Seattle Times: Collateral Damage

This article in the Seattle Times, “Collateral Damage,” is subtitled, “Rushing to stop a fire that never came, Forest Service logged miles of big trees, critical habitat.” The story is about a “shaded fuel break” created as part of fighting the Wolverine Fire in 2015. As you scroll down, a series of maps appear — but keep scrolling, the story continues below that.

Lots to discuss here, including the fact that some trees larger than the 20-inch limit were cut. The article says “many” larger trees were cut. However, the photos of logs show that the vast majority of the logs are less than 20 inches.

I wish the article had included photos of the harvested area. I found these 2 images elsewhere, and the treated area looks like a shaded fuel break.

6 Comments

  1. Hi Steve,

    Andy Stahl had the following blog post on this site about the Seattle Times article, with his additional thoughts and analysis of the situation, back on July 22.

    Today’s Seattle Times reports on a 5 million board foot timber sale conceived and consummated as a part of fighting the Wolverine Fire near Lake Chelan in Washington State. The sale, which cut a 50-mile long, 300-foot wide “community protection line” through spotted owl critical habitat and over streams, was logged primarily after rain had stopped the fire’s advance 8 miles from the Lake Wenatchee and Plains communities it was intended to protect. Contemporaneous Forest Service and FWS employees’ objections to the logging were overridden by the Wenatchee River district ranger.

    Under normal circumstances, the National Environmental Policy Act would have required the Forest Service to assess this logging in an EA or EIS. But, Forest Service rules include an exception to NEPA analysis “[w]hen the responsible official determines that an emergency exists” and the actions are “urgently needed to mitigate harm to life, property, or important natural or cultural resources.” 36 CFR 220.4(b). In this instance, there is no written record of that determination having been made by “the responsible official,” or anyone else, for that matter. That’s the norm for Forest Service firefighting, which seeks to fly under NEPA’s radar using this regulation without ever following the regulation’s own terms itself. To the best of my knowledge, at no time does a Forest Service responsible official document that “an emergency exists” and that a particular action is “urgently needed.”

    In the Wolverine Fire, the Forest Service’s behavior and facts on the ground belied any urgency to log this timber. If an urgent need to protect life or property had existed, the Forest Service would have warned the Lake Wenatchee and Plain communities to be prepared to evacuate. There are three levels of evacuation alert – Level 1 (Be Ready), Level 2 (Leave Soon) and Level 3 (Leave Immediately). At no time did the Forest Service put these communities on even the lowest level (Be Ready) evacuation alert. In contrast, Holden Village and Lucerne, which the Wolverine Fire actually threatened, received evacuation alerts and were evacuated.

    When a wildfire threatens national forest visitors, the Forest Service also closes the area to public visitation. But here, when logging began, the Forest Service began relaxing public closures in the Wolverine Fire area, including reopening the Pacific Crest Trail to hikers.

    Unaddressed in the news article is whether this 50-mile fuel break would have prevented the fire from spotting over the line. Had weather conditions been such that Lake Wenatchee or other communities actually been threatened (which they were not), it’s a fair bet that the fire could have jumped the line readily. In fact, the Forest Service warned that the Wolverine Fire might even jump Lake Chelan, which is a lot wider and less flammable!

  2. “Nobody wants a vacation home on a blacked-out hillside.” That says a lot about why we put lives at risk, doesn’t it?

    The fact is that when emergency conditions no longer exist, the law requires the Forest Service to act differently. Maybe they need some more guidance on when emergency conditions no longer exist. Here are the interpretations I saw in this article:

    “That whole area around Okanogan-Wenatchee, you can have stuff where you think you have a season-ending (weather) event and you don’t … you get dry winds and that country can go right back to burning again.” This suggests that an emergency exists until a fire is out. This from a person who was apparently rewarded for his interpretation with a promotion.

    “You use the fire model and if it says only a 1 in 100 event, you probably would still do it.” It sounds like the understanding in the field is that there is unlimited discretion to exempt activities from NEPA when there is a fire.

    I haven’t found a definition of “emergency,” but CEQ indicates actions may proceed without NEPA analysis if they are “immediate actions necessary to secure lives and safety of citizens or to protect valuable resources.” It does seem like acting when the weather and fire were not threatening is outside of this requirement of immediacy.

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