Court Ruling Opens Forest Service Fire Planning to Public

Court Ruling Opens Forest Service Fire Planning to Public

April 7, 2006

For more information, please contact:
Scott Greacen, EPIC, 707-834-6257
Timothy Ingalsbee, Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, 541-302-6218
Holly Gordon, Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, 650-725-4217

SAN FRANCISCO and EUREKA, CA — In an order issued Thursday, a San Francisco federal court made it clear that a key federal environmental law applies to the Forest Service’s plans for managing fire. The environmental group that brought the case hailed the decision as a milestone which will force the Forest Service to involve the public, consider alternatives, and disclose environmental impacts as it decides how and when to use or suppress fires on national forests.

The ruling by Judge Joseph C. Spero orders the Six Rivers National Forest to prepare an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment for its Fire Management Plan, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. It gives the agency 26 months to comply.

“The Forest Service’s long struggle to keep fire planning hidden from the public tells us there’s something they don’t want us to know,” said Scott Greacen, Public Lands Coordinator with the Humboldt County-based Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). “We’re hoping the Forest Service will take the court’s very clear order to heart and join all the other federal agencies that comply with NEPA when they write fire plans. By getting the facts and the choices out on the table, we believe we will find ways to achieve more effective fire protection for communities and forests, at less cost to the environment and to the taxpayer.”

A firefighters group also expressed strong support for the decision. “This is a huge opportunity for both the Forest Service and the public they serve,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, Executive Director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE). “Fire management plans can only benefit from including the best available science and informed public input, especially local community knowledge. Public involvement will not only help managers craft better fire plans, but will also help gain buy-in from communities on using wildland fire to protect communities and restore forests degraded by a century of fire suppression.”

“Across the West, we’re spending tens of millions of dollars every year on huge efforts to put fires out,” EPIC’s Greacen said. “But the Smokey Bear policy of treating all fires alike has caused significant harm to forest ecosystems, leading ultimately to bigger, hotter, and more destructive fires. We need to invest a small part of those resources up front to protect communities and create conditions in which fire can safely return to its essential role in maintaining ecosystem health.”

The case, the first such challenge to the Forest Service’s systematic refusal to analyze and disclose the potential impacts of its fire management policies, was filed in June 2002 by EPIC and the American Lands Alliance. In September 2003, the court ruled that the agency had violated the law, and gave the Forest Service 18 months to comply. Rather than do so, the Six Rivers NF wrote a whole new fire plan, which deleted all of the elements the court had pointed to as examples of decisions that trigger NEPA review. But the court concluded the new fire plan is as subject to NEPA as ever. “The new FMP, like the old one, is a programmatic document containing new fire management direction and therefore requires NEPA,” it wrote. (pp 5-6)

One aspect of the Forest Service’s attempt to avoid NEPA drew particular heat from the court and from observers. In its 2005 fire plan, the agency simply banned Wildland Fire Use (WFU), or prescribed natural burning, depriving Forest Service field staff of one of their most effective tools. The court wrote that it was “particularly troubled by the prohibition on WFU in the 2005 FMP,” concluding that the decision to ban wildland fire use was itself a decision triggering NEPA review. (p 4) Rejecting the claim that the earlier ruling had required the agency to withdraw WFU, the court wrote that “nothing in this Order or the Liability Order prevents the Forest Service from using WFU.” (p 6)

FUSEE’s Ingalsbee said the agency’s attempt to ban wildland fire use showed that the Forest Service would ignore current science and best practices to escape public scrutiny of its practices. “Under this plan, the Six Rivers NF became the only national forest in the country to ban wildland fire use. That’s a stunning reversal of decades of fire policy reforms, not to mention a violation of the Six Rivers’ own Forest Plan,” Ingalsbee said.

The court also pointedly noted that plaintiffs did not seek to enjoin the Six River’s clearly illegal 2005 FMP. (n 2 p 6) EPIC’s Scott Greacen explained that “the Forest Service has a bad habit of blaming conservationists when they run into problems that are really of their own making. While we urge the Six Rivers to use their third chance to come up with a Fire Management Plan we can all be proud of, we want to avoid even the potential appearance that complying with the law in this case would interfere with fire-control efforts during the coming fire season.”

The case is Environmental Protection Information Center v. United States Forest Service, No. C-02-2708 JCS. Copies of the compliance order, other briefing, and relevant documents are available on request.

Two similar cases challenging the Sequoia National Forest fire management plan, brought by environmental plaintiffs and the California Attorney General, are now in federal court.