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Posts Tagged: John Battles

Study refutes findings behind challenge to Sierra Nevada forest restoration

Reposted from the UC Berkeley News

A study led by ecologists at UC Berkeley has found significant flaws in the research used to challenge the U.S. Forest Service plan to restore Sierra Nevada forests to less dense, and less fire-prone, environments.

An example of a mixed-conifer forest in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Forest.

An example of a mixed-conifer forest in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Forest, Baja California Norte, Mexico. This forest experienced active, natural fires until the 1970s. (Photo by Carrie Levine).

Until recently, the consensus among forest ecologists was that before European settlers arrived in the Sierra, the forests were mostly open conifer forests dominated by big trees and low-to-moderately severe fires every eight to 12 years. The Forest Service recently released a plan to restore the range's forests back to this state following decades of fire suppression and timber harvesting regulations, which have created dense, fire-prone forests.

But recent studies, using a newly developed methodology, have argued that the Sierra Nevada was actually a more dense forest than the consensus view. These new studies were used to back a lawsuit to stop the agency's plan to restore Sierra forests following the 2013 Rim Fire. The Berkeley study refutes the conclusions of these studies and identifies flaws in their methods.

“We went through the data and showed that, in every case, this method estimated that the density of trees was two to three times higher than was the reality,” said Carrie Levine, a Ph.D. student of forest ecology at Berkeley and lead author of the study.

The study was recently published online in the journal Ecological Applications. Berkeley professors John Battles and Scott Stephens and research scientist Brandon Collins were co-authors on the publication. Also involved in the study were researchers from Harvard Forest, the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station, the University of Montana, Utah State University, University of California, Davis, and the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region.

An example of a densified mixed-conifer forest in the Plumas National Forest, California, USA.

An example of a densified mixed-conifer forest in the Plumas National Forest in Northern California. Fires have been suppressed in this forest for more than 100 years. (Photo by Carrie Levine).

When the U.S. was divvying up land in the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the General Land Office performed surveys so that the land could be parceled and sold. Land was divided into square-mile blocks, with markers used to indicate every corner point. In case a marker was moved, so-called “witness trees” near the stake were identified as reference points. The result of this data is a grid survey of the entire American West.

Using this historic field data, two ecologists at the University of Wyoming, Mark Williams and William Baker, developed a method that claims to calculate the area that a tree occupies, which is then used to calculate a forest's density. This approach is based on the observation that trees create space to keep other trees from cramming next to them, and that this space correlates to a tree's species and size.

To assess the validity of this area-based method of density estimation in the Sierra Nevada, Levine and her co-authors assembled data from plots of mapped trees across the Sierra and Baja California, Mexico. They tested the performance of the area-based method in these mapped stands where the true density was known.

Levine and colleagues found that the area-based method has two basic flaws when applied to the Sierra, the most notable being an inability to actually predict the area that a tree occupies based on its species and size due to a weak relationship between these variables. The other flaw was a failure to account for differences in the number of trees sampled at each corner. The methodological flaws led to an inflated number of trees estimated in a pre-European Sierra Nevada forest, Levine and colleagues argue.

“We have a mapped plot where every tree is measured, so we know the true density,” Levine said.

The study is important not only for the current state of the Sierra Nevada, but for its future.

“As climate changes, we want to have an accurate understanding of the past. This allows us to manage for forests that are resilient to the changes we're expecting in the future,” Levine said.

Posted on Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at 12:13 PM
  • Author: Brett Israel

Scientific consensus says U.S. Forest Service should implement proposed forest treatments

Reposted from the UCANR Green blog

After conducting extensive forest research and taking into consideration all aspects of forest health – including fire and wildlife behavior, water quality and quantity – a group of distinguished scientists have concluded that enough is now known about proposed U.S. Forest Service landscape management treatments for them to be implemented in Sierra Nevada forests.

Scientists say there is a great need for forest restoration and fire hazard reduction treatments in Sierra Nevada forests.

“There is currently a great need for forest restoration and fire hazard reduction treatments to be implemented at large spatial scales in the Sierra Nevada,” the scientists wrote. “The next one to three decades are a critical period: after this time it may be very difficult to influence the character of Sierra Nevada forests, especially old forest characteristics.”

