Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Thin in 2014

I am very grateful and excited to introduce WW,SW's first guest blogger in New Mexico, Colin Lincoln Holloway. I asked Colin for a bio to accompany his post and he wrote: 

CLH has lived beyond the pale of the intellectual ghettos that I was born into since I was 16, running to sit on some railroad tracks with the likes of Dan Ellsberg & Allen Ginnsberg. For the last 30 years I've called the Cow Creek Drainage, in the Upper Pecos, my home.

I believe that I woke up into this life with a deep passion, love and concern, for our beleaguered natural systems, though my first love was the ocean. I looked up from the tracks at Rocky Flats to the mountains, starting right there, and realized that the seas start in the hills. Since that time I've been intrigued and passionate about forest ecology.
Rakehell’s Return or a Clear Case for Cutting

The evening before, setting up camp, sun setting, Snow Lake lower than I’ve ever seen it, burned over along the fringes.

Those years ago, we would come here to fill our water containers, looking like strange bedraggled refugees, still wearing our chaps, sometimes our hardhats. Back then, this time of year, the place would be teeming with campers, all the spots along the loop taken up by the bright colors of tents and the bulk of RVs.

This evening, nervous, more than just a little trepidation, as we danced the tent pole dance, only one of two sets of campers there. Tomorrow I’d see it: that stretch of forest I had worked, sixteen years prior. Quaking Aspen thinning would turn out to be the last time I ran saw crews as my primary source of income. Not for lack of love for the job but for lack of a steady, reliable income.

This Calm evening belying the fury of the middle of May to the end of July when the Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire raged around the nearly 298,000 acres surrounding.

The largest fire in recorded New Mexico history.  To Date.

An afternoon’s drive through edges and hearts of the burn, scorched soil, not quite destroyed, sterilized or hydrophobic. Coming through, several miles and a bit, to the lake, passing the turnoff down to Willow Creek, bearing witness to miles of 100% mortality, that proverbial moonscape, the elk, at the height of calving season, absent from the sweep of headlights. They had seemed overcrowded, back there, where the fire hadn’t brought this expanse of hills to destruction.

All I was thinking, hoping fervently for, dark descending, while we finished setting up camp, that maybe that area, off the Bear Wallow Road, wasn’t so bad. That maybe I’d find a copse of trees, a stand, the soil would be in decent shape. Maybe only 80-90% mortality.

“Stop. Stop the car.”
Sitting there in disbelief, gawking.
“That’s the old unit boundary.  See the blue paint on that dougfir?”

I’m a naturalist, or, that is to say, I prefer to think of myself as such, in the tradition and definition of a Jefferson or Thoreau. Jefferson, who would refer to science as art. Free to thrive in the anecdotal, the raw observational, beyond the Imperial constraints, the dour restrictions, of the Empirical. In this, I am allowed miracles. I couldn’t see what was in front of me as much else.

Sixteen years ago, there was no difference of basal area, one side of the road to the other, a tangle of mixed conifer, ponderosa to fir, engleman spruce, the crowns boxing and brawling, fighting for what light, for what soil, they could.

Sure, we ran along the slopes of the northeast side of that canyon like a swarm of really ugly, really noisy bees, not on the southwest side of Quaking Aspen Creek. Sure, the road bisected the bottom and formed part of our unit boundary, a natural place for a herd of smoke eaters to take a stand against hell roaring.

Whether crews set a backfire because of the work on “our” side, or whether the fire simply broke containment, fire did romp up those slopes I had worked, those years before, low and slow, lying down and doing just what a fire should in Intermountain West, moderate elevation, mixed conifer.

Like in a story book, climbing into the lower limbs, as if pruning, staying out of the crowns, but for isolated incidents, not continuing the scorched earth mentality the fire had done, just one hundred meters away, across the creek, where mortality was 100%. I hadn’t stopped that fire, dead in its tracks, sixteen years before it happened, it ran right on through there, but where, on one side, it was a frightening thing of rage and total destruction, on the other side the fire produced only purely positive results – as if that stretch of forest had enjoyed a thoroughly refreshing shower, now invigorated and ready for another century.

    Like I said, as a naturalist, I allow myself miracles.

