Skip to content Skip to navigation

Gaining in Public Acceptance, Can Prescribed Fires Head Off Devastating Wildfires?

Felicity Barringer
Jul 18 2019

An academic study supports the notion that one way to mitigate wildfires is clearing out trees, brush and brambles in the forest understory, often with prescribed burns. But proponents face a slew of obstacles, from pollution concerns and shrinking seasonal windows, to the vast scale of undertreated western forestland.

Presidio of Monterey Photograph

The U.S. Army conducts a prescribed burn in the Fort Ord National Monument in October 2017. Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs via Flickr
 

By Felicity Barringer

As another fire season stretches out before communities across the West, anxiety is inexorably mounting. Maybe it started with the March headlines about drought and 1.5 million dead trees killed by beetles in the southern Sierra. Maybe with the news that Pacific Gas & Electric, the dominant northern California utility, will turn power off in some communities when its wires risk causing a blaze like the Camp Fire that devastated Paradise in 2018. Maybe just since the dry season gets longer every day, anxiety can easily provoke impatience – what is being done to make us safer?

An academic study in May produced a cluster of headlines when it reiterated that one way to mitigate wildfires is clearing out trees, brush, and brambles in the forest understory. More is needed, said the study by University of Idaho scientist Crystal Kolden published in the journal “Fire” under a headline that began, “We’re Not Doing Enough Prescribed Wildfire…”

 

Resistance to Prescribed Fires Turns to Enthusiasm, But Many Obstacles Remain

But between the understandable fear and one obvious and underused remedy – prescribed fires – lie the hazy realities that stand in their way, even as experts agree that millions and millions of western acres should be treated.  Asked if the main obstacle to prescribed burns is logistical issues, or health concerns, or the availability of personnel, or weather, or funding, Mark Melvin, a spokesman for the national Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils, replied, “All of the above.” 

US Forest Service Photograph
A prescribed burn in Kings Canyon National Park in California’s southern Sierra Nevada mountains in 2011.   National Park Service

One problem, he said, is how decades of aggressive fire suppression left forests overgrown, choking in understory and without gaps in the topmost level. Another issue, said Melvin: “when was the last time an area burned?” And “location. It matters whether it’s next to a city or a class 1 airspace,”  – referring to a region containing a national park, monument, or other site where by federal law, the air must remain clean.

“Then there’s scale,” Melvin said. “Are you talking about burning 10 acres or 10,000? or 100,000? And there’s the season – you have to have the right kind of weather conditions.” There’s also the question of community attitudes to the smoke.

“Those are the challenges that you face,” and that make it hard for state or federal foresters to carry out prescribed burns, no matter the benefits,” Mr. Melvin said.

 

Can Small Prescribed Burns Meet the Staggering Need for Forest Clearance?

Melvin, who has been working to increase prescribed burns since he joined a regional group in Georgia 30 years ago, comes from a region where the burns have been common for decades – the Southeast. That’s not true for the West. Of the 33 million acres of forest in California alone – 20 million of which are under the U.S. Forest Service’s control – the number of acres covered by prescribed burns has risen from 8,067 acres seven years ago to 19,413 acres last year, according to data from Cal Fire, though Forest Service data shows a number about twice as high. Most of these have been on the western slope of the Sierra, in El Dorado County, which abuts Lake Tahoe. But some have been in areas from the Owens Valley in the East to Mendocino County in the West.

Graphic: For Prescribed Fire Treatments, a Regional Mismatch

Source: National Interagency Fire Center via Climate Central

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West
 

But “it’s going to go up much more than that,” said Stanley Young, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, whose job is to avoid letting excessive smoke cover communities, where it could bring dangerous particulate matter and toxins. “We are in a new chapter,”  he said. “I think that this year is going to be a dividing line between the old approach and the new approach.” This follows Governor Gavin Newsom’s “massive focus on forest management and forest health.”

Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said his agency has identified 35 projects covering 90,000 acres, which affect 200 communities around the state.  The “boots on the ground,” he said, “include the firefighters – 6,100 permanent and 2,400 seasonal workers,” who now work nine months, up from five. To do a prescribed burn in the past, McLean said, “we had to meet a lot of criteria. The government has streamlined a lot of that to enable us to get a quicker start.”

 

Where There’s Prescribed Fire, There’s Smoke: Western States Grapple with Air Quality Compromises

Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs

Smoke rises from the controlled burn at Fort Ord in October 2017.   Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs via Flickr

It’s not just California’s government taking action in the wake of two horrific fire seasons.  Southwest Oregon was bedeviled by smoke from multiple wildfires last summer,. In March, the state adopted new rules “to open things up to allow for more burning and still maintain air quality,” said Nick J. Yonker, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s smoke management program officer. Environmental health advocates at Oregon Wild protested the loosening of standards

Recent medical studies, including a new one from Stanford Medical School, show that the health impacts of smoke from prescribed burns is less than the impacts of wildfire smoke. With a prescribed burn, “We have a greater ability to manage the smoke,” said Sarah McCaffrey, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service. “You will not get air quality approval if the odds are great that you will have a major smoke impact” on a local community.

