30 Jul 2008, 12:46pm
Federal forest policy Saving Forests
by admin

Shall the USFS Allow Fires to Incinerate Our National Forests?

Part IV

Continuing our rebuttal of the recent 3-part series the Idaho Statesman that promoted the idea of allowing forest fires to burn unchecked.

Let It Burn is illegal, destructive of a multitude of forest and human values, is not cost-effective, and is the worst idea that ever came down the forest pike. Let me count the ways.

8. Let It Burn Has Significant Effects on Recreation

Forest fires have significant deleterious effects on flora, fauna, heritage, soils, water quality, and air quality. Those cumulative impacts ruin recreational opportunities, too.

Recreations (hiking, camping, boating, hunting, fishing, etc.) are important and valued uses of the public domain. While always of traditional importance, recreational uses have moved to the forefront as the “replacement” for renewable resource uses such as timber production.

Let It Burn fires have enormous impacts on recreation. Prime recreation areas were on fire during the summers of 2006 and 2007 and are again this year. Whole national forests have been closed to use.

The Los Padres NF has been under a closure due to fires for over a year, first because of the Zaca Fire and then due to Basin/Indians Fires. Nearly 500,000 acres have been scorched, and the trail networks, campgrounds, wildlife, and vegetation have been destroyed.

The Los Padres NF issued the following press release last October:

USDA Forest Service - Los Padres National Forest, 10/04/07

“The Zaca Fire burned in very steep and rugged terrain, and while there are islands of unburned vegetation, there are vast areas that are a moonscape now,” Forest Supervisor Peggy Hernandez explained. “With the vegetation gone, there is nothing to hold the soil in place, so the land is very unstable. Dry landslides, rockslides and other erosion is occurring on a daily basis. We expect mudslides and flash flooding when the rains come. Out of concern for public safety, and to allow the watersheds to begin to heal, I will keep the burned area closed to public entry at least through spring 2008,” she added.

“The burned or otherwise disturbed soils are very vulnerable, especially to wheeled vehicles, until vegetation gets reestablished,” said Hernandez. “We know people are anxious to get back into their national forest, but we are asking for their patience and cooperation.”

Preliminary surveys of the burned area show that many hiking trails have been severely damaged by the fire and are completely impassable. “Our volunteers are very anxious to get in there and help reestablish the trails. Unfortunately, it may be some time before the ground is stable enough to allow them to be rebuilt,” said Santa Barbara District Ranger Cindy Chojnacky.

The Zaca Fire started on July 4, and burned approximately 240,207 acres before it was contained on September 2. It is the second largest fire in California’s recorded history and the largest in Santa Barbara County’s recorded history.

Flash floods did arrive last Winter. Only this month has the area been partially opened to recreation, but the trail system has been all but erased.

Many of the wilderness areas through which the Pacific Crest Trail passes were on fire during the last three summers (including this one). Detour routes were laid out, but many hikers chose to violate Federal law and brave the flames. Felonious fire dodging and flame running has become a new twist on the extreme sport of long-distance speed-hiking along the PCT.

Fishing opportunities were shut down along the Salmon River in Idaho last summer as 800,000 acres of that watershed went up in flames. This year the streams and river run thick with sediment after every thundershower. Stream and river beds are choked with mud and debris sloughing off denuded mountainsides. Fish populations have plummeted, including threatened and endangered salmon runs.

Hunting has been severely impacted as deer and elk were roasted alive across vast tracts of Idaho and Montana. The imposition of exotic wolf populations by the federal government has further decimated herds.

Across the West recreation-based businesses have been going bankrupt in droves. Entire towns that today survive on recreation dollars have been bankrupted as well. Forced evacuations and area closures due to megafires have robbed rural economies of entire recreation seasons [see here].

Urban politicians mouth platitudes about hunting and fishing (even as they attempt to ban both) but the reality is that Let It Burn fires destroy those opportunities. In truth most of the urban political elite care more about large predators than game populations and wish to see wolves and grizzly bears from sea to shining sea. Bogus wildlife biologists also support massive increases in predator populations as prey populations are extirpated and livestock, pets, and unlucky humans become the substitute food of choice.

Allowing fires to burn unimpeded in the “back country” or the “middle of nowhere” has real and significant impacts on the recreational use of our national forests. When a proposed Federal action has likely significant effects, the proper and legally mandated process is to develop an EIS under NEPA guidelines. Yet never has the Let It Burn policy been subjected to NEPA, ESA, or other national environmental laws.

