On July 27, Montana federal district court judge Donald Molloy issued a 79-page opinion finding in FSEEE’s favor on nearly every claim in our 2008 lawsuit that challenged the use of toxic fire retardant when fighting wildfire.
The court found that the government failed to follow the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act when dumping millions of gallons of toxic fire retardant on your National Forests.
Judge Molloy ruled that the Forest Service and the Fish & Wildlife Service failed to consider the effects of the toxic slurry on plants and animals or set any limits on the amount of toxins they dump in your public forests.
Winning this lawsuit completes the second step in our strategy to protect fish, wildlife and rare plants from the Forest Service’s fruitless, self-defeating, extremely expensive and environmentally destructive war against natural forest fires.
Make no mistake about it, to the Forest Service fire is an enemy to be conquered and suppressed. The Forest Service throws every available weapon into this conflict, from bombers to explosives.
You know that fire is a natural part of most forest ecosystems. Fire thins trees, rejuvenates plants and recycles and replenishes soil nutrients. Some tree species, such as lodgepole pine, require fire to regenerate. Many species of birds flourish—and some require—fire to create dead trees for nesting and as habitat for the insects they eat.
Fire is not an enemy to be conquered. It is a natural process that requires thoughtful management.
We need to end the Forest Service’s 100-year war against fire and replace it with an armistice that respects nature, ensuring healthy forests and safe homes and communities.
The Bush Administration spent eight years trying to avoid what the environmental laws require. After we won our first fire retardant lawsuit in 2003, former Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey dragged his feet so much that Judge Molloy ordered Rey to appear in Montana to answer contempt of court charges and threatened him with house arrest and electronic monitoring for his failure to comply with Molloy’s earlier rulings.
Ensuring that the Obama Administration behaves more responsibly is our immediate task. Judge Molloy understands the challenge and his ruling shows that he is not optimistic about this administration performing any better than its predecessor.
In his latest court opinion, Molloy has set a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for compliance with the law and he warned:
The Federal Defendants are advised that failure to comply with this deadline may subject them to sanctions, including contempt proceedings, and could conceivably result in enjoining the continued use of aerially applied fire retardant until the law enacted by Congress is complied with.
For FSEEE’s part, we need to ensure that the environmental review ordered by Judge Molloy is performed by highly qualified scientists. We have now our best chance ever to make real, lasting change in how we manage the single most important and vexing National Forest issue.
The coming several months are crucial.
We must assemble a team of fire ecologists, biologists and other experts that takes control of fire policy away from the fire-industrial complex. We need to continue educating homeowners and the American public about the importance of sensible wildland fire policies that are safe and effective.
Bad fire policy is crippling the Forest Service. Twenty years ago, the Forest Service spent 15 percent of the its budget on firefighting. Today, that number has increased to 50 percent!
With so much money going to finance the war on fire, everything else on our National Forests suffers. Wildlife, fisheries, campgrounds, hiking trails—all are degrading through neglect and poor maintenance because the Forest Service’s firefighting war machine is devouring the agency’s budget.
You would think that with the massive increase in Forest Service spending, we would see some positive results on the ground. Not so. Increased spending has not led to a decrease in homes lost to wildfires. The reason is simple. About 90 percent of homes burned from wildfire are in Southern California, where wind-driven brush fires are simply impossible to contain—the fire jumps right over retardant lines.
Aside from the tragedy of two billion dollars spent on ineffective firefighting, the government’s tactics are taking a huge toll on plants and wildlife. Last year, while fighting the Jesusita fire outside Santa Barbara, the government dropped toxic fire retardant directly into critical habitat for the endangered California steelhead trout, of which only 500 adults of this rare fish species remain.
Notwithstanding the use of toxic retardant, the Jesusita fire destroyed 80 homes. What’s most revealing is that the homes lost were poorly built of flammable material with inadequate grass and brush clearance immediately around the houses.
Properly maintained and constructed homes were not threatened by the fire, regardless of actions taken by firefighters.
And when intervention is needed, water is often the best alternative to toxic fire retardant. It’s non-toxic and cheap. Retardant is rarely used to fight wildfires east of the Mississippi—water is very effective.
The Obama Administration has not yet committed to follow the judge’s order and it has only 16 months to do so. This fight is far from over, but, thanks to your help, we have made unprecedented progress.
With support from our members and friends, we can develop the strategies needed to live safely with fire as a natural part of forest ecosystems, save the Forest Service from its worst instincts and keep toxins out of your public forests.
Read an Associated Press article about our July court victory. Articles about our victory, from the New York Times and other publications, can be viewed on our website at www.fseee.org. We are turning the tide of public opinion, which is crucial to creating a toxin-free, sustainable fire policy.