 

Objections Remain, But the Public is Warming to Prescribed Burns

But while public objections of prescribed burns have not disappeared, the amount and the volume have receded, according to federal foresters and state officials. As Mike Maynard, Cal Fire’s battalion chief in California’s Mendocino County, said, “I get to people I’ve been talking to for 40 years,” about forest management, he said. “Before, there were definitely questions and I had to justify” a proposed prescribed burn.” Now he said, “The enthusiasm is amazing.”

Chico-based California National Guard soldiers conduct search and debris clearing operations in Paradise, California in November 2018. Crystal Housman/U.S. Air National Guard

Chico-based California National Guard soldiers conduct search and debris clearing operations in Paradise, California in November 2018.   Crystal Housman/U.S. Air National Guard via Flickr

“The difference is that people now are scared. It’s gone from intermittent concern to ‘Paradise could happen here.’”

“The difference is that people now are scared. It’s gone from intermittent concern to ‘Paradise could happen here.’” Maynard’s unit has a waiting list of 30 private landowners who have requested burns. But right now, he added, “the conditions are not in our favor,” – low humidity and low moisture content in the wood. Still, he said, “Public opinion is finally in alignment with funding and policy.”

Community objections may have receded, but the obligation to avoid health impacts remains. Take this example: Late this winter, state air officials approved two 160-acre burns on the same day in the Inyo National Forest in California’s Owens Valley, south of the town of Big Pine.

 

Many Factors Have to Align for a Successful Burn

According to Jan Sudomier, an air quality specialist at the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, that agency approved the burns for February 26, assuming that southwesterly winds would disperse the smoke and keep it away from town. But on the appointed day, only one burn happened. She explained, “the southerly surface winds dominated and pushed the smoke straight up the valley through Big Pine.” In addition, she said, Cal Fire did not like the way the first fire was burning. The second was cancelled.

The tally kept by California Air Resources Board shows that, over the past five years, an average of about 70 percent of acres approved for prescribed burns were actually treated – last year that amounted to 3,800 acres in El Dorado County, which has the lion’s share of the prescribed burns in California.

 

Beyond Forests: Grassland Fires Are a Growing Problem

The Deep Creek Mountains in Utah. Photograph by Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

The Deep Creek Mountains in Utah.   Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management via Instagram

The term wildland fire conjures up images of deep forest blazes, but an underappreciated and growing threat is posed by grassland fires as well. The acreage lost to wildfire in western forests is virtually equaled by fires in the nation’s grasslands. Unlike forest fires managed by the Forest Service and Park Service, grassland fires are often under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.

Graphic: Grassland Surpasses Forest in Acres Burned Nationwide

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West
 

“When you implement a prescribed fire, you get these invasives back. You may have restored the forests from a fire perspective, but you’ve lost other components.”

Michele Crist, a landscape ecologist at the National Interagency Fire Center, supports prescribed fire as a management tool where it makes sense, but notes that for areas experiencing too much fire, such as sagebrush lands in the Great Basin, the Bureau of Land Management is not promoting prescribed fire because “we have an invasive grass fire cycle that has completely changed” the natural fire cycle. Lower elevation grasslands that once burned infrequently now burn far too often, and since Invasive weeds like cheatgrass have grown among the sagebrush, and when fire comes, the cheatgrass burns first and then comes back first, It outcompetes the sagegrass, which slowly disappears, as a Bloomberg report describes. The more fire, of any sort, the more the old ecosystem is very challenging to restore.

Graphic: Sagebrush landscape gives way to fire-prone invasives after grassland fire
Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West and Michele Crist/National Interagency Fire Center

Cheatgrass and two other invasive weeds – ventanata and red brome – are also elbowing their way into the low piñon-juniper forests or ponderosa pine forests. “When you implement a prescribed fire, you get these invasives back. You may have restored the forests from a fire perspective, but you’ve lost other components, like flora and fauna. And the grasses that were once associated with this forest can easily be replaced by invasives,” said Crist.  

 

Prescribed Fires’ Seasonal Window of Opportunity is Narrowing

“The odds that you’re going to get the right conditions are not that big. Then when you get the right conditions, do you actually have the staff ready to do the burn?”

