Montana wildfire costs could double as housing grows, report says
by Rob Chaney, Feb 24, 2013
If Montana’s forest fringes continue filling with houses, wildland firefighting costs could double, according to a report by the Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics.
“Protecting homes is a major cost and safety issue in fighting fire,” said Headwaters author Chris Mehl. “But the real question is personal responsibility: Who pays for that? Right now, the federal government – the Forest Service, BLM or FEMA – pays for a disproportionate share of the cost of fighting fires and cleaning up afterward. States and municipalities pay a small share of the cost....
Restricting house construction in the wildland-urban interface might be a good idea, report critic Andy Stahl said, but Headwaters is using the wrong measuring stick to make its point.
read complete story in the Missoulian
Report: Warming bringing big changes to forests
by Jeff Barnard, AP - Feb 5, 2013
Big changes are in store for the nation's forests as global warming increases wildfires and insect infestations, and generates more frequent floods and droughts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warns in a report released Tuesday.
The compilation of more than 1,000 scientific studies is part of the National Climate Assessment and will serve as a roadmap for managing national forests across the country in coming years…
Dave Cleaves, climate adviser to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said climate change has become the primary driver for managing national forests, because it poses a major threat to their ability to store carbon and provide clean water and wildlife habitat.
"One of the big findings of this report is we are in the process of managing multiple risks to the forest," Cleaves said during a conference call on the report. "Climate revs up those stressors and couples them. We have to do a much better job of applying climate smartness ... to how we do forestry."…
Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a watchdog group, said the agency traditionally has been guided by political pressures, and he has seen no evidence that concern over climate change is now playing a role.
read complete story here.
Bill aims to share Oregon wildfire costs
by Jeff Barnard, AP - January 19, 2013
GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — For years, Oregon's major timberland owners have felt they were paying too much of the cost of fighting wildfires, especially in years when blazes stayed relatively small.
A bill in Gov. John Kitzhaber's budget would allocate $3.6 million over the next two years to change the payment formula, so the state picks up a bigger share of the costs in years when fires don't rage out of control. The proposal also would pay up to $6 million to keep two air tankers on call and other resources to keep minor wildfires from getting big and expensive….
Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics said any money spent on air tankers and helicopters is a waste, because there is no data to show that they are effective tools for keeping fires from getting out of control.
"At a time when we are struggling to fund schools and fund health care, why we would want to divert those dollars to some of Oregon's largest corporations is a bit mystifying," said Stahl. "Historic data shows no correlation between the amount of retardant dumped on a (forest) and the success rate of keeping fires small."
Entire article in San Francisco Chronicle
New Whistleblower Protection Law “An Environmentally Significant Reform,” say Activists
by Audrey Haynes – December 13, 2012
[In November, 2012] President Obama signed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act into law. The law revamps protections for federal employees who come forward and report misconduct, abuse of authority, or violation of law in their workplaces. These enhancements could be crucial in advancing environmental issues, but only if implemented properly...
Andy Stahl, Executive Director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, similarly cites protection from censorship of disclosures as the new law’s “most environmentally significant reform.”
“It is not uncommon for specialists to have their analyses changed, watered-down, distorted, etc., by higher-ups in the agency who don't want to hear the bad environmental news. Before this law, these specialists had little choice but to swallow hard because of the risk of retaliation for speaking out. The new law would bar retaliation against an employee for disclosing such attempts at censorship of technical analyses,” Stahl says.
Stahl says that the reforms will have the greatest impact around laws such as the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act, which rely on substantial technical analysis of the environmental effects of federal actions.
Read the article in the Earth Island Journal
U.S. Forest Service to use aerial retardant, with precautions to protect species
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has cleared the way for continued use of aerial fire retardant as long as pilots use special maps to avoid hurting threatened or endangered species....
Andy Stahl, whose Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics filed the successful lawsuit, was skeptical of the results.
"The final (environmental impact statement) acknowledges the Forest Service has no evidence fire retardant contributes to any firefighting objective," Stahl said. "They made their decision on the basis of cherry-picking from a biased sample that fire managers claim retardant makes a difference."
