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New study challenges forest restoration and fire management in western dry forests

Posted by Matthew Koehler on February 23, 2012

(Below is a press release from the researchers. A copy of the study is available here. – mk)

New research shows that western dry forests were not uniform, open forests, as commonly thought, before widespread logging and grazing, but included both dense and open forests, as well as large high-intensity fires previously considered rare in these forests. The study used detailed analysis of records from land surveys, conducted in the late-1800s, to reconstruct forest structure over very large dry-forest landscapes, often dominated by ponderosa pine forests. The area analyzed included about 4.1 million acres on the Mogollon Plateau and Black Mesa in northern Arizona, in the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon, and in the Colorado Front Range.

The reconstructions, which are based on about 13,000 first-hand descriptions of forests from early land surveyors along section-lines, supplemented by data for about 28,000 trees, do not support the common idea that dry forests historically consisted of uniform park-like stands of large, old trees. Previous studies that found this were hampered by the limitations inherent in tree-ring reconstructions from small, isolated field plots that may be unrepresentative of larger landscapes.

“The land surveys provide us with an unprecedented spatially extensive and detailed view of these dry-forest landscapes before widespread alteration” said Dr. William Baker, a co-author of the study and a professor in the Program in Ecology at the University of Wyoming. “And, what we see from this is that these forests were highly variable, with dense areas, open areas, recently burned areas, young forests, and areas of old-growth forests, often in a complex mosaic.”

The study also does not support the idea that frequent low-intensity fires historically prevented high-intensity fires in dry forests.

“Moderate- and high-severity fires were much more common in ponderosa pine and other dry forests than previously believed ” said Mark Williams, senior author of the study and recent PhD graduate of the University of Wyoming’s Program in Ecology.

“While higher-severity fires have been documented in at least parts of the Front Range of Colorado, they were not believed to play a major role in the historical dynamics of southwestern dry forests .”

Some large modern wildfires, such as Arizona’s Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002 and the Wallow fire of 2011 that have been commonly perceived as unnatural or catastrophic fires actually were similar to fires that occurred historically in these dry forests.

The findings suggest that national programs that seek to uniformly reduce the density of these forests and lower the intensity of fires will not restore these forests, but instead alter them further, with negative consequences for wildlife. Special-concern species whose habitat includes dense forest patches, such as spotted owls, or whose habitat includes recently burned forests, such as black-backed woodpeckers, are likely to be adversely affected by current fuel-reduction programs.

The findings of the study suggest that if the goal is to perpetuate native fish and wildlife in western dry forests, it is appropriate to restore and manage for variability in forest density and fire intensity, including areas of dense forests and high-intensity fire.

Key findings:

• Only 23-40% of the study areas fit the common idea that dry forests were open, park-like and composed of large trees.

• Frequent low-intensity fires did not prevent high-intensity fires, as 38-97% of the study landscapes had evidence of intense fires that killed trees over large areas of dry forests.

• The rate of higher-severity fires in dry forests over the past few decades is lower than that which occurred historically, regardless of fire suppression impacts.

The authors are Dr. Mark A. Williams and Dr. William L. Baker, who are scientists in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Mark A. Williams is a 2010 PhD graduate, and Dr. William L. Baker is a professor, both in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography. In Dr. Williams’s PhD, he developed and applied new scientific methods for reconstructing historical structure and fire across large land areas in dry western forests. Dr. Baker teaches and researches fire ecology and landscape ecology at the University of Wyoming and is author of a 2009 book on “Fire Ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes.”

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Posted in Climate Change, Forests, logging, Restoration Economy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

U of Montana suspends biomass plant proposal, apologizes for “eco-terrorist” comment

Posted by Matthew Koehler on December 3, 2011

Last fall, when news broke that the University of Montana was planning to construct a $16 million wood-burning biomass plant on campus, the WildWest Institute got together with some retired UM professors and University neighborhood homeowners and began researching the proposal.

It quickly became apparent that many important questions and concerns were going unanswered by UM officials, some of whom seemed to favor running a PR campaign over a transparent, open public process. So, to get to the bottom of what was really happening, we conducted an open records search of UM’s biomass project file, which included poring over hundreds of electronic communications between UM officials and biomass company executives.

What became so clear and so very troubling is that much of what we discovered in these internal documents turned out to be the exact opposite of what UM officials were telling the public.

For example, we turned up documents showing that the wood-burning biomass plant would actual increase emissions, pollution and particulate matter over the existing natural gas system. In fact, as was later reported in the Missoulian, UM’s wood-burning biomass plant would release the emissions equivalent of roughly 130 woodstoves burning on campus.