I’m sure there are those that battle in the trenches of the scribblers of chalk boards that might give up their empirical tendencies to agree. As there are those that might claim thinning to be logging and, therefore, counterproductive, regardless of the fact that they’ve no working definition for one or the other, like knowing pornography when they see it. As there is that annoying majority that would profess that such activity is too difficult, too expensive.

So let us consider the costs, fiduciary and beyond, starting with the $GreenFrogSkins$:

The cost of suppression, just suppression, for that fire, the Whitewater Baldy Complex was 23 million dollars for 297,845 acres.*

Although it was sixteen years prior, our bid for the drop and lop work we did was (admittedly lowball) $85 an acre. Or suppression at 77.22 an acre and thinning at 85 an acre. So, in that, it turns out that the price was comparable, thinning versus fire suppression.


Just for fire suppression, no consideration for BAER team remediation (an incredibly difficult number to find), or the equally difficult number to pin down, as to economic loss of the surrounding communities whose cash registers would be filled by the gas tanks and coolers filled by those that would be fishing on Snow Lake, backpacking and hiking on the trails into the wilderness, now closed, or the costs of damage and repair to roads and other infrastructure.


But what of the other costs?  Certainly the Ghost of Gifford Pinchot would be apoplectic for the loss of what he would perceive as so many commodities, tens of millions of board feet of lumber, lost, that could supply the engines of industry. Well, Pinchot is dead (in my view, thankfully), and so is the attitude that a tree should only be measured in dollar signs.

Here we are left with the mathematics of our era:
At what cost a forest?
At what cost carbon sequestration?

An acre of mixed conifers in the Western Cordillera Bio Structure, in New Mexico specifically, has the ability to sequester approximately 60,700 kilograms of carbon, around 67 US tons, per annum. What is that worth?*

What is the societal value of that forest? Sequestering that much carbon times the average age of trees once growing there, that ability, now stripped, irreplaceable for decades, compounded by the fact that carbon released would be by a factor, the order of magnitude, equal to the average years of sequestration, as measured by the percent of the average tree’s girth as it is related to annual growth, that burned, releasing all those years of the hard work of those trees, their carbon, into the atmosphere? As simple an example of the destructiveness of climate change feedback loops as we can get.

Can we, now, deny that our Western Forests are in great peril? That it is well worth an effort to do what we can to stave off such a disaster? How can it not be prudent to incorporate such costs into the value of our era? For myself, it always puzzles me that many folks don’t consider this, measure this. I find it a responsibility less economic than ethical. After all, we the people, as a society in a representative democracy, caused this to happen, this degradation of our forests and natural environment. I find it pointless to point fingers, struggling for self absolution, we’re here, we did it, own up to it. The time for recrimination is past.

Thing is, what’s to be done?  The time for action is upon us. Yes it would be a gamble to spend our blood and treasure on such a venture, assessing and doing all we can to bring as much health and stability to our forests. Yes it’s a gamble; plenty could go wrong in any number of ways & places, time might not be with us, slash might not have had the year or two needed to break down, a fire could be so hot it makes no difference, blight & disease might override all efforts.

Still in all, a thinned forest definitely stands a better chance of staying a stand. I fail to understand how some would rather see such awful devastation of miles of mortality rather than being annoyed by crews of saws in the woods. I fail to understand those that would argue, one scientist to another, the denizens of the chalkboards, over the historical frequency, heat, size and mortality of fires in the past, whether a certain bird could be a grand mitigator. We stand on a knife’s edge of an environmental reality.  I don’t see how a reasonable person could beg to differ.

We’ve got to look to the future, that past we’ve struggled to measure ain’t here anymore. The future of hockey stick curves whacking on our environment, the future we would have the world live. We’ve got to give our forests every chance, every second we can to adapt to the new paradigm.

The time for action is upon us. Time to drop the chalk and grab our socks. After all, there is more to be gained than lost and miracles can happen if one works like hell to make them happen.

Colin Lincoln Holloway
DeWitt’s End
Lower Colonias, NM
*"2012 Whitewater Baldy Fire Gila National Forest", Southwest Fire Science Consortium

*Baseline and Projected Future Carbon Storage and Greenhouse-Gas Fluxes in Ecosystems of the Western United States”,  USGS Professional Paper 1797, Zhiliang Zhu and Bradley C. Reed, Editors


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