Thursday, January 24, 2019

Western Governors and U.S. Department of Agriculture sign MOU for Collaborative Land Management

Hawai'i Governor David Ige and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue sign the MOU. Photo: WGA

On December 12, 2018, the Western Governors' Association (WGA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to "establish a framework to allow the Forest Service and WGA to work collaboratively to accomplish mutual goals, further common interests, and effectively respond to the increasing suite of challenges facing western landscapes." This MOU was signed at the WGA 2018 Winter Meeting following Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue's keynote. The MOU was signed by Secretary Perdue, WGA Chair and Governor of Hawaiʻi David Ige, and WGA Vice Chair and Governor of North Dakota Doug Burgum.

“This is an important step in cooperatively addressing land management challenges,” said Governor Ige. “We recognize that no one agency or level of government has the capacity to deal with all of these risks alone. This MOU puts us on a path to working closely on these serious matters.”

“Governors possess primary decision-making authority for management of state resources, including many resources on federal lands. Being a ‘good neighbor’ is an essential component in USDA’s work, which is why this MOU is so important,” said Secretary Perdue. “USDA’s Forest Service will work shoulder-to-shoulder with WGA to co-manage risks and identify land management priorities. As authentic collaborators, the states and federal government will improve service to the public by creating more efficient, effective, and long-lasting policy.”

Read the full agreement here.

2018 Farm Bill, Executive Order 13855 and DOI Secretarial Order 3372 and their Impact on Implementing the Cohesive Strategy

Fuel breaks work on the Badger Creek Fire in Wyoming. Photo: USFS

*updated January 31st to include corrections and the DOI Secretarial Order in response to the Executive Order. 

Just prior to the partial government shutdown, Congress approved and the President signed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, aka the Farm Bill. In December the President also signed Executive Order 13855 - 
Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and Other Federal Lands to Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk. In addition, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior released Secretarial Order 3372 - Reducing Wildfire Risks on Department of the Interior Land through Active Management. 

Together, these pieces of legislation and policy will influence the implementation of the Cohesive Strategy across the nation. The following is an overview and non-exhaustive summary of these documents that affect implementation of the Cohesive Strategy.

2018 Farm Bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018

  • Allows for competitive grants for collaborative, landscape-scale, restoration of priority landscapes on state lands through the State and Private Forestry Landscape Restoration Fund.  
  • Amends the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) to include cross-boundary hazardous fuels reduction projects (both USFS and BLM). Up to $20,000,000 per year can be appropriated for this, through 2023. 
  • Hazardous fuels appropriations reduced from $760 million to $660 million through 2023 (both USFS and BLM). If agencies get to keep their full appropriations and avoid fire borrowing, this might be satisfactory.   
  • Establishes the Water Source Protection Program for restoration and protection projects. Speaks directly to the Cohesive Strategy guidance for landscape scale work, across boundaries, where fire touches other resources. 
  • Amends HFRA to allow for the application of “extraordinary circumstances” when using a Categorical Exclusion (USFS only). 
  • Directs the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to develop a categorical exclusion for vegetation management activities that protect, restore or improve habitat for greater sage-grouse or mule deer. 
  • Amends the Good Neighbor Authority to include Tribes and Counties – this give additional stakeholders an opportunity to treat forested and rangeland landscapes around communities.
  • Reauthorizes CFLRP at $80 million through 2023. 
  • Addresses timber innovation including research and development of the use of “mass timber” – a promising idea in the field of biomass utilization. 

Executive Order 13855 - Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and Other Federal Lands to Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk

The E.O. directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior to:

  • Implement policies to improve forest and rangeland management practices by reducing hazardous fuel loads, mitigating fire risk and ensuring the safety and stability of local communities through active management on forests and rangelands.  
  • Prioritize fuel reduction treatments as part of forest and rangeland management activities.
  • Pursue benefits to rural economies by encouraging productive uses of forest by-products.
  • Collaborate with state, tribal, and counties to create a comprehensive wildfire strategy that prioritizes the highest-risk lands, considers regulatory and economic challenges related to managing DOI and U.S. Forest Service lands and encourages local economic growth through timber and biomass sales.
  • Establish specific forest and rangeland management objectives. DOI shall establish a goal of treating 750,000 acres for fuels reduction and 500,000 acres to protect water quality and mitigate erosion and flooding risks resulting from forest fires. USDA shall establish a goal of treating 3.5 million acres of USFS land for fuels reduction and 2.2 million acres to address water quality and post-fire erosion and flooding. DOI and USDA are also instructed to offer up for sale 600 million board feet and 3.8 billion board feet of timber.  
In order to accomplish these objectives, USDA and DOI are instructed to coordinate with other federal agencies and streamline relevant administrative and regulatory processes. This may be done by minimizing the time period for regulatory comments, consultation and administrative review, using all applicable categorical exclusions and developing new categorical exclusions. It's important to note that no funding allocations have been made to address the activities in this Executive Order so accomplishment can be affected positively or negatively depending on appropriations. There are many directions in the Executive Order however that speak to alignment with the Cohesive Strategy in terms of cross-boundary collaboration and reducing fuels on landscapes for healthier, resilient forests and rangelands, and communities.

