Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Understanding Good Neighbor Authority

The Cohesive Strategy promotes the use of all the tools in the toolbox to make progress toward resilient landscapes. The Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) is one such tool. The GNA is intended to expand limited federal capacity to implement and plan forest, rangeland, and watershed restoration projects by facilitating partnerships with state agencies. The authority allows a state to perform authorized restoration services on federal land. Additionally, the authority allows a state agency to administer timber sales on federal land, and for a federal agency to use the value of wood products to purchase restoration services, including planning, from state agencies.

Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC) recently released their review of the current status of GNA use in six western states to clarify how it's being used and to inform other states and National Forests about approaches that me be appropriate for their local conditions. The report also shares current policy and guidance on GNA and highlights early efforts in the six states.  

  • Federal and state agency staff embraced a vision of cross boundary cooperation, and viewed GNA as one ofmany pathways to develop interagency relationships.
  • Successful use of GNA required strong partnerships between state and federal agencies.
  • Project activities varied, but most projects were focused on vegetation management.
  • States learned from each other, decreasing the time required to start using the new authority.
  • Most states entered into projects with completed NEPA analysis.
  • Most states required up-front funding to start projects using GNA.
  • Some states anticipated the possibility of “self-sustaining” programs that use the value of timber to pay for future sale administration, contract planning, and restoration work. State and federal partners also developed agree- ment structures that can accommodate ongoing programs of work beyond a single project.
  • The role of collaboration with non-agency partners is not mandated by statute and remains uncertain. All states reported informing collaboratives of GNA projects to some extent.
  • Interviewees, including federal employees, reported some resistance to utilizing the new authority among federalagency staff.

  • It remains to be seen if GNA projects are additive to baseline accomplishments and outputs, with some interviewees stating that GNA will help federal agencies meet rising timber volume and restoration targets.
  • Use of GNA in each state context is still evolving and may necessarily look different across various states and ecosystems.
  • State agency staff capacity cannot increase immediately. State agencies seem to need certainty in the availability of work in order to hire new staff to accomplish GNA projects.
  • The role of forest collaboratives in GNA projects will be determined on a voluntary basis by individual states, as there is no requirement to collaborate in the statute. None of the states we examined have formalized a process for collaborative engagement.
  • Although interim federal directives state that use of program income must be determined up front in the agreement, in practice, state and federal agencies refined how they use program income over time and how partners provided input on these decisions.
  • Agreements can last ten years at most, which poses a problem for the long term use of program income and the development of sustained state involvement.
  • GNA is still a relatively new tool and will continue to evolve as different states find creative ways to make use of it in local contexts.

Wildfire and the Wildlife that Needs It

Ecologist Frank Lake describes the importance of fire on the landscape in northern California. Photo: Nick Fisher, OPB. Ecologists Paul Hessburg and Bill Gaines search for woodpeckers in the footprint of a previous fire on Freezeout Ridge in Washington State. Moose in a meadow. Photos: Kevin Freeny, OPB.  

Not all wildfire is a force of destruction. Many of our favorite plants and animals have evolved to depend on it. This short video from Oregon Public Broadcasting takes us from the forests of eastern Washington to those in northern California to highlight the benefit of wildland fire to plants, animals and indigenous peoples. 

Regular, low-intensity fires keep forest and meadow habitats diverse and thriving for multiple species. Smoke keeps streams cooler by reflecting the sun's heat which provides the perfect habitat for salmon. Local Tribes depend on the food and cultural resources provided by these fires. 

Take a moment to watch this video to see the positive impact fire has on our landscapes, wildlife and communities. See the full article here.  Click here to watch the video

Vicki Christiansen Named 19th Chief of USDA Forest Service.

Chief of the USDA Forest Service Vicki Christiansen. Photo: USDA Forest Service.  