The scientists' recommendation is in the final report of a unique, 10-year experiment in collaboration: the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP). A 1,000-page final report on the project was submitted to the U.S. Forest Service at the end of 2015. In it, scientists reached 31 points of consensus about managing California forests to reduce wildfire hazards and protect wildlife and human communities.

“SNAMP was founded on a desire to work collaboratively to protect the forests of the Sierra Nevada,” said John Battles, professor of forest ecology in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and SNAMP principle investigator. “The challenges are multifaceted with a huge diversity of perspective among the public, among managers, and among scientists. SNAMP tried to bring all these interests and talents together to safeguard a vital resource and a natural wonder."

SNAMP was created to help develop a collaborative management and monitoring plan consistent with the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment, signed by regional forester Jack Blackwell on Jan. 21, 2004. The amendment called for the use of fuel reduction treatments – such as prescribed burning, mechanical chopping of underbrush, and harvesting certain trees – in strategically placed areas to slow down potential wildfires and improve forest health.

Because of disagreements over forest treatments in the past, which often led to lawsuits that languished in court for years, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Natural Resources Agency decided to take a new approach in 2005. They asked the University of California to provide unbiased scientific assessments of the impacts of the proposed treatments. UC was also charged with engaging the public concerned about repercussions of the forest treatments on wildlife habitat and water quality.

The scientific efforts and the forest treatments were all conducted in an open and transparent process. To ensure the greatest number of stakeholders were taking part, SNAMP included a public participation team of social scientists and UC Cooperative Extension outreach professionals to conduct and study the collaboration process.

Susan Kocher, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension forestry advisor in the Central Sierra, was a member the project since 2008 and served as the leader of the public participation team during the final two years, succeeding Kimberly Rodrigues, a UC forestry scientist who is now the director of the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center in Mendocino County. Kocher said having outreach and public participation included as a funded part of a science project is unusual.

“We were able to make great strides in getting everybody on the same page,” Kocher said. “That's what our data shows, too.”

A large volume of new scientific information was generated by the science team, and was published in 46 journal articles. The science spread fast and far, according to citation analysis conducted by the public participation team.

“We found that the average time it took for a SNAMP publication to be cited in another journal was about seven months,” Kocher said. “Citations to our articles came from all over the United States and around the globe.”

In addition, SNAMP science-based information was immediately useful to forest managers, according to a 14-page response to the SNAMP final report by the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife and the California Natural Resources Agency. For example, an excerpt of the response submitted by California Fish and Wildlife noted that “SNAMP proved successful at modifying treatment methodology to meet the ever-changing reality of forest management.”

“The results were able to prove useful for managers past and future regarding how management can be implemented, in the face of wildfires while still retaining important owl nesting/roosting and foraging habitat features in and near owl activity features,” the document said.

SNAMP – funded with $15 million in grants mainly from the U.S. Forest Service, with support from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, California Natural Resources Agency and University of California – ran from 2007 to 2015. The project ended with the submission of the final report that contains details about the study areas, the treatment processes and reports from each of the six science teams. The science teams and their final reports are:

A key chapter in the publication is titled Integrated Management Recommendations. In it, the 31 points of consensus are outlined.

“The integration in this project is also unique,” Kocher said. “Scientists tend to work in their own focus areas, but we can learn a lot from each other's research projects.”

Working together, the scientists looked at all the research outcomes. The first 18 recommendations in the chapter are the direct result of scientific research conducted in SNAMP projects; the remainder of the recommendations are based on other scientific work and research.

Each of the recommendations is linked to a management goal. Some goals may conflict with achieving one or more of the other management goals. This approach to organizing the recommendations was taken to demonstrate that, while many of the management recommendations do not clash, a few may. For example, suggesting treatments across a landscape in a way that minimizes the negative effects on wildlife might reduce the efficiency of treatments aimed at reducing wildfire behavior and impacts.

