Potential Operational Delineations (PODs) have come to the Lolo National Forest at the same time it is embarking on revision of its forest plan. Coincidence? Fortuitous? Let’s revisit PODs (again).
To create PODs, stakeholders are assembled and first tasked with drawing lines on a map. The lines correspond to places where fires can often effectively be stopped, like a ridge, river, road or burn scar.
Developed by the U.S. Forest Service, the PODs approach has been growing across the West since 2017. The framework is supported by a $100 million federal investment as part of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and is now being used by an estimated 109 national forests and regional partners. Following a series of workshops, POD lines have been drawn as of late June 2023 for all units in USFS Region 1, which includes all seven national forests in Montana.
Since one of the purposes of PODs is to provide opportunities for not suppressing wildfires, this article talks about the current unpopularity of that option. It also talks about real-world tests with wildfires on the Tonto National Forest, where buy-in from local partners led to successful management of fires for resource benefits. As the article’s title suggests, the author seems focused on the technology, but the article also acknowledges the forest planning questions.
This is clearly a planning process: “If we’re ever going to get over the hump in fire management of being more proactive about allowing certain fires to burn and putting other fires out, you have to think about these things and plan for them before the fire happens.” But while the Forest Service talks about collaborating with other landowners, they don’t seem to talk about including the general public.
And PODs will not be used only for emergency situations after fires have started, but “PODs can also inform where fuels are treated, like the shaded fuel break project on the Lolo National Forest.” If that “informing” amounts to management direction that is different for different parts of a national forest then it needs to be in a forest plan. (See the management differences in Table 4 from this post. If they stop at something like a “probability of containment” rating, that could probably be treated as “information.”)
This article recognizes the barrier that existing plans may be to managed wildfires.
In general, federal, state and tribal land management plans are the law of the land that dictate the suite of options available to a fire manager. Even if PODs have been drawn and risk assessments completed, a land management plan will override any strategy suggested via the PODs process that conflicts with the plan’s prescribed approach.
If a plan has not provided for wildfires to be used for resource benefits (like the current Lolo plan doesn’t), PODs for that purpose would not be consistent with the forest plan. So, what about the Lolo forest plan revision?
The Lolo is currently one year into a four-year revision process for its forest management plan. Once the revision is completed, Missoula District Ranger Stonesifer said, the forest will have a plan rooted in the best available science. So far, it is unclear if the revised plan will incorporate PODs.
It’s hard for me to see how they could NOT incorporate them. Once they open the door in the forest plan to managed wildfires, they can’t avoid talking about the details of how that would be done, and once they start drawing PODs on a map, I don’t see how they could not include the public interested in the forest plan, nor avoid integrating this with other plan decisions and talking about the effects of these designations. That is forest planning.
(And then, whatabout all those PODs that have already been drawn on other national forests outside of the forest planning process?)