I am writing this article to provide Idaho citizens with information that will help them hold the Forest Service accountable to properly manage forest resources. My perspective is based on 31 years residence in Lemhi County, Idaho, which is over 90% federally managed land (Salmon-Challis National Forest and Salmon Field Office BLM).
I am grateful to God Almighty for the drought-ending rainfall that temporarily reduced local wildfire risk and otherwise benefited our valley. I am also thankful for fire suppression personnel who have diligently worked to extinguish new fire starts. I hope the Salmon-Challis National Forest’s (SCNF) aggressive initial attack trend continues and managers preclude use of a “let burn” strategy.
The agency’s past practice of using wildfire as a “management tool” is precisely the topic raised in letters the National Wildfire Institute (NWI) sent Chief of the Forest Service (FS) Randy Moore on July 23 and two other FS officials on July 29.
The 44-page letter to Randy Moore is signed by 21 natural resource professionals with 721 collective years of experience working for the FS and/or BLM (an average of 34 years per signer). They admonish the Forest Service that its past use of unplanned ignitions for resource management has been devastating to western landscapes and “…the cumulative effects of “managed fire” have never been fully disclosed…”
I agree. Local citizens have repeatedly asked the SCNF to disclose the resource impacts of 1.5 million acres burned since 2000, including acreage burned under the “management fire” policy. But the agency has never provided that information (not even in the Forest Plan Revision “Assessment”). What was the specific resource benefit “prescription” defined and analyzed for those fires and was that “prescription” achieved?
The July 29 letter references the letter to Moore and emphatically states that this year the FS should “put all fires out immediately; no exceptions.” The letter goes on to list “Suppression Actions that need to be included in the Direction to Regional Foresters: (1) The use of ‘managed wildfire for resource benefit’ is suspended until further notice. (2) All wildfires, including those in Wilderness Areas, will receive an immediate and aggressive air and ground initial [attack] — and extended attack if required — that is designed to contain and control all fires as soon as possible with minimal acreage burned. (3) Wherever safe to do so a direct attack strategy should be used in place of an indirect one. (4) Large burnouts shall be avoided. ”
The Chief appears to have listened to the National Wildfire Institute. On August 2, 2021 Moore provided “Wildland Fire Direction” to Regional Foresters and others. The one page directive acknowledges a national crisis of drought, extreme wildfire risk, 70 large fires nation-wide, and insufficient fire fighting resources. With these concerns in mind Moore states, “…managing fires for resource benefit is not a strategy we will use” and prescribed fire ignitions will only occur with Regional Forester approval in consultation with the Chief. The Chief also notes, “We are in a ‘triage’ mode where our primary focus must be on fires that threaten communities and infrastructure.”
Just because a wildfire is a natural (lightning) ignition doesn’t mean the fire severity, intensity, and aerial extent will yield beneficial or natural outcomes if it is allowed to burn for (alleged) “resource benefit.” I advise the Forest Service to make the NWI recommendations permanent and abandon the “let burn for resource benefit” management policy that has destroyed millions of acres of national forest and subjected communities to serious adverse impacts.
I furthermore reject the use of landscape scale planned ignition broadcast burning on the SCNF.
The SCNF has no doubt generated a lifetime worth of wildfire cumulative effects (35% of the Forest has burned since 2000) and neither future “management (wild) fires” nor broadcast burning in untreated, unnaturally dense fuels are acceptable. No one here needs the stress of future evacuations and poor air quality from large acreage planned ignition broadcast burns that may result in an escaped fire. There is furthermore no evidence that the use of fire ALONE (whether natural ignition or broadcast burn) has restored healthy forested ecosystems from unnatural fuel conditions on the hundreds of thousands of acres burned.
Despite the lack of evidence that past landscape level burn strategies have been beneficial, the SCNF proposed an ENORMOUS acreage of broadcast burning projects last fall.
The Stormy Peak project would include 12,000-17,000 acres of broadcast burning in the suitable timber base (see https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=58729).
The North Zone Vegetation Improvement Project would include broadcast burning on undisclosed portions of 1.4 million acres and is proposed under a Categorical Exclusion authority, which defies logic (surely there are significant cumulative effects on such vast acreage) (see https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=56749).
And the Salmon-Challis Fuels Reduction and Restoration Project (also a CE project) would burn undisclosed portions of 2.4 million acres (see https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=58813).
I contend the Stormy Project should focus solely on precise fuels treatment through mechanical treatment/commercial harvest; i.e., a new alternative should be developed that constructs new roads to access the “interior” of the project area rather than burning that acreage. The other two projects should be scrapped for many reasons, including the lack of ANY commercial harvest on the projects’ 2.8 million acres (essentially all Forest land outside designated wilderness)!
I leave readers with two closing questions: Wouldn’t the $19.8 million spent to date on the SCNF Mud-Lick Fire (https://www.nifc.gov/nicc/sitreprt.pdf) have been better spent proactively on road construction and timber harvest to reduce fuels in precise locations and establish a transportation network for future resource management, public access, and fire suppression? The agency can’t say “we don’t have enough money” — the issue is how funds are allocated.
The Trail Creek fire fighting team lamented the lack of roads above Gibbonsville, Idaho that would have facilitated their fire suppression work. Lightning-caused fire ignitions in north Lemhi County are a certainty. What should the SCNF do to establish fuel breaks and fire suppression access routes above Gibbonsville and along the Highway 93 (and Panther Creek Road) egress routes so the people in those communities are never again faced with evacuation?