Conflicting Reports Shade Forest Fire Debate

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, July 11, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Forest Service released a report this week charging that lawsuits from environmentalists are preventing the agency from effectively managing forests to reduce wildfire risk. Environmentalists counter that the agency report ignores a number of fire management tools that the conservation community supports, and warn that the Forest Service is misspending funds provided for forest management.

The Forest Service report found that 48 percent of projects in which the agency planned to cut down small trees to reduce fire fuels were stalled by administrative appeals filed by conservation groups. Twenty-one of those cases were eventually taken to court.

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Wildland fires feed on dry underbrush, small trees and downed limbs. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
"While the agency recognizes there are multiple factors that affect its ability to decide on and implement fuels reduction projects," the report notes, "the number of mechanical fuel treatment decisions appealed shows how much this process can contribute to the overall process timeframe for agency fuel treatment decisions."

"Administrative appeals and litigation contribute significantly to the time it takes to plan for and decide on fuels projects prior to implementation," concludes the report.

The report looked at 326 national forest tree thinning projects from the past two years, finding that 155 were stalled by appeals. In Arizona and New Mexico, site of this year's worst wildfires, 73 percent of mechanical thinning projects were appealed; in the northern states of Montana, northern Idaho, North Dakota and northern South Dakota, all 53 of the reviewed projects were appealed.

Mark Rey, under secretary for natural resources and environment at the Department of Agriculture, was formerly a timber industry lobbyist. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)
"Any way you cut it this is a pretty high rate of appeals," said Mark Rey, the Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for natural resources and environment.

Some members of Congress pointed to the Forest Service report as evidence that the catastrophic wildfires that have swept through Western states this year could have been prevented if environmental groups had not blocked the agency from doing its job. Fires have already burned more than three million acres this year, about three times the annual average over the past decade.

Representative Scott McInnis, the Colorado Republican, who chairs the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health, said the report is "a scathing indictment of the process that governs management of the nation's forest, and a harsh reminder of just how relentlessly ideological some environmental litigants have become."

"For those who have spent the last several weeks downplaying the impact of appeals and litigation on forest management, this report is bucket of cold water in the face," McInnis added. "If ever there were a case for reforming the arcane and litigious way in which we manage our forests, this emphatically is it."

FOREST SERVICE TAKES NARROW VIEW

Conservation groups say the report looked only at a select group of forest management projects - those most likely to have met with criticism from environmentalists.

"The Forest Service's rigged numbers are the worst kind of cynical politics, trying to confuse Americans about why wildfires are racing across drought stricken lands," said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "The Forest Service is trying to skirt responsibility for failing to properly manage our National Forests and failing to protect people and property from catastrophic wildfires."

prescribed burn

Prescribed burns - fires set to reduce underbrush in a controlled manner - can help prevent massive wildfires. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Pope and others point to another report, released last summer by the General Accounting Office (GAO), which came to far different conclusions.

The GAO - the investigative arm of Congress - was asked by the senior Republican members of the House and Senate resources committees to review the impact that appeals and lawsuits were having on the ability of the U.S. Forest Service to carry out hazardous fuel reduction projects, such as controlled burns or brush thinning.

In August 2001, the GAO reported that of 1,671 such projects reviewed and approved by the Forest Service by the middle of 2001, only 20 - about one percent - had been appealed by outside groups, and no lawsuits had been filed. However, not all the projects covered by the GAO report were legally subject to appeal.

The fuel reduction projects that were appealed were challenged by a variety of stakeholders, the GAO found, including environmental groups, recreation groups, private industry representatives and individuals.

The Forest Service report released this week left out most of the projects covered by the GAO report, concentrating on what are termed "mechanical fuel treatment" projects - essentially the thinning of underbrush and trees through timber sales and a few large prescribed burns.

Allbaugh

Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, visits the site of one of the worst wildfires of 2000, the Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico - which began when a prescribed burn blew out of control. (Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA Photo News)
"Mechanical fuel treatments, especially involving tree removal in overstocked forest, tend to be challenged most frequently," the report states. "For that reason the focus here is on the mechanical aspect of hazardous fuel treatment."

Many of those projects were opposed by conservation groups who argued that they involved the logging of old growth trees, the logging of wildland areas dozens of miles from the nearest town that could be at risk from fires, or logging within endangered species habitat.

In contrast, the 1,671 projects examined by the GAO were largely prescribed burns and forest thinning projects, funded by the Forest Service in 2001 with the $205 million allocated by Congress specifically for fuels reduction.

Most of those projects had the full support of the conservation community, which has long called for controlled forest thinning to reduce the risk of fires that burn so hot they sterilize the soil beneath forests.

"The Forest Service report ignores the sensible projects such as small prescribed burns that scientists recommend to reduce the risks of fire," said the Sierra Club's Pope. "The Forest Service set out to study only the big logging projects on which we disagree and, lo and behold, they found that we disagree."

