The fire management program of the national park service: great expectations and limited results…why?

The fire management program of the national park service: great expectations and limited results…why?

06 November 2016

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USA—   A recent article about fire management in the National Park System praised Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ wildland fire management program as “America’s most progressive forest management program.” While Kyle Dickman goes on to wonder “why isn’t it being replicated elsewhere?”, the answer isn’t as simple as you might think.

In his article, Fighting Fire with Fire, Dickman suggests the answer to this question can be found in the byzantine agency and interagency fire bureaucracy under which the National Park Service fire management program labors. But more broadly, the fire program is an excellent, and often overlooked, example of the difficulty the NPS faces in translating its philosophy, policies, and mission into results. In short, the degree to which the NPS fire management program falls short in attaining its goals mirrors the struggles the agency experiences in achieving its overall mission “to preserve and protect” park resources.

The roots of the NPS fire management program are found in the 1963 Leopold Report, which noted that the absence of fire can have significant ecological consequences:

When the forty-niners poured over the Sierra Nevada into California, those that kept diaries spoke almost to a man of the wide-spaced columns of mature trees that grew on the lower western slope in gigantic magnificence. The ground was a grass parkland, in springtime carpeted with wildflowers. Deer and bears were abundant. Today much of the west slope is a dog-hair thicket of young pines, white fir, incense cedar, and mature brush—a direct function of overprotection from natural ground fires. Within the four national parks—Lassen, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon—the thickets are even more impenetrable than elsewhere. Not only is this accumulation of fuel dangerous to the giant sequoias and other mature trees but the animal life is meager, wildflowers are sparse, and to some at least the vegetative tangle is depressing, not uplifting. Is it possible that the primitive open forest could be restored, at least on a local scale? And, if so, how? We cannot offer an answer. But we are posing a question to which there should be an answer of immense concern to the National Park Service.

The authors of the Leopold Report point out that the complete suppression of fire in ecosystems that evolved with its influence over thousands of years will result in their degradation. Fire influences every component of ecosystems, including water and air quality, wildlife habitat, plant succession, and soil stability. Altering the fire regime through continuing suppression had, and continues to have, unintended negative consequences for many NPS resources.

Fire occurrence, along with fire frequency, intensity, and severity, can have more significant influences on resources than many other environmental factors combined. Fire exclusion causes substantial changes in wildland fuels characteristics such as species composition, continuity, and loading. Modern wildfire occurring in such altered fuels will burn with intensity far beyond the limits that the ecosystems evolved with and to which they are adapted, which compromises their resiliency.
The loss of ecologic integrity through fire exclusion, or through unnaturally intense wildfire due to fuel accumulation, is contrary to the NPS mission as stated in its Organic Act: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

In response to the Leopold Report, and in view of its mission, the NPS established a program to allow lightning-caused fires to burn in specific locations, and to ignite prescribed fires where necessary to restore natural conditions. Beginning in the late 1960s, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks initiated such a program, which has continued with little interruption for nearly 50 years. It should be noted that Everglades National Park had conducted research burns prior to this.

Many other NPS units across the agency, as well as other federal agencies, developed similar programs in subsequent years. This story has been told in many articles and books on the fire history of the United States and the NPS, such as Steve Pyne’s Between Two Fires, Hal Rothman’s Blazing Heritage, and David Carle’s Burning Questions. But in the pursuit of an answer to Kyle Dickman’s question as to why these programs haven’t been fully successful, it is important to note a couple of subtle aspects of the roots of the NPS fire program that are often overlooked in discussions of its history.

First, the fire policy was developed largely unilaterally by the NPS in support of its mission, which is unique among federal agencies. In other words, NPS managers developed NPS fire policies and practices that directly supported the NPS mission. By doing so, the NPS necessarily broke away from an interagency fire management policy which was dominated in the Western states by total fire suppression.

Second, the switch from fire suppression to fire management (defined as a blend of actions including managing lightning-caused fires within designated areas; the use of prescribed fire for hazard reduction and ecosystem restoration and maintenance; and fire suppression) was catalyzed by NPS scientists and natural resource managers with strong interdisciplinary support from rangers, fire staff, interpreters, and superintendents. Given that the stimulus for the change in fire policy and practice was driven primarily by scientists and resource managers, many early prescribed fire programs (e.g., Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks) were housed within the parks’ Division of Resource Management offices (rather than Fire Management offices) until around 1990.

