USA — During winter, when parts of the West are more concerned about the instability of above-average snowfall causing avalanches and floods than fire risk, it’s easy to forget the wildfires that have raced through public and private lands in the last few years and stretched state and federal resources to the limit.
It’s easy to forget the frustrations that remain when exhausted, brave firefighters battle fires that can race through areas, saving as many homes and property as they can. It’s easy to judge in hindsight the decisions that needed to be done quickly in the heat of the moment in fighting fires, and – yes – it’s easy to blame people for the decisions that were made.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey found that out recently in a Missoula, Mont., Courtroom. U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy had threatened Rey with contempt of court orders that require the U.S. Forest Service study the environmental effects of a chemical fire retardant before using it on fires.
Molloy presented harsh words about Rey and the agency but eventually decided to not hold Rey in contempt of the orders, because “he said it ultimately filed the necessary documents.
He added the threat of contempt helped spur the agency into action,” according to Associated Press.
“There is no way to put a positive face on the fact that we dropped the ball,” Rey testified in court, according to one AP story. “We’re sorry.”
While slow with documents, Rey’s Forest Service, along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, have not found proof that there even is significant impact from the use of the fire retardant.
But Rey faced possible jail time, house arrest and bans for the Forest Service from using any fire retardants in future fires.
Only water would have been allowed in the air tankers, and a valuable tool would be lost for firefighters. According to AP, all this was caused by a lawsuit, by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, that said fire retardant dropped in 2002 killed 20,000 fish in central Oregon.
Rey has received criticism as well as kudos for his seven years in office. He has been frustrated by paperwork and lawsuits that deal with him trying to introduce actions in national forests that could help prevent or slow future fires.
He is also a target for anti-logging groups. “Rey’s signature accomplishment – passage of the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act – quickened approval of projects to thin overgrown forests, so they can be completed within months rather than years.The law, the first major change in forest management in a quarter-century, has helped restore healthy forests after decades of neglect and mismanagement, supporters say,” said AP, in another story about Rey.
Ironically, at the same time Rey was facing his judgment day in court, the forest service was telling a congressional hearing how all these court days are impacting the service and its ability to fight fires.
Costly environmental reviews mean less money for fighting fires, U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell told the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
“Lives and property are on the line. The federal government needs to commit more of its limited resources to actually removing hazardous fuels from the forest. We know what the problem is and don’t really need to waste more time studying it,” said Congressman Bill Sal, a member of the committee.
“If the Forest Service spent less on environmental reviews, more money could go towards reducing hazardous fuel loads and reducing the threat to communities, homes and lives.”
Quarrels will probably continue on how is the best way to fight fires and still protect wildlife.
However, it does more harm than good to incite heated – and expensive – arguments in courts, and is ludicrous to threaten jail for officials such as Rey whose time is better allocated to find forest fire solutions than putting out legal fires.