Secretarial Order 3372 - Reducing Wildfire Risks on Department of the Interior Land through Active Management
In response to the Executive Order, SO 3372 is intended to enhance the Department of the Interior's management of federal lands to: 1) better protect people, communities, wildlife, habitat and watersheds by actively managing lands to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire; and 2) promote the sustainable recovery of damaged lands. Referencing the Executive Order, the Secretary of the Interior directs the following actions:

  • Include fire management best practices in all land management plans.
    • The plans shall incorporate the principles of active management to facilitate the wildfire prevention, suppression and recovery planning to protect people, communities, landscapes and water quality; and mitigate severe flooding and erosion caused by wildfire. 
    • Bureaus and offices shall collaborate with USDA to identify federal lands with highest catastrophic wildfire risks. 
  • Coordinate and collaborate with land-managing partners and stakeholders. 
    • Identify salvage and log recovery options from lands damaged in the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons, insects or disease.
    • Develop performance metrics that better capture the risk reduction benefits of the fire management tools enumerated in the E.O. 
    • Implement a cooperative strategy to utilize unmanned aerial systems to prevent, suppress and rehabilitate landscapes impacted by wildfire.
    • Identify and catalog all NEPA categorical exclusions that address wildfire management to maximize their use and develop new categorical exclusions. 
    • Consult with USDA and U.S. Department of Commerce to identify and deploy additional resources that streamline Endangered Species Act compliance timelines for wildfire management activities.
    • Consult with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify and remove fuels management barriers implemented under the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
    • Conduct an examination and report on the costs and challenges of managing wildfire risks through land management activities.
    • Inventory local units where the Good Neighbor Authority could help reduce wildfire risks. Use the inventory to develop and start implementing a plan to coordinate with federal agencies, states, tribes, localities and other stakeholders to support infrastructure necessary to maintain healthy forestland, rangeland and watersheds.
    • Inventory and assess roads that may be beneficial to wildfire, fuels and vegetation management. Develop strategy to maintain roads for these activities.
  • Utilize active land, vegetation and wildfire management techniques that are supported by best practices and best available science (see SO for list). 
  • Maximize the wildfire management benefits of physical features within landscapes.
  • Seek and implement expert guidance.
    • Assemble a Department team of planning specialists to lead planning efforts and resource deployment across the Department.
    • Establish a FACA board to report of the Secretary on the Executive Order and this Order. The Board should include federal, state, Tribal and local stakeholders.

Click on each title above to view full text of the Bill, the E.O. and the Secretarial Order. 

21st Century Fire Detection is Here

A collection of screen shots from WildfireALERT and photo of one of the towers where cameras are placed.

WildfireALERT is a promising new network of fire detection cameras with day and night detection capabilities. Developed by a team of seismologists from University of Oregon, University of Nevada and UC San Diego who developed ShakeALERT, for you guessed it, early detection of earthquakes, the same system can be used for wildfires, floods and other natural hazards.  

Using wireless, high-bandwidth IP connectivity, the system can:

  • discover, locate and confirm fire ignitions
  • allow for the quick scaling up or down of fire resources
  • monitor fire behavior through containment
  • help evacuations through enhanced situational awareness
  • ensure contained fires are monitored appropriately through their demise
  • interface with predictive fire and weather modeling
  • produce time lapse imagery

In addition the network can be:
  • accessed by phone, tablet, laptop or desktop 
  • accessed securely by fire managers and responders, with direct camera control
  • accessed by the public for situational awareness
  • funded by multiple stakeholders (private sector too!)
  • scaled infinitely
Current installations include AlertTahoe, AlertSDG&E in San Diego County, AlertSoCal, AlertNevada, AlertOregon, AlertIdaho (BLM) with more on the way. The applications are seemingly endless with interest from the private sector such as utilities, high fire risk counties, federal, state and Tribal management agencies and other private stakeholders and communities. This diverse interest also allows for stakeholders to spread the cost of installation and maintenance. 

FYI: the cost of the camera is relatively inexpensive at $2-3,000. The cost to construct a new tower, with power, runs about $75,000. If a camera can be placed on an existing and use its power source, the cost drops dramatically to around $10,000. 
21st century fire tower!
The developers indicate that they are researching additional applications such as temporary, rapid response set up to monitor fires or other hazards in places not already covered by cameras. 

Overall, we are impressed at the potential for improving the wildfire response system. Stay tuned!

For more information contact: Prof. Douglas Toomey, University of Oregon, Earth Sciences.

Deschutes County Addresses Wildfire Risk with Zoning Changes

Deschutes County zoning map showing low density zone adjacent to public lands.  

As thousands of people are still trying to figure out their new normals following the Camp and Carr Fires in 2018, many are looking at the commonalities of these unprecedented fires to find ways to prevent these types of tragedies in the future. 

Deschutes County in Oregon is routinely confronted by wildland fires that occur on the forested public lands just west of the city of Bend. Living with wildfire in this fire-dependent ecosystem means stakeholders must confront the hard truth that defensible space and home hardening might not be enough to prevent home-to-home ignitions when significant winds are in play as they were on the Carr and Camp Fires.