Anyone living in Missoula knows all too well about our poor air quality and fragile airshed. The American Lung Association has regularly given Missoula County an F-grade in their annual “State of the Air” report, although this spring we were upgraded to a grade of D. An improvement yes, but still nothing to gloat about.

Especially vulnerable to increased air pollution and particulates are children, the elderly and those living with asthma and reduced respiratory function. This is especially true during the winter months, when nasty inversions and air quality alerts are common in our valley. So think for a moment what a UM biomass plant pumping out the emissions equivalent of 130 woodstoves on campus would look like.

Equally as troubling was what we uncovered regarding the economics of this project. To put it mildly, it’s been difficult to get an accurate assessment from UM of the biomass plant’s up-front and long-term costs, something all Montana taxpayers deserve. For starters, we noticed in the project file that the cost of the project went from $10 million in April 2010 to $16 million by the end of the year.

When we carefully combed through UM’s financial pro forma, we also noticed that the biomass plant would need nearly $27 million for additional operation and maintenance expenses over the existing natural gas system during just the first 40 years of operation.

The pro forma was also troubling in other aspects. It over-estimated the cost of natural gas, while under-estimating the cost of wood fuel trucked to campus. As natural gas prices continued to drop sharply over the past year, UM refused to change their economic analysis to reflect this reality, despite numerous and repeated requests from the public.

So too, when UM’s attempted to secure bids for wood fuel from timber suppliers this summer, the deadline came and went without a single timber company responding to UM’s request because they could not match UM’s significantly rosy wood fuel cost projections. Again, UM refused to change their economic analysis to reflect this reality.

Well, yesterday, Christmas came earlier for those who value clean air and not wasting taxpayer dollars in tight economic times. UM President Royce Engstrom took to the podium in Turner Hall to announce that the University of Montana has suspended their wood-burning biomass plant indefinitely.

President Engstrom cited a number of reasons for suspending the biomass project, which I must point out, are the same issues and concerns that have continually been raised over the past year by WildWest Institute, Alliance for Wild Rockies and a handful of concerned citizens.

President Engstrom also offered a public apology for the recent statement made by UM Vice President Bob Duringer, in which Mr. Duringer claimed that those of us concerned with aspects of the biomass project were engaged in a “lower level of eco-terrorism.”

Finally, during the press conference it was also revealed that the University paid over half a million dollars – $541,000 to be exact – to an out-of-state consulting firm for the planning costs associated with this now suspended biomass project. Too bad the University couldn’t turn by the clock and put that half a million dollars towards some tried and true methods of reducing carbon footprints focused on conservation and energy efficiency.

As a University of Montana alum I’m pleased that UM finally pulled the plug on this wood-burning biomass plant, even if the planning process over the past year involved some unnecessary frustrations, headaches and $541,000.

At the end of the day, Missoula’s air quality – and Montana taxpayer wallets – were protected. And those are things that are worth standing up for all day, every day.

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Forests, logging | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Hundreds arrested in sustained White House tar sands pipeline protests

Posted by Matthew Koehler on September 1, 2011

David Dougherty with The Real News takes a very good in-depth look at the continuing White House protests and the environmental and social issues surrounding the Alberta Tar Sands and the Keystone XL pipeline. Protesters are demanding that President Obama use his veto power to halt proposed expansion of Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada, through Montana and the Great Plains, and then down to refineries in Texas along the Gulf of Mexico.

Also, I just ran across this new report (download pdf) from Oil Change International called Exporting Energy Security: Keystone XL Exposed.

Posted in Climate Change, Economy, Energy, Green jobs, Obama Administration, Unsustainable | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hillary Clinton’s State Department Oil Services and Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

Posted by Matthew Koehler on September 1, 2011

Produced by Mark Fiore, this short animation is a not-so-far-fetched parody of Hillary Clinton’s State Department Oil Services and the influence of oil industry lobbyists on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline permit decision. For more information, visit http://www.desmogblog.com/tarsands.

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Why We Fight: Paul Edwards discusses his tar sands, megaloads video

Posted by Matthew Koehler on August 25, 2011

(Note: This article was written by Paul Edwards. It originally appeared in the summer 2011 newsletter of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Paul’s new tar sands/megaloads video can be viewed here. – MK)

If John Muir were alive today he’d be a member of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Muir was no armchair environmentalist, he was a radical activist committed to demonstrable results on the land, not to collaboration and consensus. He maintained that the whole natural world was vitally connected and you couldn’t damage one essential element of it without damaging it all in ways unknown and unforeseen. He’d be with us.

