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Profile: Michael Gertsch
Michael Gertsch was a participant or observer in the following events:
US Forest Service officials remove Michael Gertsch, a Forest Service wildlife biologist since 1976, from a team of scientists working on an amendment to the 2001 Nevada Forest Plan after he repeatedly complains that the agency is misrepresenting the impact of forest fires on owl populations, which are dependent on old stands of trees. “I fought and fought and fought and fought and finally they used some excuse and removed me from the team,” he later tells the Associated Press. [Associated Press, 8/6/2004]
Jack Blackwell, the US Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Regional Forester, announces an amendment to the 2001 Nevada Forest Plan which manages 11 national forests in California. According to the Forest Service, the amendment will “reduce the acres burned by severe wildfires by more than 30 percent” and “double the acres of large old growth trees [and ]… spotted owl nesting habitat” over the next fifty years. The plan is portrayed as a response to an emergency situation. “Large, old trees, wildlife habitat, homes and local communities will be increasingly destroyed unless the plan is improved,” Blackwell says. According to the agency, an average of 4.5 owl sites a year have been destroyed by wildfires in the area over the last four years. [USDA Forest Service, 1/2004; US Forest Service, 1/22/2004; Chico News and Review, 1/29/2004; Environment News Service, 2/26/2004]
The amendment will triple the amount of timber that can be harvested generating about 330 million board-feet of green timber annually during the first ten years.
The amendment will reduce the percentage of funds designated for timber thinning near communities from 75 to 25 percent. The majority of timber removal will be done in remote, uninhabited forests.
The revised plan will cost $50 million per year. However, the Forest Service only has $30 million allocated for the plan. The agency intends to raise the additional $20 million through commercial timber sales. Companies that remove more than a certain amount of brush and saplings will also be permitted to remove a number of larger trees.
The amendment will increase the maximum trunk width of trees that may be removed from 20 inches to 30 inches. It is later discovered that justification for the amendment was based on politicized data and exaggerated claims. For example, an important statement that put the risk of forest fires in perspective written by veteran wildlife biologist Michael Gertsch was left out of the final version. According to Gertsch, his section was excluded because “the conclusion… was that fire appears to be more of a maintenance mechanism than a destructive force for owl habitat.” When Gertsch refused to back down from his analysis, he was removed from the project (see January 22, 2004). Describing the final version of the amendment, he says, “Snippets were taken from science, but they didn’t listen to the science community.” [Associated Press, 8/6/2004] The Associated Press will later investigate some of the amendment’s claims and in August publish a report revealing that “at least seven of 18 sites listed by the agency as owl habitat destroyed by wildfires are green, flourishing and occupied by the rare birds of prey”
(see August 6, 2004).
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