Environmentalists on Wildfire Hot Seat
Wednesday the Associated Press ran a story detailing how the National Forest Service had only cleared a fraction of the brush it had been scheduled to in the Angeles National Forest before August's fires exploded.
"The agency defended its efforts, saying weather, wind and
environmental rules tightly limit how often these 'prescribed burns'
can be conducted . . . Some critics suggested that protests from
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environmentalists contributed to the disaster, which came after the
brush was allowed to build up for as much as 40 years."
One critic was L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.
"This brush was ready to explode," Antonovich said, at the height of the Station Fire. "The
environmentalists have gone to the extreme to prevent controlled burns,
and as a result we have this catastrophe today."
A California Forestry Association official weighed in by noting
that eight million acres of overgrown, federally owned forest are just
waiting to burn -- or be cut for lumber.
"Special interest groups that
don't want them to do it," CFA vice president Steve Brink said of
tree-clearing, "have appeals and
litigation through the courts to stall or stop any project they wish."
By "special interest groups" Brink was not referring to the timber
industry. Instead, he was referring to environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity who, the AP article implied, were against controlled burns in overgrown forests.
The Center is clearly miffed with the way a spokeswomen was quoted in the article and seemed at pains to explain to the L.A. Weekly the Center's position.
never opposed controlled burns in Southern California," says Brendan
Cummings, the Center for Biodiversity's public lands director.
Likewise, Bryan Bird, wild-places program director of Wild Earth Guardians
(formerly the Forest Guardians), says, "I don't know of any
environmentalist who opposes carefully controlled burns. Show me the
evidence that a project has been stopped by protest or objection by
environmentalists. What's burned in L.A. has mostly been chaparral --
these haven't been classic conifer forest fires."
agrees with the need to draw distinctions between big-tree forest fires
that can be partially avoided through controlled burns and cutting
(which, he says, the Center approves of) and super-heated chaparral
blazes whose complete prevention through fuel removal is made
impossible by expense and geography. Instead, Cummings says it's time
to confront the way we construct our homes -- and where.
time there's a fire," Cummings says of L.A.'s wildfires, "there's no
acknowledgment that we live in a naturally flammable environment."
When the L.A. Weekly
contacted Supervisor Antonovich's office for comment, a spokesman
explained that the supervisor was not blaming environmentalist groups
for blocking fuel-removal, but intended his criticism for individual members of Congress who are environmentalists. A call to Antonovich himself has
not been returned.
"Two things will always follow wildfires," says the Sierra Club's
Bill Corcoran. "Wildflowers and finger-pointing." Corcoran, the Sierra
Club's senior regional representative, notes that fires sparked by
shepherds and woodcutters spread throughout the San Gabriels so often
during the 19th Century that they resulted in mudslides that affected
the drinking water of towns below -- and caused the federal government
to protect the woods under a forest reserve program.
acknowledges the problems of communities that are built up against the
San Gabriels but also warns against the continual clearing of chaparral.
non-native grasses replace burned chaparral that isn't allowed to
regrow," Corcoran says. "These grasses dry and become a flashy, hot
fuel. Bulldozing only creates a seed bed for weeds."
prevention, he says, requires money and time. "Management of fire risks
in the San Gabriels," he says, "is the biggest challenge in the world."
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