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.