Posts tagged ‘FS’

Being Skeptical of Data, Even When It Supports Your Position - Fire Edition

This is the, uh, whateverth installment in a series on using your common sense to fact check data, even when the data is tantalizingly useful for the point one is trying to make.

For the last decade or so, global warming activists have used major fires as further "proof" that there is a global warming trend.  Often these analyses are flawed, for a variety of reasons that will be familiar to readers, e.g.

  • A single bad fire is just one data point and does not prove a trend, you need a series of data to prove a trend
  • There is no upward trend in US acreage in fires over the last 10 years, but there is in the last 20 years, which gives lots of nice opportunities for cherry-picking on both sides
  • Acres burned is a TERRIBLE measure of global warming, because it is trying to draw global trends from a tiny fraction of the world land mass (western US); and because it is dependent on many non-climate variables such as forest management policies and firefighting policy.
  • The better more direct metric of possible warming harm is drought, such as the Palmer drought severity index, which shows no trend (click to enlarge below)


  • An even better metric, of course, is that there IS an actual upward trend in temperatures.  There is not, however, much of an upward trend in bad weather like drought, hurricanes, or tornadoes.  In this context fire is a third order variable (temp--->drought---> fire) which makes it a bad proxy, particularly when the first order variable is telling the tale.

AAAAaaaand then, there is this chart, much loved by skeptics, for long-term US fire history:

I am pretty sure that I have avoided ever using this piece of skeptic catnip (though I could be wrong, I can have moments of weakness).  The reason is that nothing about this chart passes the smell test.  While it is true that the 1930's were super hot and dry, likely hotter in the US than it has been this decade, there is absolutely no reason to believe the entire period of 1926-1952 were so much higher than today.  Was there a different fire management policy (e.g. did they just let all fires burn themselves out)?  Was there a change in how the data was recorded?

Here is my rule of thumb -- when you see a discontinuity like this (e.g. before and after 1955) you better have a good explanation and understanding of the discontinuity.  This is not just to be a good person and be true to good scientific process (though we all should) but also from the practical and selfish desire to avoid having someone come along who DOES know why the discontinuity exists and embarrass you for your naivete.

I have never trusted this chart, because I have not really understood it.  This week, the Antiplanner (who before he focused on transit focused most of his writing on the Forest Service and forest policy) has an explanation.

The story begins in 1908, when Congress passed the Forest Fires Emergency Funds Act, authorizing the Forest Service to use whatever funds were available from any part of its budget to put out wildfires, with the promise that Congress would reimburse those funds. As far as I know, this is the only time any democratically elected government has given a blank check to any government agency; even in wartime, the Defense Department has to live within a budget set by Congress.

This law was tested just two years later with the Big Burn of 1910, which killed 87 people as it burned 3 million acres in the northern Rocky Mountains. Congress reimbursed the funds the Forest Service spent trying (with little success) to put out the fires, but — more important — a whole generation of Forest Service leaders learned from this fire that all forest fires were bad....

This led to a conflict over the science of fire that is well documented in a 1962 book titled Fire and Water: Scientific Heresy in the Forest Service. Owners of southern pine forests believed that they needed to burn the underbrush in their forests every few years or the brush would build up, creating the fuels for uncontrollable wildfires. But the mulish Forest Service insisted that all fires were bad, so it refused to fund fire protection districts in any state that allowed prescribed burning.

The Forest Service’s stubborn attitude may have come about because most national forests were in the West, where fuel build-up was slower and in many forests didn’t lead to serious wildfire problems. But it was also a public relations problem: after convincing Congress that fire was so threatening that it deserved a blank check, the Forest Service didn’t want to dilute the message by setting fires itself.

When a state refused to ban prescribed fire, the Forest Service responded by counting all fires in that state, prescribed or wild, as wildfires. Many southern landowners believed they needed to burn their forests every four or five years, so perhaps 20 percent of forests would be burned each year, compared with less than 1 percent of forests burned through actual wildfires. Thus, counting the prescribed fires greatly inflated the total number of acres burned.

