Office of Special Counsel to Investigate Firing of U.S. Forest Service Whistleblower

by John J. Berger, Ph.D and Lani Maher


On January 8th, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced that it would reopen its investigation into the United States Forest Service’s alleged retaliatory actions to fire Alaska wildlife biologist Glen Ith from his position with the USFS. Ith sued the USFS in 2006, “over road repairs and bridge building in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska – work that was being done before timber sales were approved and environmental impact work conducted.” 1 Shortly after winning his case, the USFS suspended Ith from his position and later dismissed him, citing budget cuts as the reason for his firing. He died four days after losing his job.

The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), an environmental nonprofit organization based in Eugene Oregon, works to protect whistleblowers like Glen Ith and their families from similar reprisals. FSEEE also strives to halt detrimental logging operations in the Tongass National Forest, as do other environmental organizations including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and Earthjustice. For updates on the ongoing litigation, and to send support to the FSEEE, please visit their website.

Glen Ith fought to keep roadless portions of the Tongass from being logged. Please read more about this effort.

Talks in Copenhagen Begin to Discuss Deforestation in Brazil

by John J. Berger, Ph.D and Lani Maher

According to some estimates, deforestation accounts for over 15% of world greenhouse gas emissions. Because of the role that its destruction could play in expediting global climate change, the Amazon forest has been the center of attention when it comes to deforestation and natural carbon sequestration. An article published last week in The Guardian reported:

“Barack Obama made his first public intervention in the Copenhagen climate summit Thursday by backing a plan put forward by Norway and Brazil which would [help to] protect the world’s rainforests with funding from rich countries that cannot meet their commitments to cut emissions domestically.”

Brazil has the most remaining forest of every country worldwide, and about 20% of the world’s deforestation per annum occurs in the Amazon forest. Therefore, Brazil’s participation in collaborative talks about slowing deforestation is crucial for the success of about 20 different plans for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) that have been proposed by various countries. Discussions under UN auspices are expected to be very thorough and to continue in a separate conference following the summit in Copenhagen. Determining a means to monitor progress and ensure protection of the forests involved and the peoples who depend on them will surely require much deliberation.

To read more about Barack Obama and Brazil’s roles in addressing deforestation at the Copenhagen conference, please see John Vidal’s article, Copenhagen: Barack Obama backs Norway-Brazil forest protection plan

For more information on forests and their global importance, and strategies for their protection, please see Forests Forever: Their Ecology, Restoration, and Protection by Dr. John Berger

Indonesian Palm Oil Production Causes Mass Deforestation

by John J. Berger, Ph.D and Lani Maher

Recently, deforestation has been a prominent issue amongst scientists and policy makers worried about climate change. The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen has called worldwide attention to the issue and challenged us to find a way to slow the destruction of forests around the world.

Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil derived from the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) that is used in many commercial food products sold in the United States. However, as a recent CNN article points out, most of those products simply list palm oil as ‘vegetable oil’ in their ingredient list labels. Therefore, many people are completely unaware of palm oil’s existence, let alone its uses and the environmental damage that is occurring as a result of its production. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world leaders in palm oil production and much of the rain forest in these countries is being clear-cut and burned to make room for expanding palm oil plantations. The island of Sumatra in Indonesia has already lost about 85% of its rainforest to palm oil production.1 Oil palm crops are also being cultivated to make biodiesel fuel. However, the destruction of carbon-sequestering rain forests, which contributes to global climate change, under the guise of biofuel production, which connotes environmentalism, is misleading for the consumer and only benefits palm oil producers. To learn more about deforestation and climate change, palm oil production in Sumatra, and the threats it’s posing to Indonesian forests, watch the video below.

