Environmentalists on Wildfire Hot Seat

Environmentalists on Wildfire Hot Seat
Ted Soqui

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

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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