The Forest Service reluctantly and with little publicity began to reverse its anti-prescribed-fire policy in the late 1930s. After the war, the agency publicly agreed to provide fire funding to states that allowed prescribed burning. As southern states joined the cooperative program one by one, the Forest Service stopped counting prescribed burns in those states as wildfires. This explains the steady decline in acres burned from about 1946 to 1956.

There were some big fires in the West in the 1930s that were not prescribed fires. I’m pretty sure that if someone made a chart like the one shown above for just the eleven contiguous western states, it would still show a lot more acres burned in real wildfires in the 1930s than any decade since — though not by as big a margin as when southern prescribed fires are counted. The above chart should not be used to show that fires were worse in the 1930s than today, however, because it is based on a lie derived from the Forest Service’s long refusal to accept the science behind prescribed burning.

There you go, the discontinuity seems to be from a change in the way the measurement is calculated.

By the way, I work closely with the Forest Service every day and mostly this partnership is rewarding.  But I can tell you that the blank check still exists for fire suppression costs and results in exactly the sort of inefficient spending that you would imagine.   Every summer, much Forest Service work comes to a halt as nearly every manager and professional gets temporarily assigned to fire -- something FS employees love because they get out of the grind of their day job and essentially get to go camping.

Public vs. Private Management: Marketing Videos and Hot Dogs

One of the more popular features we have been experimenting with is adding aerial video of campgrounds we operate shot from small drones.  Customers love these and find them a great way to experience the campground before the commit to a visit.  Here is an example:

We have done this for all the campgrounds where we have a long-term lease and substantial leeway in operating the park.  However, we have not yet done any videos for the scores of Forest Service.  Perhaps this is why -- here is what I have to do to film a campground the FS has already contracted us to operate and market:

We ask for at least 2 weeks advance notice in order to prepare a permit and have the documentation reviewed by our aviation staff.  The proposal would need to include how your drone operations would address public safety and impacts to users in the campgrounds (I believe that you have to have people’s permission to film them so how to avoid that).  Also as you stated all activities would stay above your sites – no flights above Wilderness or the creek or adjacent canyons.   Due to listed species in the canyon, drone activity would need to occur after September 1 which is after the spotted owl breeding season.  The drone would need to be operated by a FAA licensed commercial drone operator and we would need documentation of a FAA Part 107 Remote pilots license or COA from the FAA.  In addition, we would need to have the operator coordinate with our aviation manager and provide the below information, with direction to be included in a  permit so they can get the information out to our aviation assets in the area:

All approved areas on the forest are to be used at your own risk while adhering to all FAA rules and regulations for UAS operations. Notification to the Forest Interagency Aviation Officer at least 24 hours prior to operations is required to help de-conflict airspace with fire aircraft and other forest aviation assets. Include in your notification:

  • Date, time and location of flight
  • Names and contact information of pilot(s)
  • Make and model of UAS

Fees are based on crew size, 1-10 people for video is $150/day.

Several years ago, I was at a meeting in Washington with senior leaders in the Department of Agriculture, including from the Forest Service, and from a number of other recreation agencies. (You never thought of the Department of Agriculture as a recreation agency did you?  They may have more total recreation sites (not visitation, but absolute number of locations) than Department of Interior.  Anyway, these senior leaders were talking about being more visitor-focused.  They were talking about sophisticated programs to provide all sorts of innovative visitor services, and after a while I just started laughing.  They asked me why, and I pulled up on my tablet a letter I had just received from a Forest Service District Ranger (the lowest level line officer) who denied my request to make and sell hot dogs at a store next to a busy Florida swimming hole we run.

While we appreciate your attempt to provide additional services to recreationists, this service is not consistent with current services offered in other recreation areas.  As a Forest, we would like to provide recreationists with the bare necessities to ensure that their visit is enjoyable.  The sale of hot dogs and nachos is out of that scope.