The next steps are for the U.S. Forest Service to consider and adapt the SNAMP results and recommendations to continue to restore and protect the natural resources at risk in the Sierra.

“My hope is the SNAMP will be seen as a promising first try to apply adaptive management in the Sierra Nevada,” Battles said. “We gained important new insights about the ecology of these forests and we learned how to conduct applied research in an inclusive manner that engages not only scientists from multiple disciplines but also managers and the public."


Posted on Tuesday, January 5, 2016 at 12:18 PM
  • Author: Jeannette Warnert

Wildfires emit more greenhouse gases than assumed in state climate targets

A new study quantifying the amount of carbon stored and released through California forests and wildlands finds that wildfires and deforestation are contributing more than expected to the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2013 Rim Fire in California burned more than 257,000 acres, the largest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. A new study finds that carbon released through wildfires contribute more than expected to greenhouse gas emissions in the state. (Photo by Mike McMillan, US Forest Service)
The 2013 Rim Fire in California burned more than 257,000 acres, the second largest wildfire in the Sierra Nevada and the third largest fire in California since 1932. A new study finds that carbon released through wildfires contribute more than expected to greenhouse gas emissions in the state. (Photo by Mike McMillan, US Forest Service)

The findings, published online today (Wednesday, April 15), in the journalForest Ecology and Management, came from a collaborative project led by the National Park Service and UC Berkeley. The results could have implications for California's efforts to meet goals mandated by the state Global Warming Solutions Act, or AB 32, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The bill, which passed in 2006, assumed no net emissions for wildland ecosystems by 2020.

The researchers noted that the information available at the time the bill was passed may have underestimated the release of carbon through landmass conversions and wildfires, which are projected to increase in intensity in the western United States due to climate change. The authors pointed out that California is one of the few jurisdictions in the world to set mandatory greenhouse gas emissions targets.

“Determining the balance between carbon storage and emissions is essential for tracking the role of ecosystems in climate change. Growing vegetation naturally removes carbon from the atmosphere, reducing the magnitude of climate change,” said study lead author Patrick Gonzalez, the National Park Service climate change scientist. “Conversely, burned or dead vegetation releases carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change.”

Gonzalez worked with forest ecologist John Battles, a professor in UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management and the principal investigator on the project to quantify carbon storage and emissions in the state's wildlands.

The darker green areas in the map on the left show regions in the state that store more carbon. In the map on the right, brown areas show carbon losses, mainly due to fires, while green areas show carbon gains. (Figure by Patrick Gonzalez)
The darker green areas in the map on the left show regions in the state that store more carbon. In the map on the right, brown areas show carbon losses, mainly due to fires, while green areas show carbon gains. (Figure by Patrick Gonzalez, NPS)

The study, funded by the California Air Resources Board, used 2001-2010 data from multiple public sources, including plot-level carbon stocks from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Inventory and Assessment Program and U.S. Landfire remote sensing data of vegetation at a 30-meter spatial resolution.

The analysis confirmed that California's forests are huge carbon reservoirs for the state. Previous research has found that redwood forests near Redwood National Park contain the most carbon per hectare on the ground of any ecosystem in the world. One hectare of redwood forest can store an amount of carbon equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions generated by more than 500 Americans. The giant sequoia forests of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks come in second.

Altogether, the forests and vegetation of state wildlands stored an estimated 850 million tons of carbon in 2010. However, those areas also accounted for approximately 69 million tons of carbon emitted between 2001 and 2010. Two-thirds of the carbon loss came from fires that burned just 6 percent of the area of wildlands in nine years. Annual carbon losses from forests and wildlands in California represent as much as 5 to 7 percent of state carbon emissions from all sectors between 2001 and 2010, according to the study.

“National parks and other protected areas clearly provide an important function in removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it,” said Battles. “But we also know from previous research that a century of fire suppression has contributed to a potentially unsustainable buildup of vegetation. This buildup provides abundant fuel for fires that contribute to carbon emissions. Projections of more wildfires in the West mean that we need to account for this source of carbon emissions. Meeting the state greenhouse gas targets for 2020 might require a reconsideration of wildland management policies.”

