San Juan Forest Stage 3 Closure- Forest Closed Due to Fire

I have never seen these types of restrictions before, but maybe they are common elsewhere? Here’s the link, thanks to Evergreen Foundation for putting in their Twitter feed.

DURANGO, CO –The San Juan National Forest (SJNF) is planning to implement Forest-wide Stage 3 fire closure this week, which will prohibit most entry into the forest. The purpose of the closure is to protect natural resources and public safety due to the danger of wildland fire. Fire danger on the SJNF remains very high due to exceptional drought and fuel conditions. The closure order is expected to be signed Tuesday, June 12, 2018 and remain in effect until the forest receives sufficient moisture to improve conditions.

The closure order will prohibit entry into the San Juan National Forest, including entry by the general public, most administrative entry by Forest Service employees, and most uses authorized under Forest Service permits and contracts. This means that forest campgrounds, day use areas, roads, and trails will be closed, including wilderness areas, and that hiking, dispersed camping, and other recreational activities are prohibited. Exemptions might be granted on a case-by-case basis with a written authorization from the Forest Service, which would include specific requirements for fire prevention. Exemptions must be requested from the appropriate District Ranger (below). Federal, state, or local officers conducting specific duties are exempt. The McPhee Recreation Area Complex boat ramp and marina will likely remain open but no shoreline use will be allowed.

The SJNF covers 1.8 million acres within the Dolores Ranger District, the Columbine Ranger District, and the Pagosa Ranger District across nine counties in southwestern Colorado. County and state roads and U.S. highways that cross Forest Service lands will not be affected by this order. On-going road closures due to the 416 Fire will continue to be managed by the La Plata County Sherriff. Businesses in local communities will remain open for business during the Forest closure at their discretion.

San Juan National Forest Supervisor, Kara Chadwick, wants concerned citizens to know that instituting a forest closure is an extremely difficult decision, and she is aware that the closure will affect a great many people, businesses, partner agencies, forest management activities, and the public. Forest managers use several criteria to determine when to implement restrictions and closures, including fuel moistures, current and predicted weather, values at risk from wildfire, fire activity levels, and available firefighting resources. The SJNF implemented Stage 1 fire restrictions on May 1, then Stage 2 fire restrictions on June 1, but conditions continued to worsen. “The indices our fire team uses to predict fire danger are at historic levels well before we can expect any significant moisture from the seasonal monsoons,” SJNF Forest Fire Staff Officer, Richard Bustamante said. “Under current conditions, one abandoned campfire or spark could cause a catastrophic wildfire, and we are not willing to take that chance with the natural and cultural resources under our protection and care, or with human life and property.”

Violating Stage 3 fire restrictions or going into a closed area carries a mandatory appearance in federal court, and is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 for an individual or $10,000 for an organization, or imprisonment of up to six months, or both.

14 thoughts on “San Juan Forest Stage 3 Closure- Forest Closed Due to Fire”

  1. Over the past 15 years forest-wide closures have been fairly common in Montana during wildfire season. And these closures have impacted the entire national forest, not just parts of the national forests that were actively burning. The state of Montana and city of Missoula have also issued blanket closures of public land during extreme wildfire danger as well.

    Also, National Forests in NM and Arizona have been closed in the past, including parts of the Apache-Sitgreaves and Kaibab National Forests which were closed last month.

    One cool thing about the U.S. Forest Service closing all or parts of national forests during extreme wildfire danger is that some folks can use that to blame environmentalists for wildfires.

  2. Yes, they close the forest around here to any often keep them closed for months after the fire. I think it just shows the mind set of the FS that the forests belongs to them, not the people.
    Better to have people busy in the forests who can help put the fires out before they get too big.
    We really need to go back to putting the fires out as fast as possible.
    I like it when the FS says they realise the economic hardship the closure will cause. But not really, I doubt that any of their wages are being eliminated. Maybe some people can get a job being an enforcer to keep the people out of the people’s forest.

    • The portion of the Pacific Crest Trail through the Eagle Creek Fire area (burned last fall) is still closed, but may open by the end of this month. But is it’s a wilderness, why is it closed at all?

      • Indeed, why? Here’s what the Forest Service’s Manual says on the subject:

        FSM 2323.12 – Policy
        1. Maximize visitor freedom within the wilderness. Minimize direct controls and restrictions. Apply controls only when they are essential for protection of the wilderness resource and after indirect measures have failed.
        2. Use information, interpretation, and education as the primary tools for management of wilderness visitors.