Examples of Why Government Infrastructure Projects Are So Hard To Get Done

As most of you know, my company operates public recreation facilities for a variety of public agencies under concession contracts.  These contracts are mostly similar to each other in their structure, but one key difference among them is the contract length -- we have both short-term contracts of say 5 years and long-term contracts up to 30 years.  When we have longer-term contracts, we are expected to do all the maintenance, even capital maintenance such as repaving roads and replacing roofs (more on that approach here).  The US Forest Service tends to prefer much shorter contracts where they retain responsibility for capital maintenance -- this tends to work out as we pay a higher concession fee on these (since we have fewer expenses) and the Forest Service has a process to use the concession fee to perform capital maintenance.  In fact, generally the FS asks us to do the maintenance because it is way easier for us to get it started (avoids the government contracting processes) and then we get credit for our costs against the fees we owe.

Anyway, I have a fair amount of experience with performing small to medium-sized infrastructure projects on public lands.  Here are a few examples, starting from the sublime and proceeding to the ridiculous, of projects we have not been able to proceed with and why.  In all these examples, my company was going to fund the project so availability of funds was not an issue.

  • In TN, we had already begun an expansion to add more campsites to an existing campground, a project already approved by our government landlord.  A disgruntled ex-employee, on his way out, claimed we had disturbed a rock pile and he thought the rock pile was some sort of Native American artifact.  Despite the fact there was no evidence for this, and that the construction was no where near the rock pile, construction was halted and my contractor had to go home while an investigation was begun.  As we speak, scores of acres surrounding the campground have been put off-limits to development until the rock pile is thoroughly studied, but of course no funding currently exists to study the rock pile so it is not clear how long this will take.  I am proceeding internally on the assumption that we will never be given permission and am cutting losses on materials bought for the project.
  • In AZ, we operated a snow play area in what was essentially a gravel pit.  The slopes we used were what was left from years of mining gravel, and essentially the whole area had been disturbed.  We wanted to add a real bathroom to replace scores of portable toilets and to bring power to the area rather than use generators.  All the work would be performed on already disturbed land in the gravel pit.  We were told we could not proceed without a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) study to assess environmental impacts of the work, which could easily take years or longer if its results got tied up in the courts, as they often do.  Since the government had no money or manpower to do the NEPA study, it was pointless to even try to proceed.  This year, without the ability to construct necessary facilities for visitors, we exited the concession contract and the Forest Service has not be successful yet in finding anyone else to reopen it.
  • In CA, just this week, I was discussing two maintenance projects with the government in a series of campgrounds we run near the Owens Valley.  In one, we wanted to dig up a water line that runs under a dirt road to repair a leak.  In the second, we desperately needed to replace some leaky roofs on bathrooms.  Both projects are now delayed.  In the case of the water line, digging up the road was going to require an archaeological study - yes, any digging basically requires such a study, and there is no exception for utterly absurd situations like this.  We eventually decided to open the campground without water this year, to the detriment of campers.  In the other case, the replacement of roofs on some old 1950's campground pit toilet buildings (think bathrooms at a highway rest area but not as nice) have to first be evaluated to make sure they are not historic buildings that should be protected.  Since this is a safety issue, I used up my favors on this one to try to get it to proceed.  In my experience, once a building in a park or campground has been labelled historic, that is pretty much its death sentence.  It becomes impossible to do any work on them and they simply fall apart.  For example, years ago there were some really neat old travel cabins in Slide Rock State Park in AZ.  I tried to get permission to fix them up and reopen them, but was told they were historic and they had to wait for special permissions and procedures and materials.  Today, the cabins are basically kindling, having fallen apart completely.

Recognize that these are projects entirely without NIMBY, funding, permitting, licensing, or procurement issues.  But they still face barriers from government rules.