This research is among the latest examples of the long, productive partnership between UC Berkeley and the National Park Service, highlighted in the recent “Science for Parks, Parks for Science” summit commemorating the centennial of the National Park Service.

Other co-authors of the study include researchers from the U.S. Forest Service, the Spatial Informatics Group in Pleasanton, California, and the University of San Francisco.


Posted on Thursday, April 16, 2015 at 12:29 PM
  • Author: Sarah Yang

The effects of density and high severity fire on tree and forest health

Reposted from the UCANR Green Blog.

Hike off-trail through most any part of the Sierra Nevada and you may find yourself losing your hat to a low hanging branch, your shoe to a thicket of dead and dying brush, or your companion to the crevice hidden by the wall of young trees.

There is no doubt that the forests of the Sierra Nevada, while amazingly beautiful, have grown dense with vegetation. Consequently, forests have become increasingly susceptible to high severity fires, which negatively impact the forest's overall health and our ability to enjoy it.

There is a relationship between a healthy forest and its density. The denser the forest, the more competition individual trees have for valuable resources, such as water, light and nutrients. The effects of competition on tree growth and death are profound – the more trees per acre, the smaller the diameter of the individual trees (meaning less growth) and the higher the likelihood trees will be negatively impacted by pests, diseases, and poor health, ultimately leading to tree mortality. Theories in ecology, supported by field data and statistical analysis, predict that some trees will outperform others and the difference in performance increases with crowding. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that excess density is causing increased mortality in the Sierra.

John Battles and SNAMP participant Lynn Lorenson discussing a tree core sample.

John Battles, forestry professor at UC Berkeley and member of the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP), is leading a team of UC Berkeley researchers and graduate students in developing vulnerability profiles that will help to quantify individual trees' probability of survival. The growth response of individual trees is the primary measure of forest health in the SNAMP study. The team believes growth is an excellent indicator of tree vitality and that a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a healthy forest is healthy trees.

The team collected and processed more than 12,000 tree cores to develop long term growth and vulnerability profiles for different tree species. Their results supported the accepted notion that, in general, good growth was an indicator of good health. However, they also found that "bad years," when growth was substantially lower than normal, were strong predictors of death. In addition, they reported that bad years had a cumulative impact that spanned decades. In other words, the best predictor of potential death was for a tree to experience two or more bad years over the most recent 20 – or even 40 – years. The team has been working to translate these relationships between tree growth and survival to produce a vulnerability index by species and size. One goal is to have some sense on how vulnerable a stand is before many trees start to die.

Another key question being asked by SNAMP researchers is whether fuels treatment projects designed to modify fire behavior also improve forest health. Battles and his team hypothesize that thinning a dense forest will improve individual tree and overall forest health, as well as reducing fire risk. Resilience, or the capacity to recover from adverse conditions, is the goal. Histories captured in tree core samples show that trees can survive adverse conditions such as fire and drought. While studies have shown that properly implemented fuel treatments are effective at reducing hazardous fire potential, there are secondary ecological effects that can impact forest resilience either positively or negatively depending on the treatment type, timing and intensity. In a study at the UC Blodgett Forest Research Station, researcher Brandon Collins and others looked at large, dominant tree growth responses, measured seven years after the implementation of some of the most common fuel treatments, to estimate that forest's health. Across the five tree species analyzed, observed mortality and future vulnerability were consistently low in the areas where only mechanical treatment occurred. Fire-only treatment had results similar to areas that did not receive treatments for all species except Douglas-fir. Mechanical-plus-fire treatments, however, had high observed mortality and future vulnerability for white fir and sugarpine. Given that these large, dominant trees play a key role in terms of wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration and soil stability, these results have implications for understanding longer-term impacts of common fuel treatment types on forest resilience.

Through the analysis of tree core samples, Battles and his team hope to provide clarification on conditions that improve individual tree health and the overall health of the forest. The final report on SNAMP, with the results of the forest health study described here, will be available May 31, 2015, athttp://snamp.cnr.berkeley.edu/.