        My conversations with Columbia Gorge personnel suggest: 1) They were unaware of this Manual directive; 2) They feel overwhelmed by the many urban/suburban visitors who wander into the wilderness ill-prepared; and, 3) They feel responsible for these lowest-skilled visitors and set the wilderness access bar accordingly. My view is that these managers misunderstand the Wilderness Act. By trying to make wilderness safe for everyone (i.e., by shutting everyone out), the managers are imposing their personal level of risk aversion. The Wilderness Act is about meeting Nature on her own dangerous terms, without Nanny State swaddling.

        For these managers, the era of rugged individualism is a quaint footnote in history and irrelevant to the pressure of their day-to-day job keeping people safe from their own bad decisions.

        • Interesting to see the policy and how that varies from what is actually happening – especially where fires burned adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail in OR and WA. At a recent presentation by a forest health specialist, they explained that where the Forest Service “invites” people to recreate (campgrounds, boat ramps, trails, trailhead parking, etc.), there are different levels of risk of tree failure that are acceptable. Seems like wilderness designation would override this – but the hazard tree/danger tree policies are relatively new….

  3. San Juan National Forest managers say they have closed the forest to prevent fires: “People that think they know what they’re doing can accidentally cause a fire, and there’s no way for us to determine your skill levels.” Another example of lowest-common denominator decision-making.

    And fact-free, too. About 80% of the San Juan NF’s fires are ignited by lightning. Typical of this time of year, more thunderstorms are in the forecast.

    My first post-college Forest Service job was in Colorado. Our best first responders were the recreating public who reported and acted on ignitions before our own crews could arrive. By closing the national forest, the FS is sidelining its citizen militia while the dominant ignition threat is Nature, not humans.

  4. I actually had the same reaction as Sharon for two reasons. While it’s common to close AREAS near where fires are actively burning or post-fire for PUBLIC SAFETY reasons, I don’t remember FOREST-WIDE Stage 3 closures expressly to PREVENT FIRES from starting. This article from a month ago when the closures started says, “Forest officials said the last full closures of the Apache-Sitgreaves and Kaibab forests were in 2002, while the adjacent Coconino National Forest last had a full closure in 2006.” (And these may have been due to active fires.)
    I could see some potential political value in terms of gaining more public support for fuel reduction (both burning and logging).

    • The National Forests in Montana (on a number of occasions) have issued forest-wide closures to expressly prevent wildfires from starting. That’s what I tried to say in my original comment.

  5. There are some comments that seem to disagree with the USFS on this. I also feel like it is an enclosure on the commons for risk management. What were the processes for agreeing access is restricted? What if I have a traditional hunting/foraging grounds I need access to? How many people made this decision effecting thousands, what are their credentials, and who are they accountable to? Can anyone tell me the history of how the punishment’s were conceived? They seem pretty serious. Does anyone know how to file a grievance or attempt to change/reform this policy? I am not suggesting I am attempting to do so, or that its not a good decision by the agency, I just want to know more information about the limits of the USFS Authority.

    • Excellent questions. Since the Forest Service is unlikely to answer you, I’ll take a crack at them.

      1) What are the processes for agreeing access is restricted?

      Answer: There is no public process.

      National forest lands are open to dispersed recreation use unless an affirmative decision is made to close particular areas to such use. This “open-unless-closed” policy harkens back to the forest reserves’ earliest days. See, e.g., “Forest Reserve Manual for the Information and Use of Forest Officers,” April 12, 1902, USDI/GLO (“All law abiding people are permitted to travel in forest reserves . . . for pleasure or recreation”). The policy is codified by rule, which provides that all uses, except dispersed recreation, are “special uses” that require a permit. Thus, no permit, i.e., no permission, is required for, among other things, “camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing, boating, hunting, and horseback riding.” 36 CFR § 251.50(a) and (c).

      Although the Forest Service does not admit to it, the decision to close an area is subject to the procedural requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires the forest supervisor document a rational basis for the closure decision. Scott v. United States, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14945, 2009 WL 482893, aff’d. Scott v. United States, 366 Fed. Appx. 776, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 3583. It is arbitrary to close an area to public use without a substantial basis in a supporting administrative record. Southern Four Wheel Drive Assoc. v. United States Forest Serv., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133639, 2012 WL 4106427. However, in practice, the Forest Service’s closure orders are unsupported by any record and include only conclusory statements about “safety” or “fire hazard.” The closure orders cite no data, field observations, studies, or reports supporting their conclusions.

