USFS Proposes Building 7.5 Miles of Permanent Firebreaks in Ventana Wilderness

Ventura_WildernessAccording to the folks at Wilderness Watch, the U.S. Forest Service has proposed to build 7.5 miles of permanent firebreaks within the Ventana Wilderness on the Los Padres National Forest in California, using chainsaws, heavy equipment and vehicles. Wilderness Watch is opposing this proposal as a violation of the Wilderness Act, among other things. The issue is complicated by a series of special provisions that Congress added to laws that expanded the Ventana Wilderness over time. These special provisions authorized the use of some “presuppression” work within the Ventana additions, but none authorized chainsaws, heavy vehicles, or permanent 150-foot-wide firebreaks within an area that is supposed to remain “untrammeled by man.”

You can read Wilderness Watch’s detailed comments on the issue here.

17 thoughts on “USFS Proposes Building 7.5 Miles of Permanent Firebreaks in Ventana Wilderness”

  1. Have you seen the FS proposal? Am looking for it now…

    Char Miller, Director
    Environmental Analysis Program
    W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis
    Pomona College
    [email protected]
    Blog: Golden Green
    Environmental Analysis Program
    Pomona College
    185 E. Sixth St. – Rm 232
    Claremont CA 91711-7003

    • Char: Here is the earlier discussion Matt refers to, beginning with his own comments (if I’ve done this right):

      I think this is an important issue and one deserving focused attention — particularly as we move forward into this era of political posturing and sequestration. I also think it is the type of issue that this blog can address and even possibly do something about.

      The lack of transparency in politics and science — as exemplified by the USFS websites during the past 10+ years — is, to me, a strong indicator (and a partial cause) of the reason there is so much mistrust and confusion dealing with central government issues in this day and age.

  2. Have you checked the Forest Service website, Char? (Ha! You may have seen our earlier comments about how the Forest Service websites leave something to be desired…and a lot of projects un-findable).

    Anyway, when I just looked at the Los Padres NF website under projects I certainly couldn’t find it.

    UPDATE: I just contacted Wilderness Watch and they said they can’t find the docs on the Los Padres NF website either (seriously). So they will email them to me from their own files and I’ll get them posted here.

  3. Can’t find one thing to complain about in the letter opposing the machine-created firebreaks. This is a foot-in-the-door proposal that will bring nothing but more pressure from other forests to do the same.
    Leave the big W’s alone, please!

  4. The real problem, to my way of thinking, is that the artificial zoning of vast acreages “untrammeled by man” are typically located in areas that were regularly trammeled by men, women, and children for thousands of years.

    Look how many major wildfires have erupted in Wilderness areas since they were created during the past several decades — a lot! Do people really think these are “natural” (which somehow makes them “good” in some eyes)? Do people really think these things were taking place “before white man?”

    The whole theory of Wilderness is based on the racist concept that American Indians consisted of isolated populations that “walked lightly on the land” and that “built small fire and stayed close to keep warm.” What a bunch of crap. People are people, and it is time our oologists and politicians and their cadres of legal experts and “eco-warriors” began to realize (and understand) this simple concept.

    People have been living in large communities and regularly setting fire to the landscape for thousands of years all across North America. Sure, there are areas of the Rockies and deserts and Cascades and Coast Ranges that were rugged and isolated and likely visited irregularly — but fire likes to go uphill and travel on the wind. And people set thousands of fires every day, everywhere.

    Isn’t it time we revisited the whole philosophy of “Wilderness” and perhaps make some common sense adjustments to our way of managing them? 7 1/2 miles is a two-hour walk. It’s nothing. The wildfires that have been exploding out of these artificially created areas since their inception in the 1960s is something else entirely.

  5. For another perspective on the proposed Ventana Wilderness fuelbreak, here’s FSEEE’s response to the scoping notice.

    I just dropped a note to the Los Padres contact person asking him for an up-dated URL for the scoping notice and associated maps. I’ll post the URL when I get it.

    • Andy: Those are good points, and similar to ones we were making with Associated Reforestation Contractors 30+ years ago during Hatfield’s Oregon Wilderness hearings.

      I think the idea of fuel-breaks in remote areas to combat wildfires is a waste, and for the reasons you give. However, I think the establishment of fuel-breaks in order to conduct prescribed fires is an excellent strategy and should be built for that purpose. And I think that prescribed fires (ignited by people at appropriate times under the right conditions) are even allowed under Wilderness designations, aren’t they?

      Landscape-scale broadcast burns in remote areas make good sense for lots of reasons, including aesthetics, wildlife habitat enhancement, fuel management, and protection of distant communities.

  6. Racist, Bob? Do you really want to use this explosive term when we are discussing Wilderness management? When the idea of leaving “unmanaged” areas alone and undeveloped back 50+ years ago, few if any Wilderness advocates understood the role of our native Americans in the use of fire. I doubt you did either.
    The Wilderness Act terminology was correct,descriptive and useful in the time it was coined. I think it is more useful in this debate to consider the intent of the Act, not to quibble with words such as “trammeled”.