Debbie Lane in Paradise, CA before the Camp Fire and after.  

A local advocacy group worked collaboratively with private landowners, county planners and fire specialists to propose rezoning the high-risk area to require fire-resistant building materials for new construction and limit the amount of development there in an effort to reduce the chances that a wildfire will progress into one of Oregon’s fastest growing cities. This is a tough pill to swallow in most communities because cities, counties and planning boards are under pressure to approve new housing developments and increase their tax base. In addition, developers try to fit as many homes into a new subdivision as possible to maximize their investments. 

Deschutes County Commissioners however, recognized the overall value to the community and unanimously approved the changes in zoning which will result in 90% fewer homes than were allowed under the previous code. The Cohesive Strategy strongly promotes this type of "co-management of risk" among all stakeholders to help reduce the risk of wildfire and its devastating outcomes. More here

Biomass Decision May Save Largest Forest Restoration Effort in the Nation

The only biomass plant in Arizona.  The Novo Power 38 megawatt power plant in Snowflake.
 Photo: Karen Warnick, White Mountain Independent.

In late December the Arizona Corporation Commission agreed to require the state’s utilities to buy or produce 90 megawatts of energy annually from biomass — saving the forest restoration industry from collapse. While the final rule is not in the books, the Commission ordered staff to propose a set of rules to create a market for the 1.5 million tons of branches, brush and debris created by thinning 50,000 acres of overgrown forest annually. Part of restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes, as offered by the Cohesive Strategy, is finding ways to expand biomass markets as a way to deal with the non-sawlog material that comes from forest thinning projects. 

This is also an example of stakeholders and those who carry much of the risk addressing the hard truths of uncomfortable tradeoffs to achieve resiliency on the landscape. There was reluctance among some county officials and staff to take this step because it will increase electric rates and rely on 20-year agreements with the US Forest Service who till now has struggled to find contractors to complete the large-scale work as part of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI), the largest restoration effort in the nation.    

In a move that will place some of the responsibility with electricity users, the Commission pointed out that large-scale thinning will likely increase runoff from millions of acres of watershed into the Valley, in a state with a worsening water shortage. Increasing forest restoration efforts will also potentially save billions in wildfire suppression costs and billions in property damage. It will also save lives by reducing deaths from air pollution from wildfires, as well as save the lives of firefighters and residents from megafires. All the while, the biomass industry will provide jobs in hard-pressed rural industries.

“We were in a desperate situation,” said Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, a leading member of the stakeholders group for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). Martin also said Arizona Public Service and other power companies also supported the plan, along with a host of environmental groups, officials from rural counties, logging companies and advocates for economic development.

We will be keeping an eye on the final ruling to see if this big step gives the US Forest Service what it needs to enter into the long-term contracts and provide investment security for the development of a 90 megawatt power plant. In the meantime, Navajo County Supervisor Jason Whiting said, “It would appear the commission now understands how much this matters to Arizona and its citizens. A month ago, this was on its deathbed — but through numerous prayers and efforts from concerned citizens, leaders and elected officials we are now moving in the right direction.”  Read full article here

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The First Privately Financed Forest Resiliency Bond

In a remote corner of the Sierra Nevada, a financial experiment is about to begin. Five thousand acres of the Tahoe National Forest will receive mechanical and prescribed fire treatments but the project won't be paid by the US Forest Service. Instead, the roughly $4 million will come from two foundations, an investment firm and an insurance company. 

The Tahoe project is the first forestry project financed with a "forest-resilience bond" created by the World Resources Institute and Blue Forest Conservation. Blue Forest founders hope to persuade profit-seeking investors to pay for work that reduces the risk of costly wildfires and potentially eases the risk of drought. 

This is the first step, that Blue Forest also hopes will lead to much larger projects costing tens of millions of dollars and covering multiple watersheds in multiple states.

The forest resilience bond works like this: Investors put up the cash to pay for the thinning work. They'll be repaid over time, with interest, by public agencies or other entities that want to see the work done but can't pay for it all at once. In the case of the Tahoe Project, the upfront funding is coming from CSAA Insurance Group, investment firm Calvert Impact Capital, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Betty Moore Foundation. Together, they will lend the money to the National Forest Foundation, which will hire the contractors and manage the forestry work. 

The money to repay the bonds will come from annual payments from the Yuba Water Agency and a grant from the CalFire. 

For the investors, the appeal of the fire bond is more than just a return on investment. Linc Walworth, vice president of investments for CSAA, said the insurance company last year alone had 5,000 wildfire-related claims. "To the extent that we can reduce the risk of fire in California, that's good business for us," he said. 

The Cohesive Strategy supports this kind of "out-of-the-box" thinking and creative solutions to reducing risk. Read the full article here

Prescribed Fire is a Valuable Tool

Wildfire has historically played an important role in the health and structure of Oregon's dry forests. Prescribed fire is a valuable tool used to restore forest health, increase firefighter safety, and better protect nearby human resources in these fire-adapted landscapes. Watch this informative video and share with your audiences.

The vision for the Cohesive Strategy is to put fires out when needed and use fire where and when you can.