And even in places where invasives are not an issue, seasonal weather patterns narrow the available windows for prescribed burns. In the winter in the Sierra, there is too much snow. This year the snow will likely linger till August.  So in winter in most of the mountain West, “you just wouldn’t be able to get a blaze to light and take off,” Crist said. Then come spring rains. And the window between the end of the rains and the arrival of the dangerous heat is small, Burn too late into June and “at that point your risk of potentially losing control of the prescribed fire does increase.” Crist said.

Graphic: In California, Fall is Preferred Time for Controlled Burns

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West
 

“People are fine with prescribed fire once they understand all the work that goes into them,  McCaffrey said. Part of the work is identifying or prescribing the conditions that are needed to do the job safely, she addded.  In many places, “the odds that you’re going to get the right conditions are not that big. Then when you get the right conditions, do you actually have the staff ready to do the burn?”

 

New Forest Management Philosophy Echoes Millennia-Old Native Practices

Of all the federal land-owning agencies considering the use of prescribed burns for forest health and wildfire mitigation, the one where the idea fits most naturally is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For millennia, western tribes did exactly what the foresters of today seek to do – set fires that clear understory and improve the health of the forests and the land.

Many tribes work with fire, notably the Confederated Salish-Kootenai tribe in northwest Montana and the Hupa, Karuk and Yurok tribes have been aggressively practicing these burns in the Klamath and Siskiyou mountains on the California-Oregon border. 

“You can technically say that Native Americans were involved in prescribed burning for thousands of years. The settlers used it as a tool,” said McCaffrey. In the 1920’s it was being used. Then it was pushed out in favor of having a focus on suppression. In the late 1950s and 60s, some scientists made good cases for its value… the forest service formally shifted from control to prescribed fire in 1978,” McCaffrey said.

A wildfire heading for the town hit the area of an old prescribed burn, and “just laid down.” 

Still, evidence that prescribed burns ameliorate the wildfires that follow is mixed.  A KQED report that month about groups in Weaverville, in California’s Trinity Alps, cooperating to use more prescribed burns, quoted the head of a local land stewardship saying that a wildfire heading for the town hit the area of an old prescribed burn, and “just laid down.” 

But some research studies, like this 2012 analysis in the “International Journal of Wildland Fire” show that prescribed burn patches can make a subsequent wildfire smaller – or larger.

Do these burns work to control wildfires? “It depends,” said Alan Olson, Regional Director of Ecosystem Planning for the Forest Service.  “Try to achieve the fuel conditions you want. If you’ve done that well, there’s a high likelihood” of success, given cooperation by the weather. “But,” he added, “it’s just like a dams. Dams don’t protect against all floods.”

Whether burns are designed to mitigate future fires or restore forests to their old life of regular burns, the flowering of both research and activity has created new networks of national, regional and local advocates and practitioners of prescribed burns. 

Compared to a few decades ago, “It’s night and day,” said Olson.  “If you stand back and look at the cooperation” among local state and federal agencies as well as nonprofits, “it’s tremendous. It’s as good today as it’s ever been.”

 

and the west logo

 

Edited by Geoff McGhee.

 

 

Related in ...& the West

Are Forest Managers Robbing the Future to Pay for Present-Day Fires?

In the federal government, wildfires have a lesser claim on disaster funds. As fires burn with greater magnitude and frequency, the cost of fighting them is increasingly borne by money earmarked for prevention.

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

As Plant Faces Closure, New Mexico City Weighs Bet on Clean Coal Technology

With the state committed to decarbonizing its electricity supply by 2045, Farmington’s coal-fired power plant and mine are set to shut down. Faced with the loss of their largest employer, city leaders are considering whether to get behind an uncertain carbon-capture technology, or turn to renewables and the tourist economy.

 

Back to main page

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Lang Atwood Nevada

Responding to Gaining in Public Acceptance, Can Prescribed Fires Head Off Devastating Wildfires?

I can recall in the 1980s in northern Nevada, eastern Calif. the BLM and U.S. Forest Service doing control burns in the Sierra foothills. Most of the time these were needed and were well done but on occasion they got out of control. The state and local agencies weren't really doing many burns then but are now more involved. Some like North Lake Tahoe Fire Dist. (Nevada) have their own seasonal wild land crew and a comprehensive fuel management program, this was unheard of until recently.

