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Forest Service Scraps Fire Planning in Southwest

Bush administration pulls fire plans rather than obey environmental laws
April 11, 2008

Fires are an integral part of a healthy forest.
Photo: NOAA
Albuquerque, NM — 
With fire season bearing down on the Southwest, the U.S. Forest Service has scrapped fire management plans in four southwest national forests rather than face a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians and Earthjustice.

The management plans were yanked las week, leaving the forests and people unprotected by strategic fire plans, said Bryan Bird, public lands director of Guardians. Today was the deadline for the Forest Service to respond to the lawsuit filed in December last year.

"The Bush administration is putting people and our forests in harms way by pulling the fire plans rather than obeying the law," Bird said. "If it could, this administration would do all of its business behind closed doors, including planning where and how scarce funds are used during fire season."

Guardians, represented by the public interest law firm Earthjustice, is challenging the agency's traditional policy of suppressing fire -- a failed tactic that has turned forests into tinderboxes vulnerable to catastrophic fire.

"Instead of making fire our enemy, we need to make it an ally, just as Native Americans did for thousands of years. Our forest management plans must use fire -- not just suppress it -- in order to clean up our forested lands and better protect wildlife and humans," said McCrystie Adams, attorney for Earthjustice.

"Smokey Bear's war on wildfire has gone unrestrained for nearly a century, and taxpayer money is simply being tossed into the flames," said Bird. "It's time for a continental shift in fire policy in the West. We can live safely with fire. In areas away from homes and communities, we can even harness fire's restorative benefits. But we can't do these things if the Forest Service is going to scrap the fire plans."

Fire management plans (FMPs) are critical for safe and efficient firefighting. The plans include zones where fire can be allowed to burn safely, saving millions in scant funds, as well as zones where it must be suppressed at all times for human safety. The FMPs include measures for fire fighting cost containment. Without FMPs in the Southwest, the government has limited guidance to determine when and where fires should be allowed to burn to reduce overgrown brush and small trees or where large fires are natural and beneficial for forests. The Forest Service is left uncertain about when fire must be extinguished at all costs to protect lives, structures, and priceless environmental resources.

As costs for fighting wildfires on federal forest lands skyrocket -- topping a billion annually -- and as the Bush administration makes unprecedented cuts in the hazardous fuels reduction and fire preparedness budgets of the Forest Service, FMPs should play an vital role in fire management. Instead, the Forest Service is tossing the plans away.

Bird said the Forest Service has moved to dismiss WildEarth Guardians' lawsuit. WildEarth Guardians will seek more information from the Forest Service before deciding whether to oppose the agency's motion to dismiss. If the Forest Service intends to issue and approve future FMPs, WildEarth Guardians expect them to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

In a 2007 letter to the Forest Service, more than a dozen scientists with expertise in biodiversity and fire recommend a scientific review of the agency's fire management plans in Arizona and New Mexico. Because of changing climatic conditions and spiraling fire fighting costs, the scientists called for the new Southwestern Regional Forester to use the best available science and consultation with state and federal wildlife agencies.

Read the complaint and other related materials 


Contact:

McCrystie Adams, Earthjustice, (303) 623-9466