HIgh Country News on the “Temporarily Be Careful About Let-Burn” Policy

Thanks to Matthew for finding this one… thought it worthy of its own post.
Here’s the link:
Here is an excerpt:

It’s hard to tell how big a deal this requirement for higher-level approval really is.

In an interview with the Helena Independent Record, a Washington Forest Service spokesman, Joe Walsh, said the memo “isn’t a change in policy.” Small fires may still be allowed to burn, but a regional supervisor must make that decision, not a lower-level supervisor like an incident commander or local land manager. A regional forester, he said, “just has a better idea of what’s going on strategically and what (firefighting) resources are available.” (Interestingly, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management have not adopted the Forest Service’s directive).

But Jennifer Jones, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, said it was unlikely many fires would be allowed to burn “given current fiscal constraints.” And Brenda Halter, the Superior National Forest supervisor in Minnesota, told the Duluth News Tribune the change was “a national directive that means we’re going to be much more aggressively suppressing wildfires in wilderness.”

That appears to be happening in the northern Rockies. In an article for OnEarth, Richard Manning found that of the 28 naturally-caused wildfires burning in wilderness areas in Region One this year, all were being suppressed.

Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, says bumping the decision to a regional forester just decreases the chance a fire will be allowed to burn.

“This takes what was an operational-level decision and makes it into a political-level decision,” he said.

Although the Forest Service said the directive is temporary and will likely be suspended come winter, Manning’s article makes it seem like the decision is a complete reversal of the 1995 federal fire policy that made restoration of wildland fire a national priority. He argues that the conditions that led to the temporary change—hot, dry weather and budget shortfalls—aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, suggesting the fire suppression policy might stick around, too.

Stahl thinks so, too.

“Things like this have a tendency to become indelible,” he said. In order to reverse the policy next season, he thinks the Forest Service will have to make the case that budget and weather conditions are significantly different than this year—something he worries might not happen.

I totally agree with Emily in that it’s hard to tell how big a deal this really is. I don’t think we can actually tell until next year. I disagree with Andy that taking it to the RF makes it more “political”. That is, if Andy means it in the sense of “cognizant of the opinions of those at higher levels of the Executive Branch.” In general I have found that political folks of every stripe are pretty good at making sure that line officers understand their preferences, including forest supervisors.

Using an analogy, in the Colorado Roadless Rule there are a number of places where the Regional Forester has to make a determinations about projects. The idea is that it makes people be more careful and think things through if they know someone else, like their boss and hers/his staff, will be looking at it. If that’s true for a pipeline crossing a roadless are, it seems like a small step to think it’s more true for something that could cost the taypayer, the homeowner, and business in communities millions, and risk human life (with either decision).

Seems like Manning, and to a lesser extent. Andy, are assuming the worst, while Greg has an “it’s not great but let’s wait and see” attitude.

6 thoughts on “HIgh Country News on the “Temporarily Be Careful About Let-Burn” Policy”

  1. It seems like this may be subject to regional interpretation. Earlier this summer, the FS was very clear that it was NOT making an all-out effort to suppress the Little Sand Fire, near Pagosa Springs. The Little Sand updates posted on InciWeb made it clear that the fire was burning in an ecologically beneficial way as it moved up into wilderness.

    The initial attack on the fire was strong, as it threatened residential and commercial development, but once that part of the fire was contained, it seemed like the incident managers were not under any pressure to put out the fire in the wilderness.

  2. Bob, thanks for the observation..it might be interesting for NCFP commenters from California, Oregon, the Southwest and Montana to pay attention to fires in their areas, and we could jointly observe how the directive plays out this year.

  3. Fire management plans and the forest plans to which they tier establish wild land fire policy for each acre of national forest land. Incident commanders make tactical firefighting decisions based upon the objectives and standards in these local plans.

    This year’s new full suppression policy overrides these locally-made decisions on over 100 national forests. For example, if a local plan says “use wild land fire to restore ecological conditions,” the new policy says “ignore the plan.”

    • Sadly, the ESA protects habitats from careful thinning projects but, doesn’t protect them from catastrophic wildfires. When an MMA is up to 100,000 acres, surely there are SOME endangered species contained within. Certainly, the designation of an MMA should not be able to be done without actual surveys, under NEPA. Just saying that “NEPA is satisfied by the current Forest Plan” didn’t work for timber projects. This is a HUGE flaw in current fire policy. Certainly, a wildfire has more environmental impacts than a thinning project?

  4. Andy: These are hardly “locally-made decisions” when everything is dictated from DC, from policy to budget to assigned “decision-makers” — most of whom also seem to be from some place else. Most locals have been kept apart from this process for several decades.

    Personally, I would like to see local people actively involved in the management of government lands in their neighborhood, but that methodology was pretty much discontinued in the 1970s. Now we have career bureaucrats making “local” decisions and millions of acres of public lands going to waste in wildfires and bug infestations, and then being allowed to rot in place. Those aren’t local decisions. Or desires.

    • Should the new planning rule survive litigation, it will require the following:

      1) Outreach. The responsible official shall engage the public—including Tribes and Alaska Native Corporations, other Federal agencies, State and local governments, individuals, and public and private organizations or entities—early and throughout the planning process as required by this part, using collaborative processes where feasible and appropriate.


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