7/19/2019, 10:40am

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Maya Burke, Kate Selig, Francisco L. Nodarse, Devon Burger, and Madison Pobis

Articles Worth Reading: October 20, 2020

Revitalizing Indigenous Stewardship with Cultural Burning on the central California coast, the Amah Matsun Land Trust seeks to effectively manage fire-prone lands using the stewardship of Indigenous groups. In the Quiroste Valley, the Native Stewardship Corps (NSC) are working in uplands above the meadow and riparian valley that contain dense stands of Douglas fir and coyote brush with little to no understory. These stands have encroached upon the open coastal prairie grassland. Due to the dense canopy cover, little sunlight reaches the forest floor, thus allowing little to no presence of grasses and forbs. This reduces biodiversity, and threatens the coastal prairie, which was once much more widespread. Cultural burning could help restore the grasslands. The land trust plans a Zoom conference to discuss traditional Native American land management. Amahmutsun Land Trust

Environmental Activists and Hoover Dam Operators Are Joining Forces, as hydro-electric industry groups and environmental activists have publicly committed to collaborate to minimize the environmental harm of existing hydro-electric dams. This union of warring factions from industry and the environmental movement is an instance in a fledgling but growing trend of large-scale industries, joining non-profit organizations and institutions to explicitly address the best ways to counter the threat of runaway climate collapse. The New York Times

Washington State Firm to Abandon Coal, Which May Keep Coal Pollution Going in Montana. Puget Sound Energy’s plan to sell for $1 its stake in Montana’s Colstrip Generating Station needs approval by agencies in both states. If it gets them, it can meet Washington State rules to abandon coal-burning resources by 2025. Montana’s NorthWestern Energy, which wants to keep one unit of the plant going until 2042, would have more say in its future. E&E News

A Push for Statehood For the Navajo Nation comes as congressional Democrats raising the possibility of making the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico into states, voices from the Southwest are reviving the idea of a state, perhaps called Dinétah, to give the region a more powerful voice in national affairs, and increase federal payments. Indian Country Today

Reaching Beyond El Niño Observations, Scientists Examine Distant Ocean Conditions as a key think to predict Western droughts, particularly those affecting the Colorado River, two years in advance. Researchers looked at the most extreme drought years in the past 120 years and found they almost always followed a distinct pattern of unusual warm spells in the tropical reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. up to four years in advance, followed by warming in the northern Pacific two year later. Science

Pursuing Endangered Salmon, California Sea Lions Range Deeper into the Columbia River. NOAA fisheries and researchers at the University of Washington published a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology detailing increased predation of salmon by sea lions. The Columbia River is home to the Chinook Salmon Run, an extremely important ecological niche for the movement of nitrogen throughout the watersheds of the West coast. California sea lions, facing hunger in their more coastal native habitats, have in recent years begun traveling farther and farther upstream to hunt salmon. These hunting migrations are most prevalent before they depart for southern California breeding grounds. Devdiscourse

As Consensus Favoring Prescribed Burns Increases, Rates of Controlled Fires Still Fall in Washington State. Like many states in the West facing challenging fire seasons, Washington has been slow to financially invest in the requirements for effective controlled burning. Crosscut

Articles Worth Reading: October 12, 2020

California Announces Plan to Conserve 30% of State’s Land and Coastal Waters by 2030 as part of the state’s fight against climate change. The effort comes on the back of a growing movement by environmental groups, scientific organizations and the National Geographic Society to advance the “30 x 30” goal: preserve at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. While the decision drew criticism from Republicans, environmentalists praised the announcement as key toward addressing a host of environmental issues in the state. San Jose Mercury News

Montana Asks Court to Throw Out Major Public Lands Decisions after federal judge ousted Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) acting director from his post. The decisions include BLM plans to open up hundreds of thousands of acres for oil and gas drilling. In response, the Department of the Interior argues that former BLM director William Perry Pendley took “no relevant acts” to be thrown out. Pendley served unlawfully for 424 days. The Hill

EPA Grants Oklahoma Environmental Oversight in Indian Country. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s request to the EPA allows the state — not Indigneous nations — to regulate environmental issues in Indian Country. While the decision was welcomed by Oklahoma’s state oil and gas industry, Cherokee Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation quickly denounced the decision. “This was a swift move meant to circumvent the federal government's trust, duty and obligation to consult with the tribal nations concerned,” wrote Muscogee Nation’s press secretary in a statement. Washington Post Indian Country Today

Experts Developing Plan for Trout Recovery in Los Angeles. Biologists and engineers are setting the state for a “fish passage” through downtown L.A. that would aid in the recovery of the Southern California steelhead trout, a threatened species. Concrete and treated urban runoff in the L.A. River channel blocks the trout from returning to local rivers to spawn. The recovery effort could rival the return of the gray wolf, bald eagle and California condor. Los Angeles Times

The Votes Cast, a Fat Bear is Crowned in Alaska. Every year, the Katmai National Park and Preserve holds Fat Bear Week, an online competition that allows individuals to vote on large bears, in an effort to raise awareness about the park’s wildlife. This year’s champion? Bear 747 (named in reference to the Boeing 747), weighing in at more than 1,400 pounds. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: October 6, 2020

