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E-M:/ The lessons of Honker Hardwoods



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Enviro-Mich message from anne.woiwode@sfsierra.sierraclub.org
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The lessons of Honker Hardwoods

A little over two weeks ago, I reported on Enviro-Mich about the pending
Honker Hardwoods timber sale in the Jordan River Valley (Mackinaw State
Forest) that included a Northern Goshawk nest.  First, thanks to all who
weighed in on this issue, seeking to halt or at least delay the sale!

Despite extensive concerns, including a letter from Sierra Club requesting
that the sale be withdrawn until compliance with the state endangered species
act could be demonstrated, the DNR chose to go ahead with opening the bids on
the sale on July 16th and signing a contract with the successful bidder.
Under terms of the sale, logging can begin immediately.

The Honker Hardwoods timber sale provides critical lessons about the way
Michigan's 3.9 million acres of State Forests are being managed, particularly
because this is an area with some of the finest DNR staff in the system and
the decisions the managers made were even better than current procedures
require.  And yet the outcome is still that timber management will go forward
despite falling far short of 1991 draft guidelines and training in June 1997
for DNR staff on management for the two declining species that use the type
of nest found in the area: a state threatened species (Red-shouldered hawk);
and a species proposed for addition to the state threatened list (Northern
Goshawk).

The lessons from this sale will not be new to those who have followed the
agency for many years: timber management has been the top priority based on
both funding levels and management strategies for many years, with deer
management a very close second.  Public input has been abysmal since the
beginning of the state forest system, although there have been modest
improvements recently and many more improvements are promised.  But the
nature of the political debate over public forests in our state has been
changing quickly in the last few years, driven by an increasingly aggressive
timber industry, making the urgency of these concerns much greater than ever
before.

Ten years ago the only interest taken by most politicians in our state forests
was whether the agency broke even financially, and whether the hunters were
happy .  In the past several of years, however, demand for timber in this
region has gone through the roof as forests in the west have been depleted.
The timber industry has been dramatically ratcheting up its lobbying and
public relations effort in an effort to secure access to as much timber as
possible from public lands with the fewest possible restrictions on that
access.

The greatest success the timber industry has had recently was to convince the
Legislature for the first time in history to mandate (in the DNR budget) that
the Forest Management Division prepare at least a minimum amount of trees for
timber sales on state forest lands (807,000 cords), regardless of whether
staff were available to put the sales up as a result of early retirement.
This was done with the full support of the DNR executive office, even though
then Forest Management Division Chief Jerry Thiede objected (objections
within the FMD to this mandate are evidently continuing under new chief John
Robertson).  Although the management of Michigan's state forests are
theoretically intended to operate on the basis of multiple use, the shifting
politics make it clear that logging is de facto the overwhelming objective of
state forest management, even when pursued at the risk of losing other forest
values.

Honker Hardwoods offers a snapshot look at how the failings of current DNR
procedures mesh with the ever increasing dominance of timber to provide a
growing threat to the supposed concern for protecting forest ecosystems on
state forests.  The analysis below may be longer than most of you care to
read, but I would encourage anyone interested in sound management of our
state forests to follow it through.  These are not issues that lend
themselves to sound bites, and yet they have a potential to shape the future
of Michigan's most important public land base for many decades to come.

Honker Hardwoods Compartment Review

Michigan's six state forests are divided into Forest Areas, which are further
divided into Compartments of between 1,000 and 10,000 acres, and it is at
this level of management that virtually all management decisions effecting
state forests occur.  Every year, one-tenth of the Compartments randomly
distributed within a Forest Area are reviewed in a meeting involving a  DNR
Wildlife and Forest Management Division staff (who co-manage state forests),
potentially other DNR staff, and, in recent years, interested members of the
public.

The Compartment Review which included the area eventually known as the Honker
Hardwoods occurred in 1995, and, in addition to DNR staff, Tim Flynn of Sierra
Club and Bret Huntman of the Mackinaw Forest Council attended the review.
Compartment Reviews are scheduled usually to set up management activities two
years later, so this review was for Year of Entry 1997 (Y.O.E. 97).  At the
review, Flynn and Huntman raised questions about the potential that this
Compartment offered Red-shouldered hawk habitat, and urged that this area be
considered for old growth designation because of the characteristics of the
stand.  The foresters, however, saw this as a stand in which selection cut
would enhance the production of sawlogs for the future.

One of the areas of greatest tension today in management of Michigan's state
forests is between the production of sawlogs from northern hardwoods and the
tremendous need for identification and restoration of stands of northern
hardwood to old growth conditions to fill a serious ecological deficit in the
state.  The old growth northern hardwoods ecosystem type is one of the two most
endangered forested ecosystem types in  Michigan, with estimates from the
National Biological Service that less than 5/100ths of 1% of the original
range of this ecosystem still exist (the other is old growth white/red pine,
with comparable statistics).

