Fire Must Be Ally in Forest Management, Suit Demands

Conservation groups challenge "Smokey Bear" approach of U.S. Forest Service


McCrystie Adams, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9616

The U.S. Forest Service is endangering forests and people with its policy of suppressing fire instead of allowing it to be a partner in forest management, conservation groups said today as they filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service in federal district court.

Forest Guardians and Earthjustice are seeking to compel the Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico to stop treating fire like a foe to be vanquished at every opportunity, said Bryan Bird, public lands director of Forest Guardians.

The suit demands that the Forest Service open its fire management plans to scientific review and consultation with federal wildlife agencies. Despite agency rhetoric acknowledging widespread scientific support for more managed fire, the fire plans still call for suppression even where fires are both ecologically and financially justified.

Allowing fires to burn, where it is safe to do so, will lead to safer communities, healthier forests and significant savings to the states and taxpayers, Bird said.

“Smokey Bear was wrong and the Forest Service continues to suppress most natural fire, even where that worsens the situation,” said Bryan Bird, Public Lands Director at Forest Guardians. “It’s time for a continental shift in fire policy.”

“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, a non-profit environmental law firm that filed the suit on behalf of Guardians.

At issue are fire management plans that zone each national forest into areas for fire use or for total fire suppression and which require review under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit claims the fire management plans on the Apache-Sitgreaves, Tonto, Carson and Lincoln national forests, which cover 7.6 million acres, do not comply with environmental laws.

“A far greater area of our national forests could be zoned for managed natural fire, but the fire plans in the Southwest limit its use only to the most remote areas,” said Bird. “If these fire plans were developed in the light of day and not behind closed doors, the public as well as state and county governments could influence them. We’re not asking the Forest Service to throw out the current plans, but to open them up to scientific and public scrutiny as the law requires.”

Forest Service fire fighting budgets have grown into the billions annually as ex-urban growth in the West’s fire-prone forests has led to a dramatic increase in fire-fighting. The majority of these taxpayer funds are used to protect private property in the “fire-plain,” areas of the western landscape that regularly and naturally experience fire. Not only is this expensive, but firefighters are routinely put in harm’s way.

The recent fires in California have ignited public discourse on the subject and some are calling for zoning to prevent development in fire-prone areas or calling on homeowners to take measures to “firewise” their properties. At the same time, scientists recognize the need for fire to resume its normal, cleansing role or risk unrelenting severe fire behavior.

“Forest Service policy recognizes that natural fire is essential to western landscapes and it must be restored safely, but on the ground it’s just lip service,” said Bird. “Despite the best science, the Forest Service is still suppresses ninety-eight percent of fires. If these same fires were allowed to burn, they could control fuel build-up economically, leading to greater safety for communities and firefighters as well as healthier forests as a whole.”

In a letter last month 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.

“California’s fires this fall demonstrated that the priority for federal and state funds should be protecting lives and communities while allowing natural fires to control fuel buildup in fire-prone environments. We must learn to live with fire,” Bird said.

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.