So would Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s passionate connection to the wild world led him, through years of immersion in it and deep, discerning introspection, to the formulation of his watershed Land Ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” That’s the mantra we live by in this organization.

The Alliance is often accused by nature rapists, ecosystem despoilers, and their phony sob sisters of being an uncompromising “obstructionist” organization. What drives them nuts is that we relentlessly attack and beat proposals that are flagrantly criminal — and so much of what is being done or attempted now in various ways by the Corporate Tyranny that owns America is simply criminal.

One good example is the Alberta Tar Sands obscenity. This incalculably destructive eco-crime has the full backing of both the Canadian and American governments, but organized opposition to it is growing every day.

Meanwhile, Exxon–a major Tar Sands player and extortionist pirate–has cut a deal with Montana’s Coalboy Governor and his Idaho counterpart, Oily Butch Otter, to run monstrous megaloads from the port of Lewistown on narrow Highway 12 along the federally-designated Wild and Scenic Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers. From there the route twists over serpentine Lolo Pass, goes down through Missoula and follows the Blackfoot River to the Rocky Mountain Front then up to the Alberta Tar Sands.

There are administrative challenges and lawsuits under way against the scam in both Idaho and Montana, but there’s no telling how they’ll play out. So, knowing I had a shot at a known enemy, I decided to try to hit Exxon where they live by doing a video to expose them in all their appalling arrogance.

The fight against the massive and continuing destruction of the Tar Sands is as David and Goliath as it gets. But as John Muir would have said, it is directly related and “connected” to the essential mission of the Alliance: We fight the arrogant and irresponsible exercise of concentrated money and power that exploits and abuses the natural world and the people who inhabit it.

Vital ecosystem connections are the essence of the Tar Sands fight and are part and parcel of what the Alliance has been doing with issues like the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act for decades. We fight the tough fights against very long odds…and we win most of the time.

For exactly that reason, members Muir and Leopold would be proud of us.

Paul Edwards was born in South Dakota and has worked as a pea-pitcher, header puncher, roustabout, wild animal trainer’s assistant, high-steel man, able seaman, movie actor and NGO rep in I Corps, Vietnam. Paul also put in 25 years as a writer, director and producer in Hollywood film and television (including the hit TV series Gunsmoke) before fleeing for his life and what remained of his sanity to his ranch on the Rocky Mountain Front at the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

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Updates from White House sit-in to stop Tar Sands Keystone XL Pipeline

Posted by Matthew Koehler on August 22, 2011

A few weeks ago environmental leaders – including Maude Barlow, Wendell Berry, Tom Goldtooth, James Hansen, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben and David Suzuki – called for civil disobedience at the White House to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada’s tar sands, through Montana and the Great Plains, and then down to refineries in Texas.

According to Tar Sands Action:

Another 52 Americans were arrested at the White House this morning (August 22, 2011) for taking part in an ongoing sit-in to push President Obama to stand up to Big Oil and deny the permit for a massive new oil pipeline. In total, 162 people have been arrested since the ongoing protest began on Saturday.

This morning’s demonstrators came to Washington, DC from across the country, willing to spend their vacation in handcuffs to send a message to the President that they feel has abandoned their values and his promises to take on climate change.

Lori Fischer, the co-director for Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition and a member of Nebraska Farmers Union, traveled with five other Nebraskans and was arrested this morning. She said before her arrest:

“If the government is going to refuse to step up to the responsibility to defend a livable future, I believe that creates a moral imperative for me and many others. This is a crucial issue for Nebraskans to speak up loudly about. Our land, water, and the future of our children are at stake. I feel our leaders need to take seriously their responsibility to pass on a healthy and just world to the next generation, I am going to Washington remind them.”

Make sure to check out Tar Sands Action’s webpage for lots more general information and video, photos and updates on the continuing protest at the White House.

Another good source of information is the DC Indy Media site. Worth a look is a video Climate Wars, Episode 1:The Tar Sands. The site also links to Anonymous – Operation Green Rights – Tarmageddon Phase Two.

Posted in Climate Change, Coal, Energy, Obama Administration | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Activists protest tar sands, Keystone Pipeline and megaloads at MT Capital

Posted by Matthew Koehler on July 12, 2011

According to the Great Falls Tribune:

“More than 100 environmental activists from across the country descended on Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office Tuesday to demand that he rescind his support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the Exxon Mobile megaload transportation project.

