30 Jan

Carlton Complex fire comes before Washington’s legislature

The 2014 Carlton Complex fire was the main topic of a legislative work session before the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee of the Washington legislature on the afternoon of January 29, 2015. The fire, which originally started as four separate fires ignited by lightning strikes in Okanogan County ended up becoming the largest wildfire in Washington history. It was finally fully extinguished in October after the start of the autumn rains. More than 350 structures were destroyed, and the town of Pateros was hit hard when the fire came into the community. Most of the fire department was out on the rural fire lines at the time. Gebbers Farms employees and equipment were credited with playing the key role in saving the town of Brewster and tens of thousands of acres in the middle of the Carlton Complex.

Management of the fire response became a heated topic early on, and the reasons for this were well covered in the work session by several of the witnesses. The general consensus is that a fire on this scale should never be allowed to happen again. There were several calls for the legislature to take the lead in preventing future wildfire catastrophes.

Representative Joel Kretz was one of the witnesses for the work session. He brought some of his ranch crew to help fight the fire. While he was there, he observed problems with the response, centered around how the incident management team was using available resources. His slide show tells a story of a system in need of reform. There were robust resources on the ground, but many of the responders were waiting for assignments, and were not allowed to go out on the fire lines without orders.

Carlene Anders is the Executive Director of the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group, which was formed to help the region’s fire-affected residents get back on their feet. She is also a member of the Pateros Fire Department and has been a wildfire fighter for more than thirty years. In her particularly moving testimony she told the committee that she had never seen anything like this fire in her career.

Okanogan County commissioners Jim DeTro and Ray Campbell are both highly experienced wildfire fighters. Commissioner DeTro included audio recordings of the radio traffic between an airplane carrying four smoke-jumpers who had been assigned to a fire in Oregon and were flying over the beginnings of two of the four fires that became the Carlton Complex. They asked their controllers if they should divert to the new fires instead of continuing on to Oregon. They were directed to continue their original mission.

The work session video archive is available from Washington’s TVW, the state’s version of C-SPAN. We recommend you take the time to watch it and consider the steps recommended by the witnesses for improving future wildfire responses.

The suggestions made by the witnesses are a good place to start, particularly while memories are fresh. We shouldn’t stop at improving how we respond to wildfires, though. We should move to managing our forests to make them healthier and more resilient to fire in the first place.

28 Jan

There oughta be a law!

When we get frustrated with the way things are going, and perhaps especially when there’s a government agency between where we are standing and what we need to get done, chances are that as we approach a slow boil, we might just say, “There oughta be a law!” Yep, just saying . . .

Chances are, though, there already is a law, and it’s at least partly a source of your frustration, because that law resulted in an agency making a rule . . . or two . . . or a whole doggone slew. What to do?

How about jumping in and become part of writing and advocating for legislation at your state legislature? Our perception of being just a solitary citizen with little, if any, influence over the legislative process is way off the mark. The reality is that very few citizens make use of the many opportunities open to us. Feeling powerless, most simply leave it up to the paid lobbyists and big campaign donors to call the shots. That’s the last thing we should do for legislation that’s important to us.

State legislatures, individual legislators, and legislative staff are generally far more accessible to small organizations and individual citizens than their counterparts in Congress. (we’ll deal with how to work with Congress in a future article.) As with anything else we do in business, a large part of your effectiveness is going to depend on developing friendly working relationships with individual legislators, legislative staff, and organizational leaders and lobbyists who share your values and interests.

You can get into the citizen lobbyist role at any time of the year, whether your legislature is in session or not. If you want to be effective across the broad range of your interests, this is not going to be a one-shot deal. You will have opportunities to meet and talk with individual legislators throughout the year, and there are a lot of things you can do to get the ball rolling.

In most states, your legislative district is represented by one senator and two representatives or delegates. Many of them hold town hall meetings in person or via conference call throughout the year. When a town hall is taking place in the district, you should attend in person. Before the meeting starts, introduce yourself to the legislator, letting him or her know what your primary legislative interests are. If you have a business card, hand one over, and expect one in return. (If you don’t have business cards, you should have calling cards to offer instead.) Request a one-on-one appointment to discuss your concerns in greater detail. (This gives you a chance to meet at least one legislative assistant (LA), who may become a key to your success.) Come prepared to take notes, and actually take notes during the meeting. This demonstrates that you have a serious interest in what your legislator is doing and promising to do on behalf of constituents.