U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced on October 10th that Vicki Christiansen will serve as the 19th Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service. Christiansen has been serving as Interim Chief since March of this year. Following the announcement, Secretary Perdue issued the following statement:

“As a former wildland firefighter and fire manager, Chief Christiansen knows what’s needed to restore our forests and put them back to work for the taxpayers. With seven years at the Forest Service and 30 years with the states of Arizona and Washington, Vicki’s professional experience makes me confident that she will thrive in this role and hit the ground running.”  Read the full release here

Alaska's Team Rubicon - Mission Complete

Recently Alaska's Team Rubicon partnered with the Anchorage Fire Department to sharpen their sawyer skills and help prevent wildfires. About 30 civilian and veteran members of Team Rubicon came together to learn how to use chainsaws safely and effectively while removing trees that are potentially dangerous during a wildfire. The mitigation effort helped to protect the Eagle River neighborhood from a spreading future fire by removing the hazardous fuels near homes and thinning the overly dense stand of black spruce.

The Cohesive Strategy supports the efforts of Team Rubicon across the West to engage local citizens and veterans in increasing the capacity to address wildfire issues on the landscape.

For the full story, click here

Friday, August 17, 2018

USDA Announces New Strategy to Improve Forest Conditions

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service announced yesterday the concept of an outcome-based investment strategy that responds to the urgent national crisis of growing challenges including catastrophic wildfires, invasive species, droughts, degraded watersheds, and epidemics of forest insects and disease. 

Despite huge advances in collaborative efforts across the US to achieve ecological, social, and economic gains, they are not always coordinated across boundaries and at the scale needed to achieve lasting outcomes across broad landscapes.  The Forest Service and its partners have limited budgetary resources; even pooled, cannot begin to treat all of the landscapes in need. The belief that individual landowners and land managers can and should shoulder all responsibility for disturbance-related risks within their jurisdictions is outdated.  The risk is at scales now that are simply too great. Catastrophic wildfires and the corresponding loss of lives, homes, natural resources and other values have continued to grow.   

A new report titled Toward Shared Stewardship across Landscapes: An Outcome-based investment Strategy outlines the Forest Service plans to work more closely with states and Tribes to identify landscape-scale priorities for targeted treatments in areas with the highest payoffs. The Cohesive Strategy is prominently featured in the new strategy concept as a foundation for working with partners and stakeholders to effectively co-manage risk across broad landscapes.  

“The challenges before us require a new approach,” said Interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. “This year Congress has given us new opportunities to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with state leaders to identify land management priorities that include mitigating wildfire risks. We will use all the tools available to us to reduce hazardous fuels, including mechanical treatments, prescribed fire, and unplanned fire in the right place at the right time, to mitigate them.”

A key component of the new strategy is to prioritize investment decisions on forest treatments in direct coordination with states and Tribes using the most advanced science tools. Targeted investments are needed at the level of shared landscapes, including partner contributions of resources.  

The concept of an outcome-based investment strategy is ground in assessing risks and tradeoffs. Co-managing fire risk means learning together about firesheds and landscapes around communities, watersheds and other values and choosing the risk reduction strategies with the highest rate of return on investments. The key is to bring stakeholders together to learn about the particular fire risks they face, examine the options for managing them and decide what actions to take. Convening and planning at multiple scales will be crucial. 

The report highlights Scenario Investment Planning based on a new data-driven tool that gives the wildland fire community the ability to manage fire risk across broad landscapes. It will allow for shared stewardship among stakeholders so they can make cross-boundary investments to increase the scope and scale of reducing fire risk and improving forest conditions in way never done before. (See our article on this cutting edge risk assessment that can be used to make these important decisions).

These concepts are not new to the Cohesive Strategy which makes three key assumptions that underlie meaningful reduction in risk:

  1. Prioritization of investment and use of resources - existing resources are used more efficiently, perhaps requiring reallocation of resources across agencies, areas or programs. 
  2. Acceptance of increased short-term risk - wildland fire is used as a tool, which carries inherent risks that must be considered in the short-term to achieve longer-term benefits.
  3. Greater collective investment - all who have a stake in the fire outcomes share the costs and level of effort necessary to redeem responsibilities for reducing risks.
Through shared stewardship, the Forest Service, States, Tribes and other partners have unprecedented opportunities to co-manage fire risk and achieve positive outcomes at the most appropriate scales. The keys will be working with partners to convene stakeholders for planning at fireshed and landscape scales, using scenario investment planning as a tool for assessing risk, evaluating tradeoffs and managing risk through targeted investments in areas with the highest payoffs. The Forest Service envisions outcomes that include resilient fire adapted landscapes, flourishing fire adapted human communities and fewer responder injuries and deaths.   