When conservation groups do challenge fuels reduction projects, they often win their appeals. An analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity shows that about 50 percent of the appeals and 40 percent of the lawsuits against these projects are successful, for a total success rate of 70 percent - suggesting that the challenged projects are indeed flawed.

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The Fort Valley timber sale in northern Arizona, billed as a fuel reduction thinning project, left scattered trees surrounded by barren ground. (Photo courtesy Martos Hoffman, Native Forest Network)
The Center considered the appeals victories particularly significant because the Forest Service is itself the judge of such challenges - often concluding that timber sales it has already approved are illegal or otherwise flawed. In most cases, the Center found, challenged timber sales are adjusted to be smaller, remove fewer or no old growth trees, or stay out of roadless areas.

"Appeals therefore, most often do not completely stop timber sales, they simply make them less damaging," the Center concluded.

The Center's executive director Kieren Suckling said the forest service would encounter far less opposition "if they would stick to the thinning of small trees rather than going after old growth trees."

LOGGING FAILS TO HALT FIRES

One example used by both sides of the argument is the proposed Baca timber sale in the Apache-Sitgreave National Forest in Arizona. That sale, currently stalled by a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, was partially burned over this week by the Rodeo-Chediski fire, the largest in Arizona's history.

The Center says the Forest Service could have avoided controversy over the Baca sale had the agency limited its efforts to thinning of small trees. According to Forest Service estimates, more than 95 percent of the trees on the Baca sale site are smaller than 12 inches in diameter.

These small, densely spaced trees create the so called "ladder fuels" which scientists say need to be thinned to avoid the crown fire conditions seen in many areas of the Rodeo-Chediski fires. Instead of focusing on thinning of these small, fire prone trees, the Forest Service instead planned log mature, fire resistant ponderosa pines larger than 16 inches in diameter, which would comprise 26 percent of the sale's volume would consist of these large trees.

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The Rodeo fire blazes across Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
"The logging proposed on the Baca timber sale is the exact opposite of what the Forest Service needs to be doing to reduce fire danger and protect communities within our National Forests," said Brian Segee of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Instead of thinning small, fire prone trees, the Forest Service would take out what little remains of the large, fire resistant trees. They couldn't keep their hands out of the cookie jar."

Under a negotiated agreement, the Forest Service has committed to not undertaking logging on the sale until the litigation has been resolved. However, after receiving funds appropriated under the National Fire Plan in 2000, the agency has twice requested that it be allowed to use that funding to conduct a total of 1,300 acres of small diameter, wildland urban interface treatments around the Arizona community of Forest Lakes.

The Center did not oppose either of those requests, and says it "strongly" supports this type of community protection measure.

Most of the area burned by the Rodeo-Chediski fires had already been logged, suggesting that thinning of mature trees does not reduce fire risk. The Center says that much of the land within the Baca timber sale area has been logged within the last five years by the separate Jersey Horse timber sale - yet, the fire swept through that area.

"While politicians may attempt to use the Baca timber sale as the latest attempt to exploit this tragedy for their own political ends, they will fail to mention that the Rodeo-Chediski fires have burned through areas that have been intensively logged," Segee said.

The Baca timber sale is the only Arizona timber sale over which the Center for Biological Diversity has sued in the past five years.

MONEY MISSPENT?

Today, the public interest group Taxpayers for Common Sense charged that the hundreds of millions of dollars provided by Congress to the Forest Service for wildfire management have not been directed at the regions which face the highest risk.

The agency has failed to identify communities that face a high risk of wildfire, and has not reported on what was accomplished with appropriated wildfire funds, the group said.

"Congress provided hundreds of millions of tax dollars to reduce fire risk on millions of acres of federal land," said Jill Lancelot, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "The problem is that the agency is not directing the money to the most at risk areas. The Forest Service is fiddling as the west burns."

Hayman

Yellow smoke from the Hayman fire blanketed Denver, Colorado in early June 2002. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Congress has encouraged the Forest Service and other agencies to focus their efforts in and around communities in the western interior states, yet much of the funding has paid for projects far away from the edges of town, and most of the communities identified were in the eastern United States, Taxpayers said.

Of the 11,376 high-risk communities identified by the federal government last fall, only one-third are in the West. The list included communities far from the nearest wildfire threat, including New Orleans, Louisiana and Queens, New York.

"The federal government has a responsibility to spend fire plan funds where there is a risk of severe fire," said Lancelot, "the last time I checked, there hadn't been too many raging wildfires in Queens."

In addition, 80 percent of all prescribed burning, one of the primary methods of reducing fire risk, took place in the southern and eastern regions, where severe wildland fires do not pose as much of a threat.

"American taxpayers will not stand by and watch billions of dollars go up in smoke, it's time for Congress to take action to ensure that future funds go towards the areas that really need them," concluded Lancelot. "Instead of blaming environmentalists for its own failures, it is time for the Forest Service to take responsibility."