Last week I spent a day on a field trip with some conservation NGO interns. The ranger had asked them to think about a question:
On the watershed for an important Colorado water supply, prescribed burning would lead to a better situation to protect from wildfires that degrade water quality. Yet air quality requirements make it difficult to do prescribed burning. Mechanical treatments would not release particulates, but without a timber industry we can’t afford mechanical treatments. We know there is a trade-off between prescribed fire particulates and, ultimately, wildfire particulates (greater in quantity). Wildfires can have greater negative effects on both watersheds and soil and vegetation carbon, compared to prescribed burns. So how do we negotiate the apparently contradictory requirements of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act?
It was a great question, and I was very impressed with the thoughtfulness and expertise of our FS employees (as I usually am :)), as I think were the interns.
So here are my additional wonkish questions. Is that tension between air quality and prescribed burning an equal problem in all the western states? Why can southern states have so much (comparatively) prescribed burning- are the reasons environmental or social or some combination?