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CHALLENGES SEEN IN SETTING FIRES ON MULTIUSE LANDS

Intentionally set, "prescribed" fires have good results in clearing vegetation out of national parks or refuges, but the trick is making them work on multiple-use lands like national forests, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says.

The former Arizona governor earlier this month attended the 20th annual Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference in Boise. It attracted fire experts from federal agencies and as far away as Australia.The best results from prescribed fires have come from land with single purposes, such as the Everglades National Park; national wildlife refuges like the Carolina Sandhills; military bases; or Indian reservations, Babbitt said.

"I believe that wildland fire is accepted and routinely and aggressively used on these lands because, in each case, the dominant stakeholder supports prescribed fire as a method to increase the return on its `investment,"' Babbitt said.

But it is tougher to build coalitions on multiple-use lands, where the majority of wildfires break out such as national forest and U.S. Bureau of Land Management property, he said.

"For example, BLM and Forest Service managers, despite many individual efforts, have not been able to build widespread consensus behind their use of the drip torch" to ignite unwanted vegetation, Babbitt said.

"Most ranchers acknowledge the potential for prescribed fire as a tool for range management and, indeed, some stand at the forefront of prescribed rangeland fire advocacy," he said.

"I think we need to bring these constituents to the table," Babbitt said, "and persuade them they are not suffering disproportionately."

For decades, the government has routinely fought most forest fires in Idaho. Not allowing natural fire to clear out small trees has caused the huge infernos that destroy important trees such as the ponderosa pines.

Up until now, forest managers have stuck to an average schedule of using prescribed fire on a multiple-use section of land of 200 years, Babbitt said. But scientists contend the natural fire cycle may be 10 to 100 years.

"I can't say we can or should erase that gap," he said. But management agencies should consider increasing the prescribed acreage by 50 to 100 percent.

"I think we're a long way behind the curve," Babbitt said. "Undeniably, it will take some money."

But Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, said Babbitt was ignoring the use of salvage logging as a tool to restore forest health, although such logging is proceeding under the law the president signed last year.