Fanning the flames 

Wildfire finger-pointing already in high gear

While Montana’s wildfire season has been relatively minor thus far, the wildfire blame game started early this year.

In 2000 then-Gov. Marc Racicot waited until after the wildfire season was over to blame those fires on policies of the Clinton administration.

But in June of 2002, Gov. Martz branded environmentalists “terrorists” during her address to the Western Governor’s Association, just as wildfires were burning across Colorado and Arizona.

Then last week, the U.S. Forest Service released a report suggesting that half of the hazardous fuel reduction projects across the country are being delayed by environmental appeals. In particular, the reports claims that 100 percent of the projects in Montana to make forests less likely to burn were appealed in the past two years. A day after politicians and pundits championed the Forest Service report in Congress and in newspapers around the country, representatives of two of the environmental groups singled out fired salvos in return.

Chris Mehl of the Bozemen office of the Wilderness Society disputed the Forest Service numbers and cited a 2001 report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) which found that fewer than one percent of the projects aimed at reducing the likelihood of wildfires were delayed by appeals or lawsuits.

“The Forest Service is coming up with their own skewed report [because] their house is not in order,” says Mehl. “They’re using this tragedy to promote their agenda. This is the worst time, and the Forest Service is deliberately trying to shift blame.”

Jennifer Ferenstein, president of the Sierra Club, chalked up the Forest Service report to the political machinations of Undersecretary Mark Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist and Bush administration appointee. As Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, Rey was scheduled to speak before Congress the day after the report was released.

“You can connect the dots and see this is a cynical ploy,” says Ferenstein. “They should be looking for real solutions instead of pointing fingers. What we need to focus on is restoration and defensible space around homes.”

Meanwhile, Steve Kratville, spokesman for the Forest Service Region One headquarters in Missoula, explained the apparent contradiction between the two reports. First, he says, they each look at different time frames. The GAO examined the second half of the 1990s, while the Forest Service report only looked at fiscal years 2001 and 2002.

Second, the reports address different information. The GAO looked at all proposals that would reduce fuel loads on national forests, regardless of the method or the size of the trees. Thus it included small thinning projects conducted in the urban-wildland interface which are rarely, if ever, controversial. Although subject to litigation, such projects are called “categorical exemptions” and are not eligible for administrative appeal.

The Forest Service report, however, didn’t include these categorical exemptions or other proposals such as prescribed burns. Instead, it addressed “mechanical fuel treatments” such as “tree removal in overstocked forests,” which, environmentalists say, is industry lingo for logging.

“These are really timber sales, good old timber sales, that the Forest Service has dressed up as some fuel reduction project,” says Ferenstein. “These are big projects with potentially big environmental impacts.”

“They [the GAO] included projects that will not reduce fire risk, like logging out in the middle of nowhere,” counters Mehl. “We have limited resources [so] we should prioritize protecting homes.”

In 2001, the Forest Service proposed 33 projects in Montana that included fuel reduction activities. Of those, 30 were appealed. Subsequently, 25 of the appealed decisions were affirmed as proposed.

Meantime, one appeal was dismissed and another was withdrawn. In the end, three appeals successfully reversed Forest Service proposals.

Two of the projects ended in litigation after the appeals process failed to produce a generally agreeable decision. One was upheld while another, in the Helena National Forest, is still in court.

Another notable Forest Service proposal ended in litigation last year. In response to the wildfires of 2000, the Bitterroot National Forest proposed the Burned Area Recovery Project, which included plans to conduct salvage logging on 40,000 acres.

Rey declared the project immune to administrative appeal due to the urgency of the project. In response, environmentalists filed suit. Although the settlement endorsed the logging of 15,000 acres, District Judge Don Molloy ruled that environmental groups won in spirit and ordered the Forest Service to pay their legal expenses.

While there has been no proposal, appeal or lawsuit on the scale of the Bitterroot Burned Area Recovery Project in 2002, the pattern remains the same.

Thus far this year, the Forest Service has proposed 25 projects in Montana that included fuel reduction activities. Of those, 24 were appealed. Subsequently, 16 of the appealed decisions were affirmed as proposed.

Meantime, one appeal was withdrawn. In the end, two proposals were withdrawn from consideration, one was reversed and another was partially reversed. Additionally, three appeals are still pending.

But those are Forest Service numbers, based on logging-style projects. And appeals alone don’t add much time to projects, argues Ferenstein, especially if the Forest Service anticipates them and the two-week review that usually follows.

“It’s a 45-day process,” Ferenstein says. “It’s not going to cause massive forest fires across the West. If they’ve done their homework and followed the law, they come out with stronger projects.”

While the Forest Service disagrees with this philosophy and faults “excessive analysis” for the delay in planning, deciding and implementing projects, local foresters acknowledge the basic dynamic exists.

“When you have an awareness that you’re going to get appealed, you plan accordingly,” says Kratville.

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