For more information about forests, their global importance, and strategies for their protection, please see out Forests Forever: Their Ecology, Restoration, and Protection by Dr. John Berger

UN-REDD Program Has Potential

The United Nations Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD program) has received a lot of media attention lately, in the buzz surrounding this year’s U.N. climate change Conference in Copenhagen. Concerned scientists and citizens around the world had hoped a new international agreement addressing climate change would come out of this week’s conference, and many are supportive of the U.N.’s proposed REDD program, which provides countries with incentives to conserve their forests and slow climate change by paying those countries not to cut their forests. However, according to the New York Times, leaders will likely delay making such an agreement this week. Hopefully a framework for a future agreement will emerge from the talks in Copenhagen.

To keep up with the debate and the conference’s progress, please visit the conference website and check this blog often as we will be posting updates.

For more information on forests and their global importance, and strategies for their protection, please, please see Forests Forever: Their Ecology, Restoration, and Protection.

Flaming Forests: Preventing the Next Inferno

Climate Change Makes The Use of Controlled Burns and
Other Fuel Reduction Techniques More Imperative

by John J. Berger, Ph.D and Lani Maher

Powerhouse Fire, Shasta, CA – 1989. © Robert A. Eplett/OES CA

Fire has played an instrumental role in the evolution of many forest and grassland types, which continue to require its presence for ecological health and succession.1 Temperate and boreal forests, for example, naturally experience periodic wildfires in the absence of human fire-suppression efforts

In these ecosystems, fire cleanses the forest of dead and dying material, opens cones, freeing seeds, controls insects and disease, releases nutrients, and−through the patchy nature of most periodic burns−introduces additional habitat heterogeneity. Eliminating woody debris on the forest floor also inhibits the accumulation of fuels and prevents hotter and more damaging blazes from occurring.2

For decades, however, the United States Forest Service’s “Smokey Bear” public education campaign convinced Americans that forest fire was an inherently destructive, unmitigated evil, as the service fought fires with bulldozers to plow firebreaks and aircraft to drop chemical fire retardants. Although successful in suppressing fires, the campaign also served to obscure the beneficial effects of forest and grassland fires from public awareness.

A firefighter looks for hot spots as helicopter makes a water drop.
Old Gulch Fire, Calaveras, CA – August, 1992.
© Robert A. Eplett/OES CA

Effects of Fire Suppression
Where forest fires have long been suppressed, trees and brush grow thickly, drawing lots of moisture from the soil and sometimes drying up creeks and springs, reducing wildlife abundance and diversity. Some plants that require the heat of fire for germination may not reproduce at all, and others get crowded out by the dense brush and trees. In addition, so much fuel may accumulate that when fires eventually occur, they burn with enough ferocity to kill large, normally fire-resistant trees. They also bake the life out of the forest soil and cause both structural and chemical changes that produce a hard, water-resistant crust that impedes forest recovery.

The absence of trees following such a burn leaves the affected area vulnerable to erosion, landslides, and increased runoff, which in turn can clog and choke neighboring riparian ecosystems, harming their fish and other aquatic organisms.3

A recent study by research ecologist Edward E. Little of the United States Geological Survey’s Columbia Environmental Research Center indicates that riparian ecosystems may also be threatened by toxic contamination from fire-retardant sprays used nearby.

Dr. Little has conducted experiments to gauge the effects of fire-retardant chemicals including Fire-Trol® GTS-R and Phos-Chek® D75-R on fish and amphibian health and has found that exposure to these chemicals can cause illness and mortality in some fish and amphibian species.4 These sprays are often introduced to riparian systems through runoff, making them less effective and potentially harming nearby wildlife.5 These chemicals can also be introduced into riparian systems on ash from nearby fires. Furthermore, even when successful at delaying fire for long periods of time, delay often results in larger, more intense fires against which fire-retardant sprays are less effective.