Schweitzer met with the rowdy group of activists in the reception room of his office, but refused to meet their demands. Activists from Northen Rockies Rising Tide, Earth!First and other environmental groups said last week’s rupture of an Exxon Mobile pipeline that fouled dozens of miles of the Yellowstone River downstream of Laurel is a prime example of why Schweitzer should “toss big oil out of Montana.”

Great Falls Tribune reporter John S. Adams is on scene and, according to his Montana Lowdown blog, will “have more on this as the day goes on, including photos and video from today’s protest in Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office.”

On Monday, Adams took a deeper look into the issue with his post, “Schweitzer still supports oil sands/Keystone XL despite tough talk on Yellowstone oil spill.”

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Mad Men Pitch High Speed Rail for U.S. PIRG

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 9, 2011

From U.S. PIRG:

WASHINGTON, Mar. 9 –Two lead actors from the hit television show Mad Men throw their support behind high-speed rail in a humorous new online video. The actors and U.S. PIRG, a national advocacy organization, developed the video as a way to reach new audiences and build excitement for high-speed rail projects around the country.

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Is the essential being destroyed to produce the superfluous?

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 4, 2011

That’s the central question asked in a new film Forests by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who was appointed by the United Nations to produce the official film for the International Year of Forests.

Following the success of Home, which was seen by 400 million people, Arthus-Bertrand began producing a short 7-minute film on forests made up of aerial images from Home and the Vu du Ciel television programmes.

“Over the past 60 years we have inflicted more rapid degradation on the planet than in all of human history. When forests are cleared it is not just animals that are in danger. Is the essential being destroyed to produce the superfluous?”

I’m certainly nothing more than a causal film viewer; however, some of the footage in Forests, where Arthus-Bertrand takes us into the canopy of forests around the world, is just mind-boggling and appears three-dimensional. Enjoy all this green on another gray Montana day!

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Climate activist Tim DeChristopher goes to trial

Posted by Matthew Koehler on February 27, 2011

(What follows is a slightly abridged version of an article by Umbra Fisk, which appeared on Grist on Feb 22, 2011)

The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be … The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.—Martin Luther King, Jr.

I want to share a story of an ordinary citizen using peaceful direct action to take a stand.

When Tim DeChristopher woke up one morning in December of 2008, what he was intending to do that day was disrupt a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction. He did not expect he was starting down a road that would leave him $1.7 million in debt, facing a court date and up to 10 years in jail. But Monday, Feb. 28, DeChristopher will go to trial for an unusual and profound act of creative, direct, nonviolent civil disobedience.

For DeChristopher, armchair activism wasn’t enough of a response to the climate crisis. So when he heard that parcels of land were going to be rushed off for lease in an auction at the end of the Bush administration, opening them up for drilling, DeChristopher wanted to do something to stop the sale.

As a busy graduate economics student at the University of Utah, DeChristopher hadn’t planned what he was going to do that day when he arrived directly after a class. The auctioneers asked if he would like to be a bidder. Thinking on his feet, he said, “Yes, I would.”

Handed bidder paddle number 70, DeChristopher began bidding as soon as the auction opened. He bought more than a dozen parcels and drove up the prices of others before being stopped by a federal agent. His “purchase” totaled 22,500 acres, and effectively put a halt to the 11th-hour leases and subsequent drilling.

The auction itself was later deemed illegitimate by the Obama administration because it was conducted outside of the rules set for holding such auctions. A law known as Secretarial Order 3226 went into effect in 2001, stating that all parts of the Department of the Interior, including the Bureau of Land Management, have to take into account the impacts of climate change in any major decision they make involving resource extraction.

Last year, climate luminaries Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, James Hansen, Robert Redford, and Terry Tempest Williams published an open letter to support DeChristopher.

They wrote that he “pulled off one of the most creative protests against our runaway energy policy in years: he bid for the oil and gas leases on several parcels of federal land even though he had no money to pay for them, thus upending the auction. The government calls that ‘violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act’ and thinks he should spend ten years in jail for the crime; we call it a noble act, a profound gesture made on behalf of all of us and of the future.”

If you’re interested in joining the march or trial activities, you can find information for how to do that here. Watch Solve Climate News for a series of seven interviews with Tim DeChristopher. Contribute to Tim’s legal defense at Bidder 70.

During the two years since the auction, DeChristopher’s trial has been rescheduled nine times. He is heading toward the Feb. 28 date with “joy and resolve,” committing to letting his position be known even in the face of significant jail time. “I have no illusions about prison being a nice place,” DeChristopher told me in an interview. “But I’ve been very scared about my future for a long time. Throughout this I’ve been a lot more scared about staying on the path that we’re on now than about going to prison for a couple of years,” said DeChristopher.

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