This stand would not be considered old growth yet, but it was well on its way
to achieving old growth structure and the related essential ecosystem
functions and characteristics.  But because the state forest old growth
system has not yet been established, a stand like this falls through the
cracks.  An old growth policy was adopted a few years ago, and promises are
made that old growth will eventually be designated.  But until a list of
candidate sites proposed by the DNR staff are available (a first cut was
being compiled this spring, although no schedule has been set for public
review) the public cannot even effectively argue for inclusion of any
particular site in the old growth system.  The DNR's default assumption seems
to be that other good sites will undoubtedly be found if this particular one
is not included, and that even if a stand is set back in its progression to
old growth, it will eventually make up the 50 to 100 years lost.

At the same time, northern hardwood stands managed for sawlogs are producing
some of the highest value timber in the state of Michigan today.  Ironically,
less than a decade ago these stands were being almost ignored on state lands
because the funding for management of state forests was literally a year to
year, if not month to month, process.  The long term management needed to
produce good stands of northern hardwoods for sawlogs took a longer term
investment than was available under the annual budgeting for the Forest
Management Division, which amounted to spending last year's revenue on this
year's treatments.  The Forest Development Fund was established to sell bonds
that would allow for a longer term return on the selection harvesting of
northern hardwoods.  But in a disturbing twist, now that this system is in
place and demand for sawtimber has sky rocketed, the pressure to manage all
the northern hardwood stands found in each compartment each year has become
enormous.  Once a stand has been treated to produce higher quality sawtimber,
it won't be available for old growth again because the investment,
particularly under the Forest Development Fund, is expected to be recouped .

Since the forests of Michigan as a whole are in a recovering state, a dismal
irony exists.  Almost no places on any forest lands are in true old growth
conditions today, and those that are have for the most part already been
protected.  At the same time, those that are closing in on old growth
conditions, and beginning to offer this exceedingly rare habitat type, are
also among the most valuable of the timber stands in the state.   From an
ecological standpoint, a plan is desperately needed to allow a large network
of these recovering northern hardwoods stands to continue their recovery.

In lieu of an old growth designation plan, which has been delayed for years
since originally conceived, the DNR has a virtually unalterable bias in favor
of cutting in these stands to fulfill timber objectives.  With the review and
prescription of timber treatments done on one-tenth of the state forest
compartments every year, within ten years time ALL of the stands of northern
hardwoods could be reviewed and prescribed for selection harvest or other more
intensive treatments .  Every prescription for timber treatment in maturing
northern hardwoods spells reduced opportunities for provide a realistic
opportunity to restore these forests as old growth.  And with the new
legislative mandate that effectively elevates timber above all other forest
values, the urgency of protection efforts becomes clear.

In 1995, Tim Flynn and Bret Huntman raised the possibility that this stand,
which has potential to provide habitat for the Red-shouldered hawk, as state
threatened species, and the Northern Goshawk, a species now proposed for
listing, could be set aside to allow its consideration at the time when the
old growth plan is implemented.  The decision of the Forest Management
Division staff and the Wildlife Division staff was instead to proceed with
selective harvest within this stand.

What Tim and Bret didn't know at the time, and DNR staff may not have realized
either, was that in 1991 the Michigan Natural Features Inventory and the
state Endangered Species Coordinator put together a set of draft management
guidelines designed to try to enhance the survival prospects of the Red
shouldered hawk.  But within a month of the issuance of the proposed
guidelines, which could have potentially effected the timber production from
large blocks of northern hardwoods, the Forest Management Division raised a
concern about these draft guidelines, putting an indefinite hold on their
implementation.  Over the next several years, the Natural Features Inventory
in particular did its best to raise the awareness of the field staff about
the habitat needs of this species that was already on the threatened list in
the state, but the guidelines went absolutely nowhere.  As a result, nothing
was mandated and the field staff were pretty much on their own.

When concerns about the potential that this Compartment could contain
Red-shouldered hawk habitat were raised in 1995, the draft management
guidelines had been held in abeyance for 4 years.  So, later that year when
the Forest Management Division field staff set out to mark the timber for the
now named Honker Hardwoods sale, and they first saw a Northern Goshawk, then
saw a large stick nest, they could not automatically refer to mandatory
guidelines for management in such a stand (Northern Goshawk and
Red-shouldered hawk have very similar habitat needs, and even use the same
nests).  They did, however, go beyond the call of duty provided under current
procedures.  The staff asked for advice from a raptor expert and from MNFI.
For whatever reason and without a on site review, the management
recommendations given were significantly less protective than those included
in the draft guidelines, or those that later were provided in training
sessions to Forest Management Division staff in 1997.  But the on the ground
staff overseeing the marking of the timber sale were convinced,
understandably, that they had done what was best for the bird.