The Station Fire
The Station Fire is a recent example of an inferno that followed a long period of fire suppression in California. It burned for 52 days before finally being fully contained October 16th, 2009 after burning over 250 square miles in the Angeles National Forest, making it the largest forest fire in Los Angeles County’s recorded history. Containment efforts cost taxpayers over $95 million. The blaze is part of a trend: scientists and researchers have noticed in the past decade that wildfires are becoming larger and more frequent. 7

“A recent New York Times article on the Station Fire notes that “7 of the state’s 10 largest wildfires have occurred in the last six years,”8 and discusses research by Scott L. Stephens and Dr. Little on the environmental issues that often arise after such devastating infernos. According to Dr. Stephens, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and president of the Association for Fire Ecology, investigations addressing the long-term environmental effects of the Station Fire coincided with recent studies on the effect climate change and drought may be having on forests and scrubland in high-burn areas.9

Sun gleams through smoke as fire consumes a pine tree.
Old Gulch Fire, Calaveras, CA – August 1992.
© Robert A. Eplett/OES CA

Wildfires and Climate Change
Climate change is suspected of increasing drought conditions and causing the fire season to start earlier and last longer in recent years. This means we can expect the number and intensity of fires to increase with time, and we need to devote more resources to conducting prescribed burns (and reducing fuel loads by other means) to try to prevent large, devastating, and uncontrollable fires, such as the Station Fire.

In reality, large wildfires are fundamentally uncontrollable forces of nature and, while they sometimes can be kept away from populated areas and certain high-value properties, true confinement and control depend upon natural conditions, including wind, rainfall, temperature, moisture, and fuel depletion. Controlled burn technology continues to improve as forest researchers and managers, such as Dr. Stephens, develop new techniques for performing prescribed burns and measuring their effectiveness at reducing fuel loads and preventing massive fires.

In recent years, even the Smokey Bear campaign has come to acknowledge the natural role that fire plays in forests and promotes prescribed fire as “one of the most effective tools . . . in preventing the outbreak and spread of wildfires,”10 so long as it’s conducted safely.

As forest managers recognize the benefits fire can bring to some ecosystems, and embrace prescribed burns as an effective forest management tool, popular sentiment on these issues is also changing, driven in part by worries of massive wildfires in populous areas and by the knowledge that worsening climate change is increasing wildfire frequency.

Flames silhouette nearby home at night during 1993 Topanga Canyon, CA fire.
© Robert A. Eplett/OES CA

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Additional Readings:

  • The Headwaters case study in Chapter 13, “Saving Forests,” in Forests Forever and the case of Bull Creek in Chapter 5, “Redwoods Rising,” in Restoring the Earth are two examples that address issues involving post-fire landslides and runoff.
  • To read Randal Archibold’s article, After a Devastating Fire, an Intense Study of Its Effects, please click here.
  • All of Robert A. Eplett’s photographs for the California Office of Emergency Services can be viewed here.

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References:
1. John J. Berger, Forests Forever: Their Ecology, Restoration, and Protection (San Francisco, CA and Chicago, IL, Forests Forever Foundation and Center for American Places at Columbia College, Chicago, 2008), pp. 56-57. Distributed by University of Chicago Press.

2. Berger, op. cit., pp. 21.

3. Berger, op cit., pp. 57.

4. Little, Edward E. and Calfee, Robin. Effects of Fire-Retardant Chemical Products on Fathead Minnows in Experimental Streams. U.S. Geological Survey, Columbia Research Center. http://www.cerc.usgs.gov/pubs/center/pdfDocs/ECO-04.PDF

5. Bloomekatz, Ari B., Blankstein, Andrew, and Dimassa, Cara Mia. “Station fire an act of arson, sheriff’s officials say.” Los Angeles Times. September 4, 2009.
http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/04/local/me-fire4

7. Archibold, Randal C. “After a Devastating Fire, an Intense Study of Its Effects.” New York Times. October 2, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/
2009/10/03/science/earth/03fire.html?scp=4&sq=la%20%22 station%20fire%22&st=cse

8. Archibold, Randal C. “After a Devastating Fire, an Intense Study of Its Effects.” New York Times. October 2, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/
2009/10/03/science/earth/03fire.html?scp=4&sq=la%20%22 station%20fire%22&st=cse

9. Ibid.

10. Prescribed Fires. Smokey Bear Campaign. Accessed November 16, 2009. http://www.smokeybear.com/prescribed-fires.asp