The Royal Bank of Canada is Withholding Financing for Drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, citing its “particular ecological and social significance and vulnerability.” This policy change may be part of a paradigm shift for major financial institutions, which finance and drive the majority of oil and gas development. The bank’s pledge comes after the U.S. Department of the Interior’s recent decision to open up the refuge for development. RBC joins five major U.S.-based banks in this decision to not finance development in the ANWR, including Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and J.P. Morgan Chase. The Narwhal

A Devastating Fire Season Just Keeps Going: to date, California wildfires have consumed four million acres as 8,200 fires in August killed 31 people and destroyed more than 8,400 buildings. Burning through 100,000 acres, the August complex fire in Mendocino County is the largest on record, “at nearly five times the size of New York City.” It is only 54 percent contained by weary fire fighters. Increasing temperatures exacerbate the fires’ intensity; their effects are being experienced at greater distances, as hazardous air quality conditions extend across the continent. The Guardian

An in-depth video shows the severity of California’s fires and what to worry about now, like mudslides. San Jose Mercury News

Canadian Indigenous Groups Looking to Invest in the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline which Indigenous groups in the United States oppose. Four First Nations groups in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan are pursuing an equity interest in the pipeline, signing a memorandum between the pipeline developer, TC Energy, and Natural Law Energy, which represents the Three Maskwacis Nations and the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, in Alberta, and the Nekaneet First Nation in Saskatchewan. The idea is to create a long-term partnership. Neither party explicitly commented on the Indigenous-activist led resistance movement to the pipeline. Members of the Lakota Nation and the Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux who led a delegation to the U.S.-Canadian border for an anti-pipeline prayer ceremony in mid-summer, described a Native employee of TC Energy “a traitor.” Kallanish Energy Billings Gazette

Snake River Dams Not Going Anywhere After Federal Decision to Release More Water for as much as 16 hours daily to help stabilize the population of fish, particularly Chinook salmon, that have suffered serious decline in the entire Columbia River watershed. The plan adopted by three federal agencies won praise from groups representing farmers and loggers, but skepticism from conservationists and dismissal from the Nez Perce tribe. Boise State Public Radio

Solar Energy Expansion Is in Overdrive in West Texas; the state has 17 solar facilities, including 13 with capacities of at least 100 megawatts of power. With intense sun and large swaths of empty land where major solar farms can spread out, West Texas has long been ideal for solar development. Texas’ free-market approach and loose regulations encourage all big electricity projects, including solar. The cost of developing solar farms has dropped about 40 percent in Texas in the last five years, according to an industry association. Texas Observer

Clam Gardens, Revived on the Beaches of British Columbia, are expanding crustacean habitat using an age-old Native practice of flattening the shoreline with small rock walls and tilling the sand to improve aeration. Using these methods and removing predators like the sea star allows the Wsáneć, Hul’q’umi’num, and Stz’uminus First Nations to expand the habitat for butter, littleneck, and horse clams, plus crabs, chitons, seaweeds, and other useful species. Generations of Native land stewards continued this practice even when overrun by colonial settlers who passed laws criminalizing the work. The Guardian

Articles Worth Reading: September 29, 2020

Knowing How to Fight the Megafires of Climate Change is the daunting task facing firefighters today. Wildfires are behaving in unprecedented ways and the traditional ways to fight them are proving inadequate. The Yellowstone Fire of 1988 was a harbinger of what is now an annual series of catastrophes. Hotter, drier weather increases the scale, power, and frequency of wildfires, which spawn tornadoes and thunderstorms. Once unheard-of Arctic fires produce large volumes of greenhouse gases; every degree Celsius of temperature rise increases lightning activity by 12 percent. Yale Environment 360

Recycling Helps Rid Us of Forever Plastics? No, Say Some Experts. Much recycled plastic, from yogurt containers to bags and “clamshells,” heads not for a new life but landfills. One former executive told a PBS Frontline investigation that selling the idea of recycling meant they could sell plastic. While all used plastic can be repurposed, it’s expensive to pick it up, sort it, and melt it down. KQED

New Mexico Resists a New License for Nuclear Waste Storage Facility. A New Jersey company wants a 40-year license to build a multi-billion-dollar complex near Carlsbad. It would store up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, packed into 500 canisters. Future expansion could allow up to 10,000 canisters of spent fuel from nuclear plants around the country. State officials told Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the firm’s analysis is incomplete, the site is geologically unsuitable and environmental justice issues are being ignored. Associated Press

A 37-Year-Old Public Trust Doctrine to Preserve Inland Lakes just got a new look from the Nevada Supreme Court. In the precedent-setting 1983 Mono Lake case, the California Supreme Court ruled that the public trust interest in the water, fish and wildlife of the lake meant diversion of the lake’s tributaries must be controlled. Nevada’s Supreme Court just took a different tack, saying the state could not reshuffle existing rights to the Walker River to protect the receding Walker Lake. Ninth Circuit federal appeals judges had send sent the case to the Nevada court; it’s now headed back to federal court. Las Vegas Sun Nevada Independent