The report is a beginning, a recognized opportunity for reducing fire risk and improving forest conditions by enhancing the entire wildland fire system. Fully developing and deploying the concept will take time. It will be up to the partners and stakeholders, working together to decide what the strategy looks like on the ground and what tools to use. We need shared approaches, the report contends, at the scale of the challenges we face, using shared resources and the right kinds of investments in the right places. The wildland fire system can be improved by joining with partners and stakeholders to make smart choices about where we work and investments that can truly make a difference at an all-lands scale.  

Read full press release here. Read the full report here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Can "Moneyball" Fix How the West Manages Wildfire?

In a sobering look back at the last five decades of fire management, author Tony Schick outlines the conundrums facing fire managers today and asks, can 'Moneyball' fix how the west manages wildfires?  

The history and science is clear - fires on the landscape in the right place, at the right time, can deliver a wealth of benefits including improved forest resiliency and health, and reduced fuel buildup in forests that contribute to larger, more destructive fires. The problem is people. More homes, water sources and infrastructure in historically fire-prone environments have contributed to the ongoing decisions to actively suppress most fires (over 99% of all fires last year). Socially and politically, the decisions to manage a fire for the benefits it provides to the landscape and the community, are not supported. When a fire burns a long time, envelops cities in smoke, threatens people and homes, decision-makers take heat from politicians and the public over why they weren't stopped sooner. This, says Schick, results in a destructive feedback loop that leads to worsening fire outcomes. 

"The uncertainty and societal pressure lead many fire managers to being risk-averse and thinking that suppression is the safest decision," said Dave Calkin, economist and research forester with the US Forest Service. 

Fire managers are in a ridiculously tough spot here. If we are going to make meaningful progress towards more resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities and a safer, more effective wildfire response, we must address the hard truth of risk and be willing to take some short-term risk for the long-term gain.

US Forest Service researchers are now sharing a cutting-edge, wildfire risk assessment that can bring data-driven decision-making to wildland fire management. The researchers call their work 'Moneyball for fire,' referencing the 2003 book chronicling the Oakland Athletics' attempt to outsmart richer baseball teams by using advanced statistics.

 "Pick your spots to re-introduce burning and maybe that 100,000 acre megafire won't seem so devastating," said Matt Thompson, who along with Calkin, authors much of the Forest Service's work on the subject. 
"Those extreme events are still going to happen. But maybe if we capitalize more when things are moderate, we can at least dampen their impact," Thompson added. This will require a tolerance for risk and a willingness to trust the process - something the Cohesive Strategy insists is required to make meaningful progress towards more resilient landscapes and fire adapted communities. 

The risk assessments of Oregon and Washington (seen in the map above) are the broadest use of these wildfire analytics so far. Fire managers can now use it to target fuels treatments and help prioritize where to put resources. Soon, Calkin's team will match that effort with calculations of where suppression efforts are likeliest to succeed. They can then design the ideal response to a fire depending on when and where it happens. 

This scenario investment planning tool will help fire managers make the tough decisions about when and where to appropriately use prescribed and unplanned fire. Their use will also help build a greater tolerance for risk and a willingness to accept short-term risks to break the harmful feedback loop and reduce the potential of future megafires. 

During fire season the Forest Service will be experimenting with on-call analytic teams to provide relevant risk data to assist incident commanders in their decision-making. We'll be watching to see the results. Stay tuned.  

Sunday, July 8, 2018

New Tool Allows Oregon Residents and Land Managers to Track Current Wildfire Risk

Oregon Explorer. Photo: Oregon Department of Forestry
The Oregon Department of Forestry recently released the Advanced Oregon Wildfire Risk Explorer, a new tool that allows residents to track current wildfire risk to their exact location anywhere in the state. The tool uses a variety of data including historical wildfire data, local vegetation and weather. It offers resources as well.  Residents can generate a report specific to their address that shows how much defensible space should be cleared around their homes, wildfire history and local contacts for more information. 

The tool is also intended to provide a data-based risk assessment for planners and forest managers as they prepared for where wildfires are predicted to grow more intense.  

The Cohesive Strategy strongly supports the use of science and technology to help stakeholders achieve landscape resiliency goals, fire adapted communities and a safer, more effective wildfire response.

Test drive the new tool here

Read the full article here