      2) What if I have a traditional hunting/foraging grounds I need access to?

      Answer: Too bad for you. The orders generally accommodate administrative access for firefighters and, sometimes, access for in-holders or those with an existing access permit. Notwithstanding your treaty-guaranteed right of access, the FS is likely to insist that you apply for a permit.

      3) How many people made this decision affecting thousands, what are their credentials, and who are they accountable to?

      Answer: One — the San Juan forest supervisor. The forest supervisor is accountable to the regional forester.

      4) Can anyone tell me the history of how the punishments were conceived?

      Answer: Violation of the closure order is a federal Class 3 misdemeanor; the $5,000 fine is set by a government-wide statute for such crimes. The 1897 Organic Act imposes the 6-month imprisonment cap.

      5) Does anyone know how to file a grievance or attempt to change/reform this policy?

      Answer: The Forest Service will not acknowledge that there is any formal process to appeal or grieve its closure orders. FSEEE has “petitioned” to have several post-fire closure orders lifted insofar as they affect wilderness areas, with some, but not complete, success.

  6. The Forest Service officially recognizes that when they close an area of national forest land they are taking a final agency action that is subject to NEPA. They did that when they adopted a categorical exclusion from NEPA disclosure. As a CE, it is still subject to more NEPA process if there are extraordinary circumstances leading to potentially significant effects. If there is no decision memo, there is no administrative review process, but the decision is still subject to the APA and could be found arbitrary by a court. Here’s the CE language from 36 CFR 220.6(d):

    “Categories of Actions for Which a Project or Case File and Decision Memo Are Not Required.
    A supporting record and a decision memo are not required, but at the discretion of the
    responsible official, may be prepared for the flowing categories:
    (1) Orders issued pursuant to 36 CFR part 261 – Prohibitions to provide short-term
    resource protection or to protect public health and safety. Examples include but are
    not limited to:
    (i) Closing a road to protect bighorn sheep during lambing season and
    (ii) Closing an area during a period of extreme fire danger.”

  7. Thank you for the thorough reply and links to research. I am surprised its ultimately the choice of 2 individuals (I understand there are other pressures/procedures). It all seems a bit antiquated but the reality of the existing cases for precedent and considerable changes to the health and resilience of the CO forests isn’t likely to loosen their authority. I wonder if agency paternalism is the best answer here. I agree with this closure considerably more than the NPS blocking access to parks when the government shuts down, but I still disagree with the (seemingly) limited, top-down decision-making process. Maybe I’ll reach out to K. Chadwick for more on that. Then again, if the whole forest would burn up after a democratic decision to keep it open who would we all hold accountable, and would it justify such a process for keeping access open. After all, dictators are efficient. Seems like a great policy area we may all want to pay attention to and get more involved with as the population grows, recreation increases, water becomes more scarce, and forests respond (or fail to) accordingly. Thanks again for the info.

  8. It is fairly common for private landowners (especially larger forest companies) to close off access to their lands during periods of high fire danger. I also worked on the Willamette NF in western Oregon in the late 1980s where they also closed the entire forest due to high fire danger (but no active wildfires) – I think that was in 1988 when there were a lot of fires and the initial attack capability was very low due to so many people being off-forest on fire assignments, and the fire danger was extreme – so even a hot exhaust pipe or cigarette could have easily started a fire. Anyone who was left on the forest was assigned to forest patrol duties and a few people remained in the office to handle public inquiries. I have not seen that happen since, but 1988 was a rather unusual year – there were several fires that year that were unusually large – and that now would be considered rather “small”. Kind of the beginning of the era of larger fires…

  9. Jon Haber once again spells out the legal rationale well. I was part of the team that enacted the first area wide closures on the Kaibab and Coconino in 1997 (whole districts, as I recall, the North Kaibab stayed open). When you’ve got active human caused fires popping all over the urban interface with no weather relief in sight, action has to be taken. These closures worked, dramatically stopping new starts, and were lifted as soon as possible. They are a lot of work to enforce and not done without a lot of thought. Now, the govt shutdown closures are a whole different matter.


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