Local Control Was the Hallmark of California’s Groundwater Law, but a new study shows the local plans tend to favor large agribusiness over small farmers. Only about 12 percent of 260 new groundwater sustainability agencies include representatives from tribal groups or small farms not already affiliated with local irrigation districts. Estuary

After Four Decades of Combat Over the Efforts to Drill for Oil Under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Appear Headed for Success. With the lives and livelihoods of the Indigenous groups of the region at issue, a month ago, the Interior Department cleared the way for bidding on drilling rights. But the voices of the Iñupiat people — some of whom welcome the chance to earn revenue from lands that were once theirs — and the Gwich’in people, for whom the caribou of the region are both a nutrition and cultural linchpin — are seldom heard. A collaboration with of the The Threshold podcast, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Reveal

Aquariums are Accustomed to Showing the Ocean’s Shallows, Not Its Depths. Now, around the world, they are figuring out how to display the mysterious and remarkable animals of the deep sea. Two years hence, California’s Monterey Bay aquarium hopes to create the first large-scale exhibition of deep sea life and the impact that warming and seabed mining may have on the unseen world. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: September 23, 2020

Establishing a New Indigenous Wildfire Task Force is the goal of a California State Senate candidate, Jackie Fielder. As “fire season” becomes increasingly intense, the need for effective fire management practices increases, and Indigenous groups’ knowledge becomes a beacon for forest managers.. Fielder’s plan is based on the Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan, which shows how controlled burns help prevent destructive wildfires. SF Weekly

Recent Fires Destroyed Much of Washington State’s Crucial Sage Grouse Habitat An expert on the birds said that the state’s population of less than 1,000 grouse may have been cut in half as fires burned more than 600,000 acres of forest and sagebrush rangeland this year. Overall, scientists have issued a report showing that grouse populations in nine states have declined 44 percent in five years. Mongabay

Los Angeles Is Working to Turn Recycled Plastic into Pavement and Parking Lots. Three years ago, when China announced it would take no more recycling waste, the federal Energy Department started looking for ways to dispose of the excess piling up in American dumps. The city is working on a project to create asphalt containing recycled plastic and has experimented with the asphalt mix on parking lots and small roads. It is now planning to use it on a major street near Walt Disney Concert Hall. E&E News

The Southwest Is Suffering a Major Bird Die-Off, as thousands of migratory birds have been found dead in recent weeks. The cause of this mass die-off remains unknown, but some theorize that raging western wildfires forced many birds to reroute their migrations, and that exceptionally dry conditions have greatly reduced the presence of insects, birds’ main source of food. Large avian mortality during migration is rare and few instances have been as large as this one. High Country News

Microsoft Has Launched the Second Phase of an Underwater Data Center Experiment , extending work done off the West Coast in 2015 to explore the feasibility of submarine computing. Their Natick Project intended to explore underwater data centers’ potential economic and environmental advantages relative to those on dry land. The findings: a sealed container on the ocean floor could improve overall reliability, given that oxygen and humidity corrode terrestrial centers as they do other modern infrastructure. The team also hopes that offshore data centers could support faster information retrieval over interconnected networks. CMSWire

A “Language Keepers” Podcast Illuminates the Struggle to Keep Indigenous Languages Alive in California. Two centuries ago, as many as 90 languages and 300 dialects were spoken in California. Today only half this number remain. This series explores the current state of four Indigenous languages that are among the most threatened in the world: Tolowa Dee-ni’, Karuk, Wukchumni, and Kawaiisu. It features stories of families and communities across California working to revitalize their Native languages and cultures. Emergence Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: September 15, 2020

While the Jordan Cove Gas Export Terminal Has Received Federal Go-Aheads to Operate, lawsuits, other permitting delays and the unstable economics of natural gas make the export terminal’s future uncertain. Even if Pembina Pipeline Corp., developer of the planned terminal, prevails over state officials and environmentalists in court, the project faces a fragile liquid natural gas market — U.S. exports have decreased about 61% from January to July. ”It is increasingly difficult to permit and build these types of projects ... whether it's market demand or public outcry," said a Western Environmental Law Center lawyer. E&E News

For a Second Year, a Landmark Plastic Recycling Measure Fails to gain sufficient support in the California legislature. The bill would have made it a state goal to reduce waste from single-use products by 75 percent, and required that single-use products be recyclable or compostable. The final 37-18 vote at the last minutes of the session fell three votes short of the tally it needed. KQED