Be prepared to ask well-reasoned questions about your core issues. Have a one (or at most two) page summary of the information you want to provide your legislator, and be sure his or her LA has that summary before the meeting is over. Trade cards with the LA, too.

Always remember that the people you are working with are people who appreciate amicable conversations just as much as you do. Tossing slings and arrows won’t get you far.

A quick word about LAs . . . Thou needs must be nice to the LA, for the LA is The Gatekeeper. The LA makes the appointments, filters the email and the phone calls, and triages the importance of the information coming into your legislator’s office. The LA is also the one who reaches out when the legislator has a question or needs some help on responding to an issue.

Most people have the impression that the only legislators you can work with are the ones from your own district. This is most definitely not the case. When a bill is before a committee, you have access to all the members of that committee. You can provide those members with written testimony at any time the bill is before the committee from the time it is assigned to the committee until the time it leaves the committee for a floor vote or until it is voted down. You can make appointments to meet with a member to discuss the bill, and you can interact with the committee staff and receive meaningful consideration from the member.

During the legislative session, you should consider showing up in business attire. For some of us, that’s pretty much automatic. If your profession is centered around outdoor work, though, it’s worth keeping in mind. Paid lobbyists are required to work in business attire during session, and even though the rules are much less restrictive for citizen lobbying, looking the part certainly doesn’t hurt.

Committee chairs often provide members of the public who come to provide oral testimony with perks that paid lobbyists don’t get. They recognize that this isn’t your normal job, and that you’re before them on your own dime. While you might not have been able to have your name at the top of the list, there are times when a committee chair will move citizen lobbyists to the head of the line in appreciation for taking time out of your business day and traveling all the way to town to speak to the committee. While it doesn’t always happen, it happens often enough to recognize that many legislators are more interested in what you have to say than what they expect to hear from the hired guns.

You need to be able to work with legislators from both parties, particularly when the legislation you want to see enacted was introduced by the minority party. Your key to success here is to be able to identify those provisions in a bill that more or less align with one or more priorities of the legislator you are talking to.

Years ago, a wise legislator told me that I could bring any issue, concern, or problem to her at any time and she would listen and try to do what she could. She said that I would be most effective when I brought my proposed solution in the door at the same time, accompanied by the background information she would need to effectively carry the issue and perhaps introduce legislation if it became appropriate. Part of your solution can include your suggested outline for legislation that will accomplish your goals.

If you think about the things we’re discussing here, you’ll see that all of this helps to develop your legislative participation in a way designed to get you seen as a known quantity and quality who brings good ideas and information to the table for your areas of expertise. One of the goals for working this way is to bring you to the one of the best plums on the tree . . . being asked to help craft and write a bill.

Most of the more substantive pieces of legislation are developed over the course of the year, with most of the work taking place several months prior to the session. These bills are then pre-filed, usually about a month before the gavel drops to open the session. There’s a lot of work involved, and if you are a citizen lobbyist, you won’t be getting paid like the legislative staff do. It’s an honor to be asked to participate in writing a bill, so you can think of it as an investment for your future.

As you move from being someone who probably can’t really influence the legislature to the point where you are asked to help write a bill, you will not only be making a difference, but at the end of the day, you will be one of the few people in the state who are.

26 Jan

A modern forest management solution from the Organic Act of 1897

The Organic Act of 1897 provided the main statutory basis for establishing and administering what was then called the nation’s forest reserves. On March 4, 1907, the term “national forests” was substituted for the earlier term “forest reservations”. The Organic Act is codified in 16 USC, chapter 2, and the purposes for which national forests may be established and administered is found at Section 475 of the chapter. Within that section, one of the few purposes is:

“. . . for the purposes of securing favorable conditions of water flows.”

Throughout the years, the United States Forest Service (USFS) has largely failed to comply with this key statutory mandate. This failure significantly contributes to the abysmal health of many national forests across the country. If these forests were administered and managed for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, we would not have the stand densities that are making our forests so vulnerable to the disease and insect infestation leading to intense fuel loads that result in catastrophic wildfires every summer across the western states.

Consider the impacts of just one of today’s catastrophic wildfires:

  • Thousands of acres of destroyed forest, with many areas where the heat intensity results in full-depth soil sterilization.
  • Destruction of large areas of habitat essential to the survival of multiple threatened and endangered species (avian, terrestrial animals, reptiles, amphibians, aquatic, plant, fungi).
  • Massive amounts of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions and health-damaging particulates in the smoke that spreads for miles.
  • Uncontrolled water runoff during rainstorms and springtime snow melt, causing severe erosion and ongoing aquatic habitat damage, further impacting threatened and endangered species.
  • Loss of homes and other built environment infrastructure.
  • Severe impacts to local and regional economies.