9. Let It Burn Endangers Public Safety

It is not only recreationalists who are threatened by forest fires. Private landowners, including farmers, ranchers, suburbanites, and city-dwellers have been burned by megafires that emanated from fuel-laden federal forests.

The Biscuit Fire (2002) was allowed to burn until it exploded into a megafire that raced over 20 miles to threaten the towns of Selma and Grants Pass in Oregon. The Black Crater Fire (2006) began in a wilderness area but traveled 12 miles to the outskirts of Sisters, OR. The Cedar Fire (2002) began in the Cleveland NF in unkempt, fuel-laden forests and burned 730,000 acres and 3,600 homes, and killed 15 people, in and around San Diego. The Angora Fire (2007) began in the El Dorado NF but quickly found its way to South Lake Tahoe where 254 homes were burned. The Castle Rock Fire (2007) began in a wilderness area but spread a dozen miles or more to threaten Ketchum, ID. The Cerro Grande Fire (2000) migrated more than ten miles to Los Alamos where 400 homes were lost and structures were destroyed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (although thankfully without release of any of the radioactive material housed there).

Those are just a few examples. Many more exist. When fires “far from civilization” are allowed to burn freely, they often rage unimpeded until they find civilization, which turns out to be not that far away after all.

Let It Burn fires are dangerous to recreationalists as well. When a skeleton crew is “monitoring” a wildland fire, recreationalists have minimal warning signs that they may be entering a hazardous fire zone. Our national forests are used extensively during the summer by hikers, campers, and sightseers. Any number of citizens may be out and about on a national forest on any given summer day. Although “civilians” may notice smoke plumes (and they may not) generally hikers and campers do not carry two-way radios tuned to firefighter frequencies. It is becoming a routine operation for firecrews to rescue backpackers from large forest fires.

Firefighters are also put at enormous additional risk from Let It Burn fires. Firefighting is inherently dangerous enough. When fires get big, more firefighters are required, and more opportunities for accidents happen.

It is a gross mistake to assume that Let It Burn fires are of no risk, or that firefighters are kept far from the scene. Even skeleton crews and Fire Use Modules of fire monitors are endangered, as was actualized by the Little Venus burnover in 2006 (see here).

And as Let It Burn fires grow, they eventually impact areas where they can do severe damage to property and lives, and then firefighters must brave extreme conditions. Sometimes, though, firecrews are withheld and homeowners are left to their own devices to save their homes. That situation was enacted on the Basin Fire last month as homes in Big Sur and the Zen Center in Tassajara were abandoned by firecrews, and residents were forced to the fires by themselves. (A great deal of bitterness resulted. Firefighters were willing to help, but fire managers made the decision to withdraw them. Not even helicopters were permitted to bucket water on residential areas as homeowners battled the fire with garden hoses.)

The Idaho Statesman series blamed homeowners for the audacity of building homes on private property dozens of miles away from ignition points in the Idaho fires of 2007. How dare a homeowner, or an entire community, exist in the path of a Let It Burn fire emanating from vast tracts of unmanaged public forest? Often homeowners are forcibly evacuated and then their homes abandoned by firecrews. The entire community of Yellow Pine was evicted for two months, and then the homeowners were accused by the USFS of failing to protect their homes.

Blaming the victims (of any crime) is disingenuous and despicable.

This nation was established by, of, and for the human residents. No governmental policy that brings holocaust and ruin upon the citizenry can be tolerated. Urban neighborhoods do not tolerate federal fire hazards in their midst, not expect the federal government to burn freely within cities. Nor should rural residents tolerate extreme fire hazards on federal ground in their watersheds, or be subjected to Let It Burn holocausts that leap federal property lines and burn out private homesteads.

Defensible space, the practice of reducing fuels near homes, is a good idea. But to be effective defensible space must extend to the furthest reaches of every watershed. A few feet of manicured buffer will not stop a firestorm fueled by decades of biomass build-up on public forests and driven by strong winds.

Let It Burn is not stewardship. Forestry and especially professional restoration forestry is. Private landowners are expected to practice firesafe stewardship. Why then are our public lands unmanaged, untended, and unstewarded? There is no benefit to nature, the environment, or public safety from catastrophic fires burning unchecked in untended public forests.

To Be Continued …



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