The Disappearance of Aleutian Island Otters Frays Alaskan Waters’ Food Web. Over the past 40 years, more than 90 percent of sea otters have vanished from the Aleutians’ delicate seascape. There, otters are more protector than predator, holding the entire ecosystem together by feasting on destructive sea urchins at a rate of up to 1,000 a day. Fewer otters, more urchins. Climate change makes things worse, as reported by a paper in the journal Science. Populations of sea urchins have boomed, carpeting the sea floor in spiny spheres that mow down entire forests of kelp. Now the living, red-algae reefs on which the swirling stands of kelp once stood are in peril. Softened by warming and acidifying waters, the coral-like structures have quickly succumbed to the urchins’ tiny teeth. The New York Times

Many Joshua Trees Were Doomed When Lightning Strikes hit the Mojave National Preserve. On August 15, the first day of California’s lightning siege, thunderstorms rolled across the Mojave National Preserve. The Cima Dome wildfire turned the preserve into a Joshua tree graveyard. Most of the charred trees remain standing, tangible, eerily beautiful ghosts in place of living trees with their crooked beauty. The ghosts will wither and the 43,273 acres of the Dome fire will be despoiled. Los Angeles Times

Getting California Grapes Off the Vine Before Fire and Smoke Ruin Them means depending on vineyard workers who are largely undocumented, and in terms of COVID-19 risk, poorly protected. The wildfires, which have so far collectively burned more than 1.6 million acres in Northern California, sparked right at the beginning of Sonoma County’s grape harvest. And they’re adding to the hazards already faced by some of the country’s poorest and least visible laborers. Gabriel Machabanski, associate director of a workers’ rights organization in Sonoma County, said “Since March, there has been so little work for low-wage workers such as day laborers and seasonal farmworkers; the current situation lends itself, more so than usual, to exploitation by employers.” A photo essay: nighttime harvesting near fires. Civil Eats

One of the Worst COVID-19 Hotspots Is Now an Epicenter of Effective Contact Tracing. After infections are identified, a team of 35 people fans out after to rapidly test people, isolate the infected and visit the homes of any who may have been exposed. Both the White Mountain Apache and nearby Navajo Nation experienced some of the country’s worst infection rates, yet both began to turn things around, in part with robust contact tracing. “We’re seen a significant decline in cases on the reservation at the same time that things were on fire for the rest of the state,” said one local epidemiologist. High Country News

Feral Pigs Change Ecosystems and Human Lives, from Texas to Montana to Saskatchewan. There are as many as 9 million feral swine across the U.S.; populations have expanded from about 17 states to 38 over the last three decades. Texas has about 1.5 million and spends upwards of $4 million annually controlling them, with little hope of eradication. Florida, Georgia, and California also have vast populations. “Pig populations are completely out of control,” said one expert. “The efforts to deal with them are about one percent of what’s currently needed.” The province of Saskatchewan may soon have more wild pigs than people. Montana’s new education campaign, “Squeal on Pigs,” is designed to push residents to report sightings to 24-hour hotline, alerting specialists in pig elimination. Undark

Articles Worth Reading: August 31, 2020

Upending Plans to Mine Precious Metals Near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the Army Corps of Engineers Throws a New Hurdle. The Corps, which a month ago said the Pebble Mine would pose no environmental risk, now says it would mean trouble for the sockeye salmon that thrive in the area. After opposition from presidential son Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who have both been fishing in Bristol Bay, the Corps threw a new hurdle that could thwart federal permitting, finding that “discharge at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources.” Also, a scientist studying the robustness of the sockeye population reports that an unusual, ancestral breed of salmon would be at risk from the mine. E&E News Hakai Magazine

The Redwoods in California’s Oldest State Park Withstood a Wildfire that tore through the area. Reporters found that fears were unrealized that many of the trees, some up to 2,000 years old, had been destroyed. And a relieved scientist pointed out that redwood forests evolved to withstand fire. Associated Press

Colorado’s Governor Is Focused on Promoting San Luis Valley Farmers’ New Approach to dealing with the increasing aridity of an area that is the epicenter of the state’s drought. Quinoa and hemp replace barley and tomatoes, and farmers form local districts to control groundwater use. Denver Post

California Sues to Block New Federal Rules Allowing Farmers Access to So Much Water from the state’s largest river systems that extinction for the delta smelt and two different salmon species could be inevitable. Two huge networks of dams and canals — whose construction led directly to the dwindling of fish populations — control water distribution to farms that supply one-third of the country’s vegetables and half of its nuts and fruit; scientists have been pressured to speed up their evaluations of the threat. KQED

Three Texas Cities Are Models of Efficient and Innovative Water Use. Austin adopted a 100-year water plan in 2018 calling for such advanced conservation and recycling programs that the city anticipates supplying a healthy share of its future water demand by reengineering its water system as a water collection and recycling loop. El Paso cut its per-capita water consumption from 205 gallons daily 30 years ago to 129 gallons today. Some of its conservation practices: subsidizing the replacement of water-wasting bathroom fixtures and regulating lawn watering. San Antonio subsidizes the distribution of digital water-flow sensors and encourages the use of native plants to replace the thirstier show species in local gardens. Circle of Blue

