USA — An environmental group sued the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday, claiming the agency’s fire management plans for certain forests in the Southwest are inadequate and produced without enough public input.
Forest Guardians accused the agency of developing fire plans for a pair of forests in New Mexico and two others in Arizona without studying the potential impact on the environment as required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The group filed its lawsuit in federal court in Phoenix. It wants the court to order the Forest Service to open its plans to public and scientific review.
“The system is broken as it is and it’s not working,” said Bryan Bird, public lands director for Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians. “… We need to get out our pencils and erasers and work at it.”
Art Morrison, a spokesman for the Forest Service’s regional office in Albuquerque, said Wednesday he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. But he noted that any time individual forests develop management plans federal laws are followed and the public is given a chance to comment.
Specifically, the suit targets fire management plans for the Carson and Lincoln forests in New Mexico and the Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto forests in Arizona. However, Forest Guardians believes the agency failed to consider NEPA and the ESA in other cases, as well.
Bird said the fire plans — which spell out how and where prescribed and natural fires can be used — should be reviewed and updated each year. He contends that’s not happening.
He also complains that the plans call for putting out fires even when letting them burn would be better for the landscape and for the agency’s budget.
“The Apache-Sitgreaves, Tonto, Carson and Lincoln national forests require suppression of all non-prescribed, human-caused fires,” the lawsuit reads. “The (fire management plans) also restrict the Forest Service’s authority to use naturally ignited wildfires to accomplish management goals by limiting wildland fire use to certain wilderness areas and fire management units that make up a small fraction of the forests.”
Forest officials have said that a central priority for the agency’s Southwestern Region is restoring fire to its natural role. But they have acknowledged that meeting that goal requires a delicate consideration of both the environment and the need to protect people, property and natural resources.
Emily Irwin, the region’s fuels specialist, said in a previous interview that some areas in the Southwest have greater potential to use fire as a management tool because the risk to nearby communities isn’t as great. But other areas are becoming more populated, and the values at risk make fire a difficult option.
“It’s really the right prescription at the right time at the right scale,” she said. “It’s understanding a strategic plan and then knowing tactically where those treatments fit in. It’s the big picture.”
While Forest Service policy recognizes that fire is essential to western ecosystems, Bird calls it “just lip service.” He contends that the Forest Service still suppresses nearly all fires.
“If these same fires were allowed to burn, they could economically control fuels leading to greater safety for communities and firefighters as well as healthier forests as a whole,” he said.
Regional officials have said that more forests are beginning to use fire to their advantage. For example, the Tonto and the Coconino forests in Arizona for the first time this year allowed a wildfire to burn and clear out dead and dry vegetation, Irwin said.
Overall, she said, the Southwest region conducts fuel treatments on about a quarter-million acres each year and most of that is done with fire. The region covers more than 22 million acres in New Mexico and Arizona.
Morrison added that many forests in the region are in the process of reviewing their fire management plans. He said they are following in the footsteps of the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico, which has had a successful fire use program for decades.
But Forest Guardians argues that more needs to be done so fires like those in Southern California and a recent blaze just south of Albuquerque that burned several thousands acres and three homes can be avoided.
“It’s a really good time for the Forest Service to take a really hard look at how they manage fire in the Southwest,” Bird said.