Read the complete story in the Missoulian
Forest Service wants to keep using fire retardant
The U.S. Forest Service has backed off claims about the effectiveness of the huge red plumes of fire retardant that big airplanes drop on wildfires, but the agency does not expect to cut back on using it.
Acting under a court order, the agency Friday posted on its website the final environmental impact statement laying out how it plans to use fire retardant without harming threatened and endangered fish, wildlife and plants on national forests and grasslands covering 193 million acres in 44 states.
The Forest Service chief must sign the statement before it goes into effect, and the court timetable gives him until the end of December.
Forest Service analyst Glen Stein said that after it was pointed out the agency has no hard data showing fire retardant is effective, his team "softened" earlier claims about its effectiveness. But officials know from experience that it works and plan to keep using it, while taking steps not to harm endangered species.
The new plan slightly increases the amount of land designated as off-limits to retardant drops to protect the environment. It only allows drops in those buffer zones to protect human life and eliminates past exemptions to protect property.
"This is going to be more about where we may or may not use it," Stein said. "It's not really about quantity of use."
"We have a word for that: faith-based firefighting," said Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service employees for Environmental Ethics. The watchdog group prompted the analysis through federal lawsuits dating back to 2003 challenging the use of chemical fire retardant, primarily because it kills fish when it lands in streams and lakes.
Stahl said it was immoral to ask pilots to risk their lives dropping retardant from big planes if there was no scientific evidence it was effective.
Official: Maps should curb retardant damage
A massive new map collection should keep firefighting air tankers and the fire retardant they drop from hurting fish and other sensitive plants and animals, U.S. Forest Service officials said on Wednesday.
"We have between 12,000 and 15,000 maps produced, with all the quads for all the national forests," said Glen Stein, who led the Forest Service environmental impact statement team studying ways to improve fire retardant use.
The maps show streams and other water features, as well as ground spots where endangered or sensitive species live. Fire dispatchers and pilots should have the maps available to decide if they can drop retardant in a fire zone without poisoning fish or damaging ground habitat…
In 2010, U.S. District Judge Don Molloy of Missoula ruled the Forest Service erred in a 2008 environmental assessment that found retardant had no significant impact on fish or aquatic life.
He gave the agency until the end of 2011 to redo that study.
Stein led a conference call on Wednesday to discuss the draft document. In addition to producing the maps, the Forest Service also plans to have firefighters do more careful evaluation of retardant drops and survey at least 5 percent of fires that burn less than 300 acres for misplaced drops.
Those small fires are the ones most likely for misplaced drops to get made or go unnoticed, Stein said. Larger fires typically have more people paying greater attention to air tanker action, so mistakes there are usually properly reported and studied.
But the draft assessment also backs away from an earlier statement asserting the value of retardant drops as a firefighting tool.
"It's still very difficult to prove if fire retardant is going to be effective in particular situations before you apply it," Stein said. "We know it's effective in the lab. I've been a firefighter for 37 years and I know it can be effective."
That jumped out at Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, the group that originally sued the Forest Service over the misplaced drops.
"In the draft EIS, they claimed fire retardant improved initial attack success, decreased fire size and saved homes," Stahl said. "Now the Forest Service has retreated from those assertions and says it doesn't have data or studies to support that, so it's relying on anecdotal evidence."
Stein said without aerial retardant drops, ground firefighters might have to work farther from the fire perimeter, avoid direct contact with burn areas or even fall back to the closest natural barrier in their assault. That could result in fires getting bigger than they would without retardant drops, he said.
The draft EIS also notes that fire retardant chemistry has improved, changing greatly in the last five or six years to be less toxic to wildlife. Stein said the report didn't propose further changes to the retardant formulation.
Aerial retardant isn't used on 95 percent of fires on national forests. The new maps put nearly 30 percent of the Forest Service land into aerial buffer zones to protect waterways, and another 1 percent of sensitive ground. The buffer zones protect more than 300 plants and animals on the Endangered Species List and another 3,700 species considered sensitive to retardant effects.