“Keep Immigrant Bees Out.” Environmentalists Want Honey Bees Barred from public lands in Utah. Beekeepers’ honey-bee hives sometimes travel to pollinate crops elsewhere — particularly California’s almond crop — before returning to Utah’s national forests to forage in areas free of pesticides. But honeybees are non-native. Environmentalists are petitioning to ban them from these areas, saying they may spread disease and put unnecessary pressure on native bees. Salt Lake Tribune

Shifting the Balance of Power Between Preserving Birds and Developing Energy. A 1.5-million-acre oil-and-gas development proposed in Wyoming is in the middle of a superhighway for migrating birds, and a court’s insistence on retaining federal penalties for accidental bird deaths from power lines and wind turbines. A potential go-ahead from the Interior Department could be coming soon on the project after six years of federal environmental reviews. The decision, which quoted the Harper Lee novel, saying “it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird,” could dictate how companies operate in Wyoming for the next decade and what happens when they kill birds. E&E Daily

A Trout With Feathers: Looking At the West’s Only Aquatic Songbird. A photo essay on dippers, small gray birds that bob up and down on rocks, dive into streams, and resurface with insects in their beaks. Audubon Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: August 17, 2020

Final Approval to Drill Arctic Wildlife Refuge clears the way for an auction for oil and gas drilling rights on the 1/6 million-acre plain. Four decades of fights over the refuge have paralleled four decades of science showing the burning of fossil fuels is heating the air and the oceans and changing the climate. These changes may make it difficult to sustain the infrastructure needed for drilling. Elsewhere in Alaska, ConocoPhillips is using “chillers” to keep the warming climate from thawing the tundra under its Willow oil drilling platform on the North Slope. Washington Post Bloomberg News

California Heat Sets Records, Creates Rolling Blackouts As Fires Spawn Firenados. The combination of intense heat, dry vegetation and lightning storms has the state struggling on several fronts. The unusual and extreme phenomenon of a fire-generated tornado occurred on August 15 in the Lake Tahoe area as a new fire quickly spun out of control. A few days earlier, the Lake Fire outside Los Angeles spawned its own firenado. Rolling blackouts hit the state while in Death Valley, the temperature hit a record 130 degrees. Los Angeles Times National Public Radio Desert Sun

Arizona’s Drought Intensified as Seasonal Monsoons Again Turn Into “Nonsoons.” With temperatures in Phoenix exceeding 110 degrees for days on end and the three-month period ending in June was the second hottest and third driest in 125 years. Populous Maricopa County, including Phoenix and Scottsdale, is in a severe drought. The impact on the water levels at Lake Mead, which is now at 40 percent of capacity, will mean that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will receive less water from the Colorado River. Arizona Water News Arizona Republic

Some Oregon Forest Land Would Be Lost as Spotted Owl Habitat if a federal Fish and Wildlife Service proposal becomes final. The proposal would take 204,653 acres, or 2 percent of the total of 9.6 Million Acres, from the area of ancient forests designated as critical habitat and set aside as habitat for the endangered owl. Oregon Public Broadcasting

With Ice Disappearing, Pacific Walruses Are Moving Sooner and Sooner to Beaches of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. They just gathered at Point Lay at the end of July, earlier than ever before. The walruses had evolved to use floating ice as platforms for foraging and rearing their young. But for the past 13 years, after the first year of a record-low extent of sea ice, they have been moving to the Point Lay site by the tens of thousands every summer. Arctic Today

A Colorado Lab Works to Prepare the National Electric Grid for a Renewable Future. A scientist used this metaphor to describe the challenge of retrofitting the three power grids to let them handle the upcoming changes: It's like updating a reliable 1957 Chevrolet for the complex technologies and climate-related hazards of the 21st century. What was recently unveiled at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado is a proving ground for the high-tech creations and will test the impacts of battery- and hydrogen-powered energy storage systems and large increases of renewable energy. Scientific American

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

Recent Center News

Oct 21 2020 | CivicPulse | Center News, Happenings, Topics of the West
Bill Lane Center partnership with CivicPulse yields new report on patterns of local protest against coronavirus restrictions across the United States
Oct 20 2020 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
Indigenous fire practices in California; Dam operators and activists join forces; Montana coal prospects dim; Statehood for the Navajo Nation? and more recent environmental reads from around the West.
Oct 12 2020 | Center News, Happenings, Topics of the West
With support from the Lane Center, Stanford students install solar energy panels in a little-known rural western community - Alaska's Inian Islands.