How can we transform what typically becomes a lose-lose for the environment as we squabble and turn it into a win-win?
The USFS-sponsored assessment of the California Spotted Owl Assessment (CASPO) was recently released (7/28, draft form).
I had the pleasure to participate in this big team project (chapter 5 on forest conditions). We started with a meeting to discuss issues, worked on chapters, provided friendly reviews to each other, commented on the external peer reviews, then came together for a synthesis. It was a great process. Not surprisingly, it took close to 2 years, start to finish. There was a lot of cross-disciplinary learning and negotiation of details.
From here, the USFS begins to work on a revised CASPO management strategy. The process for the spotted owl is about a year behind a similar effort for the Pacific fisher, an effort led by Wayne Spencer at Conservation Biology Institute.
In both cases, there are some huge issues for the USFS to grapple with in terms of forest management. And, these issues pit environmentalists against environmentalists. Here is why. Both CASPO and pacific fisher require old growth, high density conifer forests. Both species are on the decline. In both cases the species biologists have made a compelling case based on loads of empirical data: protect dense stands of large trees from cutting and you can increase the likelihood of succeeding to conserve these species.
Both species have external threats that appear to be driving declines in species. Poisoning from consuming rodents that have themselves been poisoned by illegal marijuana growers appears to be a leading cause of mortality in pacific fisher. There is a good argument for legalization, by the way. In the case of CASPO, Barred owl is invading good habitats and displacing CASPO in the Sierra Nevada.
The main point about threats to these species? Habitat availability is constraining, but on-going habitat loss through timber operations does not appear to be a problem of any sort.
So, why was I an author on this report? I don’t work on CASPO. I have never even seen a spotted owl, California, northern or southern. I work on the climate change / forest fire / forest management nexus. We forest researchers are worried about this: fire frequency, fire size, fire severity, the elevation of fire are all increasing, and rapidly. A substantial number of CASPO nesting sites burned up in the 2013 Rim and 2014 King fires, for example. It now seems apparent that several large fire years (and with the recent drought, we are likely to get those) we could burn up enough CASPO territories to place the species in serious jeopardy pretty quickly.
The management strategy favored by forest ecosystem ecologists is to begin now to reduce stand density through variable stand density management. This will increase heterogeneity in the forest and make it less likely for fires to become large, have high severity over large areas, and run out of control. There are, however, challenges with this approach.
First and foremost, this management approach requires cutting trees down, a lot of them, in fact. This also means cutting down some trees currently designated as potential fisher and CASPO habitat. Here we run into some problems, both technical and sociological. On the technological side, California's timber industry has downscaled,a and we don't have the active mills to handle a large increase in cutting. That is a problem. On the sociological side, our CASPO biologist colleagues recognize variable stand density management as a possible solution for CASPO, but they don’t trust the US Forest Service to accomplish the task. Cutting these trees would mean timber sales. Timber sales require oversight. Cutting trees in and around CASPO sites requires leaving the correct highly valuable trees, while cutting other less valuable trees. Mistakes will be made.
Beyond distrust by CASPO biologists, many environmental groups appear to have the baseline reaction that chain saws are evil and will oppose timber sales on nearly grounds. Add to this, a minority view among forest ecologists is that high severity wildfire is good for the system, we shouldn’t discourage it, and these fires create habitat for the black-backed woodpecker, another potentially at risk species.
Wow, what a problem. The baseline response of management, then, is to keep on doing what they have been doing (ie, suppressing fires when possible, not cutting trees designated as potential habitat). Yet, increasingly we recognize that this strategy is leading us to a lose-lose outcome: forests that are neither resilient to fire nor provide adequate habitat for pacific fisher and CASPO. We need a new strategy. Getting out of this conundrum will be hard. It will take courage by decision makers to take on risk and it will likely take lawsuits, many of them. Is there another way? The 2012 Forest planning rule is supposed to establish more active adaptive management and public dialogue to resolve more differences outside courts. We will see how this works. That is not for today.
Today the focus is this: are we headed toward a world where conservation objective A is pitted in direct opposition to conservation objective B with increasing frequency? Willow flycatchers now depend on invasive tamarisk for habitat in the Grand Canyon. Should we exterminate tamarisk or save flycatchers? Invasive Spartina alterniflora provides habitat for Ridgways Rail in the San Francisco Bay. Again, save the birds and degrade ecosystem functions, or recover the ecosystem and further threaten the endangered birds?
I think that there are many, and a growing number of these hard choices. Administrative constraints, powerful laws, litigious environmental groups all seem to be driving status quo management that heads us toward a lose-lose outcome. How can we turn this ship around?
I would like to start by compiling more examples of the problem and hearing about any success stories. Feedback requested: please use the comment button below and tell me your favorite story of environmentalists pitted against other environmentalists with divergent priorities. Let's figure out how deep this goes.
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