Following the policy change from fire suppression to fire management, the NPS had to figure out how to implement the shift. When one thinks about the NPS fire program, two events often come to mind. In 1988, Yellowstone National Park illustrated vividly the difficulties found in managing, as well as explaining to the media and public, a program that allows some natural fires to burn. And, in 2000, a prescribed fire ignited to restore natural conditions in Bandelier National Monument appeared to escape and burn into Los Alamos. Further information indicated a backfire lit by suppression forces attempting to contain the prescribed fire is actually what escaped and caused the damage to surrounding communities.

The investigative findings following these events reaffirmed the value of the fire management policy, but identified problems in program implementation. As a result, one outcome was substantial funding and staffing increases for the NPS fire program. Approximately 100 permanent jobs were added to the program after the Yellowstone event, allowing many fire positions that had been collateral duty to become full-time, as well as establishment of specialized positions such as prescribed fire specialists. After the 2000 fire season, Congress allocated an additional $1 billion to federal fire agencies’ budgets as part of the new National Fire Plan. The NPS received a portion of that increase, and the fire staff and budget once again increased significantly.

Around 2005, the NPS fuels management program, which funded prescribed fire staff and projects, stood at approximately $33 million, while the preparedness program, which funded fire leadership and operational resources such as engine, hotshot, and helitack crews, also stood at about $33 million. At that time, the NPS fire program contained a rich mixture of highly competent employees involved with fire management operations, planning, environmental compliance, fire effects monitoring, fire ecology research, public communication and education, GIS databases, and smoke management, all in support of fire suppression, natural fire, and prescribed fire operations.

The NPS was funded to a greater degree than ever before to implement a fire management program that supported NPS goals of restoring and maintaining fire-dependent ecosystems and providing protection to fire sensitive resources and communities. In many respects, the funding provided the NPS fire management program with everything it asked for. Yet, in spite of this support, the ecosystem restoration and maintenance piece of the program seems to have stalled, but why?  

Tomorrow: Why has the success of the National Park Service’s fire management program stalled?

Tom Nichols retired in 2014 as Chief, Division of Fire and Aviation Management for the National Park Service after a 37-year career. Prior to his position in the national office, he was the Prescribed Fire Specialist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Fire Management Officer for Yosemite National Park, and Fire Management Officer for the NPS Pacific West Region. Mr. Nichols has a B.S. in chemistry and earth science from the University of California at San Diego, and a M.S. in ecology from San Diego State University. He is married to Barbara Moritsch and lives in Eagle, Idaho.

Government has urged Malawi Defence Force (MDF) soldiers who are deployed to guard Viphya Plantation against destruction to be vigilant by dealing with the perpetrators accordingly.Msaka (left) walking in the plantantion

Msaka (left) walking in the plantantion

Minister of Mines, Energy and Natural Resources, Bright Msaka, made the statement Tuesday after touring the plantation, especially areas under the jurisdiction of Total Land Care and Raiply Malawi Limited.

Incidences of fire destroying numerous hectares of trees every year have been a never-ending song for the Viphya Plantation for over a decade now. The plantation is shared by two districts of Mzimba andNkhata Bay.

However, the issue has raged on in spite of efforts by government and its stakeholders to plant trees and guard them against destruction. Reports have indicated that more often, the fires that destroy the plantation are deliberately set rather than accidental.

The minister said government is aware that some disgruntled workers and individuals whose licences were cancelled are the ones setting fires in the plantation.

“People need to know that this is a national asset, so if the department of forestry has denied somebody a licence for the reasons best known by the department, they are supposed to understand instead of setting fires,” he said.

To mitigate the challenge, Msaka said government deployed MDF soldiers in protected forests across the country as a way of scaring people from destroying the plantations.

In spite of the effort, some people are still setting parts of the Viphya Forest on fire, regardless of the size of trees.

“We have directed the Malawi Defence Force solders to deal with anyone setting bush fires and operating in the forest without licences and that the law will take its course [against them],” he warned.

However, Msaka commended Raiply Malawi Limited and Total Land Care for utilizing the forest sustainably and adding value to the trees from the forest.

“In the past, we have been cutting trees or sawing and selling them abroad at a very cheap price. We behaved like a prodigal son who squandered all what his father gave him.

“We need to be very careful and be proud of what we inherited so that we can benefit from it and pass on those benefits to the next generation,” advised the minister.

Earlier, Chief Executive Officer of Raiply Malawi Limited, Thomas Oomen, cited bush fires and encroachment as major challenges facing his company.

“This year alone, we have lost about 526 hectares [of trees] to bush fires, unfortunately, most of  these trees are below 15 years old but they are supposed to be harvested at the age of 25. This is dooming our future,” said Oomen.

Chikangawa Forest consists of seven plantations comprising 53,000 hectares.

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