Repeat photographs taken from a field plot in each of the three active treatment types: (A) mechanical only, (B) mechanical-plus-fire, (C) and fire only.
Repeat photographs taken from a field plot in each of the three active treatment types: (A) mechanical only, (B) mechanical-plus-fire, (C) and fire only.
Posted on Tuesday, November 18, 2014 at 11:20 AM

Taming Sierra Flames - UC Team Tamps Down Fire Danger and Finds Common Ground

Tintype photography by Michael Shindler“Anyone can talk about ‘resilient forests,' but if you go to the Rim Fire you can . . . show someone that this is how a high-severity fire sterilizes the soil.”— Kim Rodrigues with her “triangle of success”— balancing relationships, process, and results to reach shared goals. PHOTO: Michael Shindler

“You have to keep listening to your participants. These kinds of networks . . . can be fragile, but they can also be really strong if nurtured correctly.”— Maggi Kelly with her Trimble GeoXT GPS receiver, which collects data about her location in the forest. PHOTO: Michael Shindler

“You have to keep listening to your participants. These kinds of networks . . . can be fragile, but they can also be really strong if nurtured correctly.”
Maggi Kelly with her Trimble GeoXT GPS receiver, which collects data about her location in the forest.

The summer of 2002 was a bad fire season in the United States. Twice as many acres burned than in 2001, and more total acres were destroyed than in all but one of the previous 40 years. The McNally Fire in Sequoia National Forest was only the second largest fire in California that year, and it alone cost more than $50 million to extinguish. It was against this smoky backdrop that George W. Bush launched the Healthy Forests Initiative, a wide-ranging plan to reduce the severity of western wildfires.

In California, the plan coalesced around the concept of Strategically Placed Landscape Treatments, colorfully shortened to SPLATs. Mark Finney, PhD '91, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM), a researcher at the Missoula Fire Lab in Montana, proposed that instead of thinning entire old growth forests, land managers could “treat” a fraction of the land with tree thinning and prescribed burns. These treated plots would slow a fire's rate of spread, acting like speed bumps along a road. It was an interesting but untested idea, and by 2004 the plan ran into bureaucratic roadblocks. Because while the federal government owns the national forests, the old-growth dwelling wildlife—fishers, goshawks, spotted owls—can fall under state or federal management, depending on the species. Closer to the action, the local communities of Foresthill and Oakhurst were concerned about large-diameter trees being cut as part of the thinning effort, and about the effect of prescribed burning on issues like home safety, wildlife, and water quality.

“All parties deeply care about the fate of these landscapes, and it was this care that sustained SNAMP for the long haul.”— John Battles with his logger's tape, used to measure distances and the diameter of trees. PHOTO: Michael Shindler

“All parties deeply care about the fate of these landscapes, and it was this care that sustained SNAMP for the long haul.”
John Battles with his logger's tape, used to measure distances and the diameter of trees.

It was beginning to look like then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican and a self-professed environmentalist, was going to sue the Bush administration over its forest policy mandates—an expensive, bitter process that nobody relished. Instead, a novel approach was conceived: The U.S. Forest Service agreed to test the unproven SPLAT approach along with state agencies, like Fish and Game, Department of Water Resources, and Cal Fire, as long as a neutral third party could be tasked with analyzing the results. And that third party would be the University of California.

And thus, the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project was born, with another endearing acronym, SNAMP. Today, as SNAMP reaches the end of a 10-year run, the project has proven to be a multidisciplinary, multiagency, multimedia success that has the potential to transform not only how we view forest fires, but more intriguingly, how scientists, government agencies, and public stakeholders interact in the pursuit of common goals.

“The stakeholders ended up influencing the kinds of research questions that the scientists asked.”— Lynn Huntsinger with her ever-present clipboard PHOTO: Michael Shindler

“The stakeholders ended up influencing the kinds of research questions that the scientists asked.”
Lynn Huntsinger with her ever-present clipboard

“Honestly, nobody wanted to do this,” recalls John Battles, a professor of forest ecology and the chair of ESPM's Ecosystem Science Division. “It seemed like it was going to be a quagmire of wasted time.” Take the always contentious issues of fire, water, and wildlife, then add in an alphabet soup of local, state, and federal agencies, and it's easy to see why most academics would keep their heads down and hope not to be called upon. But the governor was looking to the UC system to step up, and Battles, as head of Berkeley's Center for Forestry, felt that he could not refuse. “That's what we do,” he says. “That's the stuff that we should do.”

