USA – An executive order expected to be posted Monday in the Federal Register is somewhat open-ended in directing the Interior and Agriculture departments to actively manage forests to reduce the risk of wildfires. Conservationists are concerned how the order could either directly or indirectly affect lands within the National Park System.
“Active management of vegetation is needed to treat these dangerous conditions on Federal lands but is often delayed due to challenges associated with regulatory analysis and current consultation requirements,” reads the order. “In addition, land designations and policies can reduce emergency responder access to Federal land and restrict management practices that can promote wildfire resistant landscapes. With the same vigor and commitment that characterizes our efforts to fight wildfires, we must actively manage our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands to improve conditions and reduce wildfire risk.”
Specific to the Interior Department, the presidential order directs it to reduce fuel loads on 750,000 acres of DOI lands, address another 500,000 acres “to protect water quality and mitigate severe flooding and erosion risks arising from forest fires,” and treat 750,000 more acres for native and invasive species. It also directs the department to maintain “public roads needed to provide access for emergency services and restoration work…”
The order specifically directs the two departments to use “minimum statutory and regulatory time periods” as much as possible to move forward with the work. And it tells them to use “all applicable categorical exclusions set forth in law or regulation for fire management, restoration, and other management projects in forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands when implementing the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.”
While the order does not specifically mention National Park System lands, Erik Molvar, the executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, told the Traveler on Friday that, “I don’t think anyone can afford to be complacent. The Trump administration has already shown its willingness to open up national monuments to drilling and mining.”
At the National Parks and Conservation Association’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, Ani Kame’enui, the group’s legislative director, noted that there are at least 15 national parks that border national forests, and actions taken in those forests could impact the parks. Fast-tracking the order without appropriate scientific input and public comment would be a mistake, she said.
“From the Grand Canyon to Shenandoah National Parks, these landscapes play an integral role in our parks. In addition to the lands, water, and wildlife within our national parks, these natural resources adjacent to parks remain critical to ensuring our park ecosystems remain dynamic and healthy,” she said. “As such, NPCA takes great interest in the administration’s efforts to increase the cut in our national forests and undermine public engagement, recognizing that threats to the lands, water, and wildlife that surround and flow through national parks and the federal laws that protect them, directly impact the resources within their borders.”
She also noted that while the order calls for a 4 billion board-foot increase in logging in a bid to reduce fire danger on public lands, “(W)e’ve been increasing the board feet cut on USFS lands for several years now, and yet fires have not decreased at all. To suggest that this EO would properly address the growing fire problem in our national forests denies the role of climate, appropriate forest management, and the multiple use mandate of the USFS.”
In recent years, some members of Congress from California have sought ways to salvage log parts of Yosemite National Park that burned during the Rim Fire back in 2013. More recently, departed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was a fan of actively managing forests on Interior lands to protect them against catastrophic wildfires. In the aftermath of the Rim Fire, then-NPS Director Jon Jarvis said the federal government needed more resources to reduce the risks of wildfires.
“To be very blunt about it, it has been a struggle in here for the big fire management agencies, the Forest Service, the BLM [Bureau of Land Management], the Park Service, and Fish [Fish and Wildlife Service], to make our case to OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and to the appropriators about fire,” Jarvis told NPS employees in a “National Webchat.” “As a consequence, our fire program presuppression, really, fuels control, and all those kinds of things have been in decline. This is what you get. You get an incredible fire year.”
At NPCA, Kame’enui said Friday that while National Park System forests were not directly cited in the president’s order, “they are subject to fires in our national forests that often start beyond park borders but significantly impact our park landscapes.”
“For years, NPS has taken a wise approach to fire management—using it as a tool and managing disaster appropriately,” she added. “As we’ve seen on some national park lands and as a result of proper forest plans in USFS, thinning and other science-based forest management activities designed to remove hazardous fuels can sometimes change fire behavior and mitigate fire impacts, but such activities must be science-driven.”
President Trump’s order, which allows Interior and Agriculture to enter into 20-year contracts for fuel reduction work, gives the two departments until March 31 to “identify salvage and log recovery options from lands damaged by fire during the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons, insects, or disease.”
In the National Park System, fires last year burned through parts of Glacier, Yosemite, Crater Lake, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks, as well as Whiskeytown and Santa Monica Mountains national recreation areas.