    If we want to split hairs, we could start a discussion on whether native-set fires, plant gathering, primitive hunting, trails, etc. should be thought “trammeling”, as you seem to contend. None of these uses sound like trammeling to me, and therefore those roadless areas can be honestly labeled as “untrammeled”.

    You are stirring the pot, plain and simple, to prop-up your idealized forest management programs of “manage it all up”. That is your choice, but I see tons of value in saving a few million acres of “almost natural” wildlands. Almost natural in the sense that European man and his machines have minimally disturbed these lands.

    There is a real, scary precedent poking it’s ugly head up in this proposal. And if you truly believe that back-country fuel brakes are not of much value, why are you coming on so strongly in this case? Has me wondering what your true motives might be.

    I might hazard a guess that you just don’t like wildlands. And you seem to see only waste in roadless,unmanaged,ungrazed,unthinned, unlogged, forests. I see Wilderness as a valid use that fully complements all the other uses of our national forests. I guess we can agree to disagree on this point.

    • Ed: “Racist” is the right term. I’m working on a project right now involving Oregon politics in the 1850s. Then the debate was whether black people were property, or not, and whether rights of ownership extended into US Territories, or not. Indian families at that time were being systematically murdered and survivors (except pretty girls) were being herded into concentration camps by US Army personnel, funded by taxpayers. Times changed and people began to understand that their perspective needed to change with it. Same with Wilderness, in my perspective — times have changed and it may not be the best way to manage our resources anymore, if it ever was. Wildfire history of the past 40 years is a good starting point for consideration.

      Save your definitions of “trammel” for the courts. I’d rather argue about the original intent of NEPA and ESA as starters — not quibble over terminology regarding a failed management system. Personally, I think existing Wildernesses should be turned over to the NPS, which at least has some experience with this type of management. Then people can figure out what to do with them after that. The USFS record on this score is not good, and for lots of good reasons (look at USFS personnel, Congressional, and law office demographics in the 1960s for one clue).

      Did you read what I actually wrote? I argued that back-country fuel breaks are a great idea — for prescribed fires, but not for wildfires. And I think we need more fuel treatments (including prescribed burning), not less, in remote areas.

      We already “manage it all up,” so I’m not getting where you think that is my “idealized forest management program.” I just think that benign neglect and the “option to do nothing” are crappy ideas with crappy results — and prefer management systems that are proactive and intended to serve the greatest good for the greatest number over the long-term — not just a handful of mostly Caucasian elitists and their legal teams. I’m guessing the demographic for Wilderness visitors hasn’t changed that radically since I got my undergraduate degree in Forest Recreational Resources about 20 years ago.

      Your hazardous guess is accurate, though — I really dislike the term “wildlands” for lots of different reasons. Mostly because it is just a political term for some kind of zoning exercise and doesn’t really exist in nature (or, at least nature for the past 10,000+ years). Man is not a pathogen in nature (more an integral part), and “wildlands” are not an ideal state for people or wildlife, as I understand the term. Not sure why anyone would really want them. Except for zoning purposes, of course.

  7. What about surrounding the Ventana with fuel breaks. This would serve two purposes: Keep fire that starts in the wilderness in the wilderness, and keep other fires from burning into the wilderness. And wouldn’t violate the Wilderness Act. Whether the Ventana would still be “untrammeled by man” would be open to debate. Chaparral needs to burn, sooner or later.

    FWIW, I’ve backpacked in the Ventana. Beautiful and very rugged.

      • Ridgelines have always worked — mid-slope survey lines make poor fuelbreaks as you say, but we used miles of them just fine for prescribed burns on the Coast over the years. The main things are fuel-prep and ignition strategy. But ridgelines are best. Or big lakes, rockfaces, glaciers, or desert.

  8. My personal opinion is that it should be local… you could go out from the wilderness boundary and do fuelbreaks, or around the boundary, or on the wilderness side of the boundary. Depends on local conditions. But it seems to me if you were going to do generalities, it would be easier to manage a fuelbreak on the non-wilderness side of the boundary.

  9. I agree with Sharon; lets build all these fuelbreaks on the non-wilderness side of the boundary.
    Hmmmm. How will we locate it? How about immediately adjacent to the private property lines? That way we can benefit from the green lawns and swimming pools and paved streets to make the fuelbreak deeper and more effective.
    And the landowners adjacent would be pleased, I am sure, to maintain their section in perpetuity. Should actually increase property values too! Everyone wins.

  10. Before continuing this discussion, I think it’s important to carefully read the USFS Scoping Letter (Matthew was kind enough to post it above, but I’ll re-post here)

    Note that there are 2 general treatments proposed, depending on whether the segment is within, or outside of designated Wilderness.
    Chainsaws are proposed as a potential tool for construction and maintenance of fuelbreaks within wilderness, but heavy equipment and vehicles are reserved for Non-Wilderness segments only.
    (With one exception, and I expect this was a clerical oversight), of the 2.8 mile-long ridgetop described in section 1a as “Palo Colorado Vicinity–Non-Wilderness”, approximately 2 miles serves as the Wilderness boundary.


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