Gradually, a plan took shape. With the ultimate goal of moderating fire behavior, the U.S. Forest Service would conduct prescribed burning and tree thinning as they saw fit. It would then be up to UC scientists to study the results—not just in terms of fire, but also the impact on wildlife, water, and forest health.

Working with Stakeholders

Modern adaptive management takes into account complex factors—climate change, human impact, a century of fire suppression, marijuana farms on federal lands—requiring forest managers to continually adapt their strategies to new information, new methods, and new facts on the ground. Even so, a traditional study of various fire treatments would have been fairly straightforward: Do a range of experiments, analyze the results, publish some papers.

Public meetings were central to the SNAMP project. Kim Rodrigues leads an April 2013 workshop. PHOTOS: Shufei Lei
Public meetings were central to the SNAMP project. Scott Stephens at the 2012 annual meeting. PHOTOS: Shufei Lei
Public meetings were central to the SNAMP project. A participant comments on a spotted owl presentation. PHOTOS: Shufei Lei

But SNAMP's goals went far beyond simply figuring out the best way to slow a wildfire's spread. The experiment proceeded along parallel tracks, studying fire, forest health, fishers, owls, water quality issues, and spatial data. And crucially, public participation wasn't an afterthought or an also-ran, but the key piece of the puzzle. According to Kim Rodrigues, PhD '08 ESPM, a UC Cooperative Extension regional director at the time, “The overall goals of public participation are efforts to reduce conflicts around resource management on the ground.” Rodrigues focused on figuring out how to make public participation more meaningful and relevant.

While the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act both require public comment periods, actual community participation is often disappointingly low. “You really can't just pay lip service to interaction when you have contentious issues,” says Maggi Kelly, Geography '88, an ESPM professor and Cooperative Extension specialist who is a principal investigator (PI) of SNAMP's Public Participation Team as well as its Spatial Team. “You have to dive in and do it in a committed way. You have to keep listening to your participants. These kinds of networks and coalitions can be really fragile, but they can also be really strong if nurtured correctly.”

How to best engage the public was an open question. The team eventually settled on a simple strategy: try everything. Kelly and others created a comprehensive, interactive website stuffed with videos, summaries of scientific findings, and a huge trove of documents available for scientists, agency employees, and any member of the general public who took an interest. Perhaps the best feature was the discussion section, where people submitted questions about topics as varied as fuel break maintenance, government intrusion onto private lands, and the affects of the Native American practice of gathering pine roots. The questions received thorough responses from the team members, a level of public engagement that's truly unusual for scientists who are more accustomed to responding only to peer reviewers.

The website was moderately successful. “But our stakeholders really prefer face to face,” says Kelly, so her team ramped up its in-person efforts. Extension agents who lived in the affected communities of Oakdale and Auburn made themselves available for public questions and concerns at board of supervisors meetings, PTA gatherings, and fire-safe councils. Beyond the standard bad-coffee talkathons, the scientists also held field trips to show these theoretical issues in action.

“Anyone can talk about ‘resilient forests,'” Rodrigues says, “but if you go to the Rim Fire [the massive 2013 Yosemite blaze] you can operationalize these terms. You can show someone that this is how a high-severity fire sterilizes the soil.” And the learning went both ways, according to Lynn Huntsinger, MS '82 Rangeland Science, PhD '89 Wildland Resource Science, an ESPM professor recruited by Battles for her experience working with landowners. “I've seen management programs in the past where scientists don't come to meetings and face stakeholders,” she says. “But in this case, the stakeholders ended up influencing the kinds of research questions that the scientists asked.”