The new EIS is not subject to appeals, although Stein said the public can still contact him or other Forest Service officials over the next 30 days before a record of decision is signed. The new maps and procedures should be in use when the 2012 fire season starts next February.
To read the draft EIS or comment on its proposals, go to www.fs.fed.us/fire/retardant/index.html.
DeFazio on BLM lands: Leave some forests alone but log others
EUGENE, Ore. - An Oregon congressman wants to preserve 2.3 million acres of federal forestland in Oregon.
see accompanying video on KVAL
DeFazio offers Forest Plan
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio is floating a proposal for logging and preservation in Western Oregon’s federal forests that he says could mean a stable source of funding for the Oregon counties that historically have depended upon timber revenue from the federal lands.
Read the complete story in the Eugene Register-Guard.
Fire fight: Forest Service explores chemical retardant hazards
What's worse for the forest: wildfires or the chemicals dropped from planes to stop them? The U.S. Forest Service tackles this question in its 370-page study of fire-retardants' ecological impacts, released May 13. It's a dilemma: Retardants kill fish, contaminate aquifers and fertilize noxious weeds, but unchecked fires destroy homes, wreck some habitats, ruin views and, worst of all, kill people.
Stahl's organization first sued in 2004, alleging that the Forest Service ignored the National Environmental Policy Act when determining how and where to use retardants. The law required the agency to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the chemicals' effects on protected species and publish an environmental analysis open to public comments. The Forest Service finally did that in 2007, but its environmental assessment merely concluded that proper use of fire retardants had "no significant impact" on ecosystems -- despite Fish and Wildlife's findings that they harm scores of protected plants and animals.
Read the entire story in High Country News
Forest Service makes new plan for fire retardant drops following court ruling
The U.S. Forest Service is proposing a few changes, but wants to continue using retardant to slow the spread of wildfires, according to a draft environmental impact statement released for public comment Friday.
A 370-page draft environmental impact statement released Friday follows a ruling last year by U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy in Missoula, Mont., ordering the forest service to take a tougher look at the possibility that routinely dropping toxic fire retardant on wildfires from airplanes kills endangered fish and plants….
The lawsuit leading to Molloy's ruling was brought by the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
The group's executive director, Andy Stahl, said the draft environmental impact statement doesn't include information about the efficacy of fire retardant.
"The Forest Service makes no effort to show that fire retardant use changes the outcome of wildfires in terms of houses destroyed, lives threatened or acres burned," Stahl said. "Tables in the draft EIS show scores of national forests use no retardant — never did — and they don't show any different outcomes. They don't suffer from lack of that."
He said the document falls short of the court's ruling.
"I think they're going to be compelled to do somewhat better than this," Stahl said. "If they're proposing to build a dam or highway, or log a forest, there are some environmental downsides but also some kind of economic pluses. What the Forest Service has not done is told us what the pluses are when using the retardant."
Read the entire AP story in the Helena Independent Record
GUEST VIEWPOINT: Obama threatens to shatter political peace in the forest
A generation ago, in the twilight of his career and his life, U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey shepherded into law a new manifesto for our national forests. With passage of the 1976 National Forest Management Act, former vice-president Humphrey predicted that “The days have ended when the forest may be viewed only as trees and trees viewed only as timber. The soil and the water, the grasses and the shrubs, the fish and the wildlife, and the beauty of the forest must become integral parts of the resource manager’s thinking and actions.” With Humphrey’s untimely death in 1978, he never got the chance to see his vision realized.
Humphrey’s 1976 law sought to make the U.S. Forest Service more responsive to public concerns about logging, especially clear-cutting. The law requires the Forest Service to explain and justify the ecological effects of its timbering practices. Long dominated by professional foresters trained to see forests as lumber, the new law led the Forest Service to retain wildlife, soil, fisheries and water experts to enlarge its perspective of trees and their values. In 1982, as required by NFMA, the Forest Service adopted forest planning rules that regulate logging to protect wildlife, water quality and soil productivity.
