A watchdog group is keeping the heat on the U.S. Forest Service to change the way it fights wildfires, particularly the use of fire retardant that kills fish when it is dumped in streams.
The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, based in Eugene, Ore., filed a new lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District court in Missoula, Mont.
It claims environmental reviews that allow the Forest Service to continue using toxic fire retardant violate the Endangered Species Act and other laws.
In an earlier lawsuit from the group, a federal judge recently stopped short of finding Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, the Bush administration official in charge of the Forest Service, in contempt for dragging his feet on an environmental review of fire retardant.
Andy Stahl, executive director of the group, said the new suit is phase two of a campaign to force the Forest Service to give up its war on wildfire, despite knowing that forests are burning at a record pace primarily due to drought and a buildup of dead wood from a century of putting fires out.
“This war is bankrupting the Forest Service, costing almost 50 percent of their entire budget,” said Stahl. “And it’s an unwinnable war. What we have learned is that the harder and the more money we spend on putting out fire, the more intense the fires become, because there is more brush that just grows up.”
Specifically, the lawsuit challenges the Forest Service finding of no significant environmental impact from using toxic fire retardant, despite findings by scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries Service that the survival of dozens of threatened and endangered species is jeopardized, particularly fish.
It also challenges the decisions by the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries to allow fire retardant use to go on, as long as the Forest Service takes steps to test and monitor its use, without any explanation about how laboratory testing and monitoring will prevent fish and wildlife deaths.
“What happened here is the scientists did an excellent job of laying out the risks and harm, but the politicians stepped in at the end, saying, `You get a free pass, just keep doing everything you’ve been doing and you’ll be fine,’ ” Stahl said.
Spokesmen for Fish and Wildlife and NOAA Fisheries said they had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it. The Forest Service did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment.