From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 2, Number 12 - June 20, 2002
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Communities suffer as the West burns

by Cat Urbigkit

People across the nation watch news reports in horror as a wildfire burns outside of Denver, as citizens across the West fear a similar fate, while major wildfires flare up amid a multi-year drought.

According to the National Weather Service, since January, wildfires have torched nearly 1.5 million acres - twice the yearly average for this time of year and 200,000 more acres than in 2000, the worst year on record. As of last Thursday, 29 large wildfires were burning in the West.

While the hot, dry conditions help to fuel the fires, forest management may be the primary factor in causing the West to go up in flames. Although federal officials have acknowledged the need to reduce fuel loads, actions seem too little, too late.

The congressionally mandated National Fire Plan, adopted in May 2002, explains the need for this 10-year strategy is the result of "an awareness that many of the past century's traditional approaches to land management, the development of unnaturally dense, diseased or dying forests, and treatment of wildland fire have contributed to more severe wildland fires and created widespread threats to communities and ecosystems. Millions of acres of land nationwide are presently classified as being at high risk of wildland fire."

Rather than allowing increased timber harvest and livestock grazing to reduce fuel loads, federal managers now favor "prescribed burns" but even these projects are often hampered by "analysis paralysis" and appeals and protests by environmental groups. So the forests burn, as do the homes and businesses in the line of fire.

Appeals, even if unsuccessful, can lead to reduced timber sales, limiting land managers' options for restoring healthy ecosystems. Since 1995, the number of appeals filed against Forest Service decisions under federal laws has been rising (top). At the same time, the volume of timber harvest has been falling (bottom).
Last week, U.S. Forest Service officials released a report to Congress called "The Process Predicament." That document reveals some frightening details:

"Despite a century of devotion to conservationism, the forest service today faces a forest health crisis of tremendous proportions: 73 million acres of national forests are at risk from severe wildland fires that threaten human safety and ecosystem integrity and tens of millions of acres in all ownerships are threatened by dozens of different insects and diseases."

The report acknowledges, "Unfortunately, the forest service operates within a statutory, regulatory, and administrative framework that has kept the agency from effectively addressing rapid declines in forest health."

Three problem areas are emphasized in the report, including excessive analysis with its confusion, delays and costs; ineffective public involvement that creates disincentives to collaboration; and management inefficiencies, including poor planning and decision-making, compounded by the sheer volume of the required paperwork and the associated proliferation of opportunities to misinterpret or misapply required procedures.

The report includes specific examples, including this one:

In December 1995, a severe winter storm left nearly 35,000 acres of windthrown trees on the Six Rivers National Forest in California. The storm's effects created catastrophic wildland fire conditions, with the fuel loading reaching an estimated 300 to 400 tons per acre- ten times the manageable level of 30 to 40 tons per acre.

The forest's management team proposed a salvage and restoration project to remove excessive fuels and conduct a series of prescribed burns to mitigate the threat to the watershed. From 1996 through the summer of 1999, the forest service wrestled its way through analytical and procedural requirements, managing to treat only 1,600 acres.

By September 1999, nature would no longer wait. The Megram and Fawn Fires consumed the untreated area, plus another 90,000 acres. Afterward, the forest service was required to perform a new analysis of the watershed, because post-fire conditions were now very different. A new round of processes began, repeating the steps taken from 1996 to 1999.

Seven years after the original blowdown, the Megram project was appealed, litigated, and ultimately enjoined by a federal district court. The plan to address the effects of the firestorm - a direct result of the windstorm -remains in limbo.

"It was exactly the kind of event that the national forest was trying to forestall by reducing hazardous fuels," the forest service report noted.

The report to Congress continued: "Too often, the forest service is so busy meeting procedural requirements, such as preparing voluminous plans, studies, and associated documentation, that it has trouble fulfilling its historic mission: to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Too frequently, the paralysis results in catastrophe."

Thus, catastrophic wildfires are occurring across the West. Even though forest service officers can see that actions need to be taken, fear of appeals and litigation can keep the agency from taking action. For instance, thinning and controlled burning can have adverse short-term impacts on water and air quality. However, if consultation stops such projects, the adverse long-term impacts can be much greater, including enormous fires; watershed damage; widespread loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitat; and massive, uncontrolled smoke emissions.

The report turns again and again to forest health issues. "Appeals and litigation are related to another procedural cost that is often poorly understood. Today, many forests are far denser than they were historically. Restoring healthy ecosystems often requires removing some of the trees and undergrowth, which is expensive. Where commercially viable, a timber sale can help defer the costs. In fact, most timber sales on the national forests are at least partly designed to return lands to a healthy condition.

"The vast majority of timber sales proceed to completion unchallenged. However, some groups have successfully used appeals to obstruct timber sales, and forest service employees therefore treat almost every ground-disturbing project as a potential target. They spend a tremendous amount of time trying to 'bullet-proof' project planning against appeals and litigation. Challenges themselves, if they materialize, can be enormously time-consuming. Overall, the delays, even if a project is allowed to move forward, can reduce or eliminate the commercial value of removed materials, ultimately killing a timber sale."

The report suggests a correlation between the rising number of appeals in recent years and falling volumes of timber harvest.

Yet: "Timber sales can be the only feasible tool a national forest has to restore a forest to health. Process-related delays can take that tool away."

The General Accounting Office had already concluded that the forest service's decision-making process is clearly broken and in need of repair. It's a situation where the process defeats the purpose.

As the report notes: "In the name of environmental protection, the focus has too often shifted from protecting resources to policing processes. The problem is this: We are following the letter of our environmental laws without infusing their spirit into what is actually happening on the land."

So as the wildfires continue to burn, the National Fire Plan calls for utilizing livestock grazing and timber harvest as part of the forest protection strategies. Local residents watch the fires burn, and wait for the pendulum to swing back to when the plan is actually implemented on the ground.

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