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Protecting America's National Forests, a report by the Heritage Forests Campaign

Heritage Forests Campaign Fact Sheet

Fire and the Roadless Area Conservation Rule

The Roadless Rule Does Not Impede Wildfire Management

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, approved in January 2001, protects 58.5 million acres of national forest land from most commercial logging and road building. The roadless rule was designed with exemptions to allow road construction when a fire threatens human lives or homes:

  • "Roads may be constructed when needed to protect public health and safety in cases of an imminent threat of flood, fire or other catastrophic event that, without intervention, would cause the loss of life or property." (Section 294.1(b)(1)).

Also included in the rule are provisions that allow for fuel reduction management to reduce the risk of uncharacteristic, or unnaturally intense wildfire:

  • Thinning of trees is permitted "to reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire effects" (Section 294.1 (3)(b)(1) (ii)).
  • Only 14 percent of roadless areas are considered a high risk for potentially devastating wildfires. "The roadless plan does not preclude us from doing any treatment on those lands," said Lyle Laverty, former National Fire Plan coordinator, in testimony before a joint hearing of House and Senate Interior appropriations subcommittees.
    (Associated Press 03/14/2001)

Roads and the Causes of Fire

According to the US Forest Service sparks from cars, off-road vehicles, neglected campfires or simple carelessness resulted in nearly 50,000 wildfire ignitions in 2000 alone. In comparing Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) where road building has been permitted and IRAs where roading is prohibited, it is clear that increased human access to forest lands leads to more fire ignitions. Areas without roads, therefore, have fewer human caused fires:

  • During 2000, in IRAs less than 1,000 acres in size where roading was permitted, nearly 2 times more fires were started by humans than in IRAs where roading was prohibited.
  • In IRAs larger than 1,000 acres in size, 3 times more fires were started by humans in IRAs where roading was permitted than in IRAs where road building was prohibited. (Roadless Area Conservation FEIS, Fuel Management and Fire Suppression Specialist Report, Table 4)

The Forest Service and Fire Management

The Forest Service's Fire Management Program combines elements of fire prevention, fire suppression, and fire use. Fire suppression, increasingly necessary as more Americans move in to the wildland-urban interface, comes "at a cost to taxpayers of $2 billion dollars a year." (New York Times 06/23/2002)

Ironically, the result of a century-long policy of putting out fires has resulted in forests "so much thickened and full of fuel, that they're more dangerous than ever." (Bruce Babbitt, Interview, Today Show 06/24/2002)

Not only are the Forest Service's fire management techniques questionable, controversy has also been raised regarding inappropriate use of fire prevention funds. The Agriculture Department Inspector General found that Forest Service managers diverted $1.8 million dollars allocated for restoration and rehabilitation programs in Bitterroot National Forest "to prepare and administer projects that involve commercial timber sales." The report went on to say "commercial timber sales do not meet the criteria for forest restoration." (US Department of Agriculture office of Inspector General, Western Region Audit Report, November 2001)

A number of politicians have attempted to blame environmentalists for the wildfires claiming that appeals and lawsuits by environmental organizations are delaying fire prevention projects around the country. Contrary to this allegation, a General Accounting Office report released last year found that of the 1,671 "hazardous fuel reduction projects" during fiscal year 2001 that the Forest Service was moving ahead on nationally, only 20 had been "appealed and none had been litigated." (Boston Globe 06/23/2002)

Commercial Logging Increases Fire Danger

According to the congressionally mandated Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project Final Report to Congress in 1996, "timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate and fuel accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity." (Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project, Final Report to Congress, 1996, Summary of the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project Report, Wildland Resources Center Report No. 39, University of California, Davis , CA, p4)

A Taxpayers for Common Sense report, From the Ashes, released in 2000 outlines the ways that commercial logging can increase the risk and severity of wildfire. Commercial logging increases the risk of especially intense and severe wildfires by removing large diameter trees, which are also the most fire resistant. When large diameter trees are harvested, openings in the forest canopy allow more light to reach the forest floor causing increased evaporation and drier underbrush that is susceptible to fire. Of further concern is a commercial logging by-product known as "slash"(piles of dry branches twigs, bark and needles) that can increase the speed at which a fire spreads. Forests that have experienced extensive commercial logging are at a greater risk of experiencing unnaturally intense wildfires than unlogged, roadless areas. (Taxpayers for Common Sense. From the Ashes, Washington DC, Dec. 2000)

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