So, what does managing forests for favorable conditions of water flows have to do with the challenges posed by wildfires?

In a word, prevention. If we build our forest administration systems around obtaining improved water flows, the management tools we use will result in fewer catastrophic wildfires, and make it easier to tame those that still manage to break out.

Trees take water out of the ground, use some to support their life processes, and send much of the rest into the atmosphere as water vapor. Every species of tree has an optimal number of stems per acre per age class. Many, if not most national forests feature stand densities across the range of age classes much higher than would ever occur naturally. Most national forest stands are not adequately managed with pre-commercial and commercial thinnings at appropriate intervals because of litigation against planned thinning and lack of resources to perform the necessary work. The result is overcrowding in the stands, stressed trees competing for nutrients and water, increased vulnerability to disease and insect infestation, and adverse impacts to instream flows throughout the watershed they are located in. Overcrowded stands are far more vulnerable to fire than those with optimal stem spacing.

The resulting depressed stream flows represent adverse impacts to threatened and endangered aquatic species’ habitat. Overcrowded stands do not feature the plant biodiversity necessary to provide the full range of habitat for the natural range of wildlife biodiversity potentially present in a forest where stem spacing is at or near optimum. If the Forest Service were to comply with their mandate to manage their holdings to secure favorable conditions of water flows, much, if not nearly all of this ecological damage could be avoided.

Managing for water flow requires a well-planned sequence of pre-commercial and commercial thinnings that result in optimal stem spacing for the tree species being managed. The timing and selection process for the thinnings should be designed to mimic natural forest growth as much as possible. With the increasing emphasis on using biomass as a fuel instead of burning it in slash piles or leaving it on the ground, even pre-commercial thinnings now have the potential for generating income. At stand maturity, the trees available for harvest will be larger and much healthier than we see today, and will generate more revenue than they do under current conditions.

The result of managing for water flow will be healthier forests with optimal stem spacing that are much less vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire and much more resistant to disease and resilient in the face of insect infestations. Instream flows throughout the watershed will be significantly improved. The forests will feature greater biodiversity and will provide significantly improved habitat for the full range of wildlife when managed for water flows.

This will be a major shift in emphasis for the Forest Service. In today’s climate of budgetary constraints for some agencies, it’s unlikely that the Service will be able to handle the work on its own, even though it is statutorily responsible for doing so. One of the most viable approaches to making this work is for the Service to enter into co-management agreements with those state natural resource agencies responsible for state-owned forest management, and with those counties that have county forest systems. Co-management with counties that do not presently have their own county forest systems is also an option, and a particularly viable one if they model their operations on those of pre-existing county forest systems. For instance, Wisconsin has some of the best county forestry operations in the nation, many of which would be well-suited as examples to follow.

Forest management for water flows is a statutory responsibility for the United States Forest Service . . . a responsibility that has been neglected for far too long. It’s time for the Service to comply wholeheartedly with the entirety of the statute. If the Service fails to step up to the plate, there are several states and counties looking very closely at how federal agencies are managing their land holdings that may very well be prepared to ask their respective attorneys general to take up the question in court.

How about we get the ball rolling?

25 Jan

A blog for Gaelic Wolf

There’s a website. There’s email. There are some mailing lists. All of those are working well, but there’s not really a good place for making articles available . . . or at least there wasn’t until now. Gaelic Wolf is joining the blogging world today, and we’d like you to be a part of it!

The initial design is coming together, and will be modified over the coming days, weeks, months, years . . .

We’re going to focus primarily on topics of interest for our client base and everyone who has a stake in how local, state, and federal agencies develop and implement policies designed to manage natural resources, protect the environment and species, and apply balancing to the needs of the natural and human environments. Scientific and economic integrity, along with agency compliance with statutory and administrative law will be explored, and we will follow a variety of issues that are important to you.

There’s more to this than filtering the information that rolls in over our transom every day to tease out those items we think you might be interested in. Because you have a good handle on what matters to you, we’d like to ask you to share your natural resource issues with us. Let us know what your key issues are, provide us with articles and other information about those issues, and we’ll share them with everyone else who is following our blog. We’d really like to offer a wide variety of perspectives on natural resource policy, so we’re not going to limit our offerings to only a limited set of viewpoints, so share away!

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