Research in a Fishbowl

For the scientists, the entire process was occasionally frustrating as well as eye-opening. With the Forest Service creating the treatment plans, the PIs didn't have the same experimental control that they might have had on UC-owned land. And not only did the researchers have to learn how to share their results with lay audiences, they had also committed to sharing their results with the public on an accelerated pace, before everything was in its final form and ready for publication. “It's risky work doing research in a fish bowl,” says Rodrigues, now the executive director of academic personnel at UC's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Scientists don't like to be questioned, especially by non-scientists. And this team was questioned by the public, by team members, by managers.”

To start things out on the right foot, the entire UC team signed an explicit Statement of Neutrality. While acknowledging that such impartiality is difficult after a career spent studying the exact issues at hand, Battles quickly came to see how valuable neutrality was. Many of the participants from both management agencies and environmental groups had long and contentious histories with each other, often on issues unrelated to SNAMP.

“You really had to listen, just say your piece, and then not repeat it,” said Battles. “People would come to our meeting who had been cross-examining each other in court the day before. But our meetings had different rules, and they became a safe haven.” Many of the regular participants were employees of environmental organizations, the very people who—for better or worse—often make life difficult for professional land managers. And yet, just having them at the table, engaged in dialogue, helped to defuse tensions at an early stage.

Amid all the great meta-research going on, hard scientific questions were still being asked, specifically: Does treating a fraction of the land have significant effects on the rate of fire spread? The answer seems to be yes. “The best outcome,” according to Battles, “is to have no treatment and also no fires. But you're just rolling the dice then. One percent of the landscape burns every year, and with climate change, that's going to increase. Are you willing to live with that? What if it goes to 2 or 3 percent?”

While the SPLAT speed-bump idea has proven effective, implementing it more widely is not a slam dunk. According to Forest Service ecosystem management director Deb Whitman, “In reality, it's hard to implement the way it was designed.” Managers must consider more than just fire spread when they lay out treatment plots. If a plot of land designated for clearing falls on an archaeological resource or a spotted owl nest, the ideal herringbone pattern of treatment must be adjusted.

Scaling Up

SNAMP has become a model for engaging the public on land management issues, but the resources simply aren't there to spend 10 years and $12 million—the timeframe and budget allotted to SNAMP—every time a forest must be thinned. By some estimates, if you extrapolate the current rate of fuels treatment over the next 30 years, as much as 60 percent of the land that needs treatment won't get it. “That's a nightmare scenario,” says Scott Stephens, PhD '95 Wildland Resource Science, a PI on the Fire Team. “Take the Rim Fire forward in an era of warming climate, and that's really unacceptable.”

More prescribed burning and thinning means more need for the stakeholder participation that has been SNAMP's hallmark. “We can't have a science team or a Cooperative Extension team at every site,” says Rodrigues, but her team now offers train-the-trainer seminars to teach community groups, agency representatives, and others how to lead collaborative group discussions, facilitate diverse groups, work through conflicts, document key agreements, and other skills. According to Christine Nota, the Regional Foresters' representative for the Forest Service, the techniques used in SNAMP “are very common now throughout our forests. We were just counting up forest-based collaborations, and I think we've got 17 or 18 scattered around the state.”

Even better, it seems that the tools used to talk about prescribed fires are applicable to other areas where public concern is high, issues as varied as youth development, water conflicts, and even urban housing disagreements. “I really wish I'd had this kind of experience and training when the spotted owl was listed in the '90s,” Rodrigues says ruefully. “Maybe we could have gotten better dialogue much earlier on.”

One point of general agreement that saw all SNAMP's constituencies through difficult times was that the forests of the Sierra Nevada are worth working to protect. “All parties deeply care about the fate of these landscapes, and it was this care that sustained SNAMP for the long haul,” Battles says.

Another key consensus was that being in the middle of this chaotic process is exactly where UC needs to be. Faculty members love to dive deep into theory and advanced research, but the essential framework of a land-grant institution will always be mission oriented, a quest to solve concrete problems on the land. “I'm not a Forest Service employee, and I don't work for an advocacy group,” Battles says. “And that's the pitch for the public university. You have the independence. You can speak to power. And when the state asks for your help, you say yes.”

Posted on Monday, May 12, 2014 at 9:19 AM
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