What they did not do, however, was to recontact those who participated in the
Compartment Review and had expressed great interest in the possibility that
this area would provide exactly this type of habitat.  They also did not
revisit the issue of proper habitat prior to putting the sale bid itself out
in late June 1997, almost two years after the marking of the sale.  And
apparently, in spite of a meeting among the Chiefs of Wildlife and Forest
Management and Sierra Club in November last year at which tentative measures
were agreed to address the serious problems raised by the delay in
implementation of the Red-shouldered hawk management guidelines, this sale
was not flagged for a closer look or reconsideration prior to being put out
for bids.

As a result, the first time Tim Flynn was aware that a Northern Goshawk nest
had been found in the stand and that modifications had been made to sale was
when he received the sale notice, a mere two weeks before the sale was to be
finalized and the prescription locked in stone.  While it is still quite
unusual for members of the public to participate in Compartment Reviews, it
is even more rare for these folks to get timber sales and to actually review
them.  Thus, an awareness of the situation of this proposed timber cutting
plan, which was clearly of interest to at least those who participated in the
Compartment Review, came about only because of extraordinary diligence in
reviewing the sale.  In addition, credit must go to DNR officials who
actually identified the nest in the sale and including mitigation efforts
that would be required.

But with a mere two weeks from the time the notice of the sale was in hand to
the date when the bids would be opened and the contract signed, Tim and
others in Sierra Club had no time to raise concerns in a systematic process.
Such a process had been spelled out in revised guidelines for the conduct of
Compartment Reviews.  Those guidelines, which were put out for comment to a
small group of members of the public in the winter, would have built in an
automatic revisitation of a Compartment Review prescription if a major change
occurred after the Compartment Review was completed.  In addition, these new
guidelines would provide a defined process for the appeal of a decision by a
person who has been involved in the process.  Something like the
identification of a nest potentially used by a state listed threatened
species would be expected to trigger that review and potential for appeal.
But those guidelines have not yet been finalized and put into place.
Therefore, staff at the field level had no reason to revisit the issue, and
inform the public about the new information.

As the issue of concern about the management in this stand was raised by Tim,
starting at the field level, what became clear again is that the DNR staff in
the field are spread far too thin, and early retirement aggravated this
problem beyond belief.  Field staff who should have been aware of the nest
did not know about it until contacted. Additional efforts to patch together
last minute changes were made, but the result was clearly not what the
scientists had ordered.  In the end, the sale still contained a much smaller
no cut zone around the nest tree than included in the guidelines (about 100
feet versus up to 300 acres).  Other sale provisions, such as maintaining a
higher remaining basal area go toward addressing the concerns, but the
vulnerability of the nest to predators and the potential conflict with
flightways for the birds were still at issue.

But like similar issues that are moving along on an artificial schedule like
this, sometimes no one is willing to simply step forward and say lets put a
hold on it and take another look.  The rationale for not holding up the sale
included that the Northern Goshawk was not yet listed as a threatened
species, and, despite the fact that the scientific committee had recommended
it for listing in the round of updates of the state endangered species list,
which is already four years overdue, there was a possibility that this
species wouldn't be listed anyway.  A round robin of passing the buck to
others in the agency made a full circuit, and when it came time for someone to
stand up and say "let's reconsider", no one was willing to do it. In some
conversations, Sierra Club was accused of simply trying to tie up land as old
growth, despite a long and documentable history on this issue of seeking sound
management to provide critical habitat for declining species.  A letter from
Sierra Club faxed to the new chief of Forest Management Division the Friday
before the closing date for the bids to be opened may never have made it to
its addressee, while baseless assurances were made within the agency that the
Club's concerns had been addressed.  To date, Sierra Club has not received an
official response to its request in that letter that the sale be put on hold,
or that the agency document how it was complying with the state endangered
species act as it proceeded with this sale.

As this account documents, many steps are and have been in process that may
help to address some of the many concerns this process has revealed.  The
problem is , while good ideas that offer hope that future actions will be
taken to balance the role of truly providing ecosystem protection and
rehabilitation with the production of commodities and provision of game
habitat, at no point does anyone suggest putting hold on these ecosystem
disruptive activities until such time as the protective measures are in
place.  Thus every delay in getting the critical steps in place to protect
ecosystems may mean an irretrievable ecological loss as logging continues at a
faster and faster pace.

Several people suggested that this was just one nest, just one sale, and while
it is too bad that the sale has gone ahead, others will be handled well.
There is, however, nothing currently in place to address the multitude of
barriers to sound handling of similar situations in the future.  I certainly
appreciate that progress has been made, but unless we fully explain to the
public just how far it is to overcoming the problems, we may well never
address these issues.

John Robertson and the Forest Management Division staff have enormous
challenges in front of them, and Wildlife Division Chief George Burgoyne and
his staff, as co-managers of the state forest system, also have many
challenges as well.  If you care about the sound management of our state
forests, this is a critical time to provide support to these DNR Divisions
for what is good, and to insist to our state political leaders and the DNR
that our forests are much more than deer yards and two by four factories, and
it is about time they be treated that way.

Thanks for your patience in reading to the end.  I would be curious about any
reactions and debate or discussion on these issues.

Anne Woiwode 


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