The years following were not smooth sailing. The Forest Service’s first attempts at justifying national forest logging levels and practices fell flat. The new forest plans proposed even more clear-cutting than before. National forest logging levels increased steadily from 10 billion board feet in 1976 to more than 12 billion by 1987. The Forest Service simply had not gotten Humphrey’s message.
But judges did. By the early 1990s, federal judges were being called upon to compel the Forest Service to obey the law, especially the wildlife protection provisions of NFMA and its 1982 forest planning rules. In the most famous such case, Seattle federal district court Judge William Dwyer noted “a remarkable series of violations of environmental laws” regarding Forest Service clear-cut logging of old-growth forests in Oregon and Washington in which the threatened northern spotted owl lived.
By 2000, logging levels had plummeted and, since then, they have stabilized at a sustainable 2 billion to 3 billion board feet. With most of the highly profitable old-growth forests long gone, the Forest Service now focuses its logging on reducing flammable brush and thinning small trees.
Apparently not content to let today’s political peace in the woods persist, the Obama administration has proposed to replace the 1982 forest planning rules. The new rules are long on flowery rhetoric, but short on forest protection substance. They replace simple principles such as protecting wildlife species with complex, difficult-to-define ecological pablum. The new rules appear designed to placate environmental interests with happy-talk, on the one hand, while, on the other, weakening the forest protection standards that Humphrey sought. If nothing else, the new proposal threatens to stir the hornet’s nest of national forest policy.
Why now? Why, 20 years after Judge Dwyer knocked some sense into the Forest Service’s head, does the Obama administration want to risk bringing controversy and acrimony back to our national forests? The proposed new rules do nothing to help thin overstocked stands or lessen wildfire risks. The Forest Service has been doing that job for more than a decade. Higher logging levels on our national forests might increase economic activity (if the demand for wood products also picks up), and a White House that puts job creation first might be tempted to let forest protection slide.
President Obama should leave well enough alone and let the 1982 forest protection rules stand. Sustainable jobs are not found by returning to the days of national forest overcutting.
Andy Stahl, a forester, is executive director of Eugene-based Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
Funding Impasse Threatens Park Shutdowns, Oil and Gas Permitting Freeze
As lawmakers struggle to pass a spending bill before current federal funding runs out next week, observers warn that a government shutdown could severely hamper land management agencies and the people and businesses they support...
A 1995 report from the General Accounting Office -- now known as the Government Accountability Office -- speculated that nearly half of all Interior employees, more than 50,000, would need to be furloughed in the event of a government shutdown.
That percentage ended up much higher at the Forest Service during the most recent funding stoppage, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
Planned revision of Forest Service rules assailed
Read the complete AP story at the Seattle Times
Fourmile Fire rehabilitation efforts get started, could stretch on for years
In the aftermath of a Colorado fire, land managers assess the impact on water quality and soil erosion. The 150,000 gallons of fire retardant dropped on the blaze are also of concern.
"It's indisputably toxic; there's no question about that," said Andy Stahl. '[If] you drop it in a small mountain stream with greenback cutthroat trout in it, and you'll wipe the whole stream out for miles."
Read the whole story at dailycamera.com
FSEEE Wins Fire Retardant Lawsuit
On July 27, in a lawsuit brought by FSEEE, U.S. federal district court Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the Forest Service had violated the National Environmental Policy Act in regard to the Forest Service's use of toxic aerial fire retardant. Read coverage in the New York Times, the Missoulian, and from the Associated Press.
Use of Wilderness for Commercial Filming
The Forest Service issued a temporary rule for its forests outlining specific circumstances in which someone could use a wilderness area for commercial filming.
"The authors of the 1964 Wilderness Act realized...that every day, there would be a new pressure from civilization to push its way into the boundaries of wilderness," Stahl said. "Because civilization is inexorable."
Monte Wolfe Cabin
FSEEE and other environmental groups oppose maintaining an illegal structure in a federal wilderness area. Read the story of Monte Wolfe's cabin in California's Eldorado National Forest here.