al. Managed wildfire effects on forest resilience and water in the Sierra Nevada. Ecosystems (2016): 1-16.

Link to video with researcher Gabrielle Boisramé.

Spotlight on Species: Sooty Grouse (Dendragapus fulginosus sierrae and Dendragapus fulginosus howardii)

Sooty Grouse

Image above: Sooty Grouse by Barrett Pierce, Audubon Photography Awards

In this edition of the Sierra Voice, we highlight the Sierra sooty grouse, the third largest grouse in North America, belonging to a group of related species collectively called blue grouse. Related to the same family of birds as chickens and pheasants, sooty grouse in the Sierra Nevada inhabit the tall trees and understory of healthy old growth forests at elevations between 5,000 and 11,000 feet.

In 2006, the species blue grouse in North America (Dendragapus obscurus) was split into two species, sooty grouse (D. fuliginosus) on the west coast and western mountains of North America, and dusky grouse (D. obscurus) in the inland regions (Rocky Mountains and the mountains in the Great Basin). In California, three subspecies of sooty grouse are now recognized: in the northwest, Oregon sooty grouse (D. f. fuliginosus); Sierra sooty grouse (D. f. sierrae) in the Cascade Mountains and north and central Sierra Nevada Mountains; and Mount Pinos sooty grouse (D. f. howardi ) in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains and Transverse Ranges (Tehachapi Mountains and Mt. Pinos). The separation of species was made based on differences in plumage, vocalizations, and behavior, as well as mitochondrial DNA sequence data; however, further investigations using DNA data are in progress and will shed more light on the status of this group.

Sooty grouse are more likely to be heard than seen. If you happen to flush one while in the forest you may be lucky enough to see one, or you may hear the male's unique vocalization. When males are feeling romantic, there is no mistaking their unique hooting which is in an extremely low frequency, and carries for long distances. The hooting is almost always conducted from high up (often more than 100 feet) in mature conifers, primarily red fir, white fir, or pines. The best time to hear them is April or early May. The male struts on the branch he is standing on, raises his fanned tail, and spreads his neck feathers to reveal a patch of bright yellow skin surrounded by a white border. The sound of the hoot is similar to that of the great horned owl.

Here is a link to a video of a sooty grouse hooting vocalization.

Adult male sooty grouse are dark feathered. The yellow throat air sac is surrounded by white, and there is a yellow wattle over the eye during display. Female sooty grouse are mottled brown, with dark brown and white coloration on the underparts.

While sooty grouse forage mostly on the ground in summer, most of the foraging in the winter occurs up in the tall conifer trees. The staple of their diet in the winter is composed of the needle tips of conifer species such as pine, hemlock, fir, and Douglas fir. In the summer, the diet also includes flowers, leaves, buds, berries, and invertebrates. Growing young birds eat more insects than adults.

Sooty Grouse nest sites are on the ground, usually near cover such as a rock ledge, ferns, logs, or shrubs, and frequently occur near or within meadows. The nest is a shallow depression in the ground lined with twigs, needles, ferns, moss, and a few feathers.

Conservation Status

As determined by the Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan, sooty grouse populations have declined in North America by fifty-two percent between 1970 and 2014. Sooty grouse (including all three sub-species) is a US-Canada Stewardship species and is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List (US Fish and Wildlife Service), the most recent compilation of bird species determined to be at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action. Mount Pinos sooty grouse is extremely rare, and has been extirpated throughout most of its historical range. It is thought to be now restricted to the southern Sierra Nevada south of Kings Canyon in Kern.

In 2007, the sooty grouse (as blue grouse) was designated by the Forest Service as a Management Indicator Species (MIS) for late-seral open-canopy conifer forest in all ten National Forests in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This designation would require the agency to annually monitor and report on the status of sooty grouse populations in the Sierra Nevada. In 2006 and 2009, biologist James Bland and team conducted a census of the elusive sooty grouse on the Summit Ranger District near Pinecrest on the Stanislaus National Forest. The birds were found to be much less densely populated than previously estimated, with less than one male per square kilometer. Additional work through 2013 was conducted to develop a population surveying protocol and habitat suitability model for the Forest Service to use to better manage populations (Bland 2013).

However, with the advent of the new planning rule in 2012, the Management Indicator Species classification was eliminated, and was replaced by Focal Species. To date, the agency has not determined what species to designate as focal species in the Sierra Nevada or elsewhere in California.

The 2012 Planning Rule requires that plan components in revised land management plans provide the ecological conditions necessary to maintain viable populations of species identified as Species of Conservation Concern (SCC) within the plan area. In the most recent release of forest plan revisions for the Sequoia, Sierra, and Inyo National Forests, the agency designated SCC and a rationale for why each species was chosen or excluded. Although the Mount Pinos sooty grouse met all the criteria in the agency's rationale, the Forest Service did not include it when the draft list was released. Our efforts to learn why this is so have not been successful as of this writing.

Hunting of sooty grouse is regulated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Currently, licensed hunters may shoot two sooty grouse per day during the hunting season, excluding Mount Pinos sooty grouse south of Tulare County.

Bland has also done considerable research on sooty grouse in the southernmost end of the range. Between 2002 and 2005 he surveyed habitats historically occupied by Mount Pinos sooty grouse in the "sky island habitats" between the Tehachapi Mountains at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada in Kern County and across the Transverse Range to Mount Pinos. Here the Mount Pinos sooty grouse has not been seen for decades. Searching for territorial males during peak hooting season, sooty grouse were found only on Sunday Peak in the Greenhorn Mountains in Kern County.

At sites sampled throughout the Sierra Nevada, Bland found male sooty grouse abundance was lower on harvested national forest lands than on nearby unharvested national park lands. Bland did not find evidence of grouse in other types and ages of forest, a finding that contradicts "the prevailing beliefs that sooty grouse 1) are not closely associated with old forest and 2) generally benefit from timber harvest." According to Bland (2008), sooty grouse are threatened by timber harvest that results in even-aged stands and evenly distributed trees; fire suppression; and livestock grazing which degrades food and cover at brood-rearing meadows.

To learn more, visit the website of grouse researcher James Bland.
Link here to read Sierra Forest Legacy et al. comments on the draft Species of Conservation Concern for the Inyo, Sequoia, and Sierra National Forests.


Barrowclough, G.F., J.G. Groth, L.A. Mertz, and R.J. Gutiérrez. 2004. Phylogeographic structure, gene flow and species status in Blue Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus). Molecular Ecology 13:1911-1922.

Bland, J.D. 2008. Mount Pinos Sooty Grouse. Pgs 102-106 in W.D. Shuford and T. Gardali, California Bird Species of Special Concern: A ranked assessment of species, subspecies, and distinct populations of birds of immediate conservation concern in California. Studies of Western Birds 1. Western Field Ornithologists, Camarillo, California, and California Department of Fish and Game, Sacramento.

Bland, J. 2013. Apparent extirpation of the Sooty Grouse from the Sky Islands of South-Central California. Western Birds 44:294-308.

Bland, J. 2013. Estimating the number of territorial males in low-density populations of the Sooty Grouse. Western Birds 44:279-293.
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