The Bureau of Land Management posted on the Federal Register a couple of weeks ago a notice that it is beginning the tedious paperwork process to finally do something to prevent the devastating wildfires that have plagued the Great Basin region in recent years.
The notice states the BLM will create two Environmental Impact Statements (EIS)— one will analyze the effects of constructing fuel breaks that clear flammable material along a swath of land to curb the spread of wildfire and another to study the effectiveness of restoring rangeland to counteract the spread of invasive species such as cheatgrass and conifers that burn too easily. The states involved include portions of Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, California, Utah and Washington.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires consumed nearly 10 million acres in 2017.
In September Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose responsibilities include the BLM, promised, “This Administration will take a serious turn from the past and will proactively work to prevent forest fires through aggressive and scientific fuels reduction management to save lives, homes, and wildlife habitat. It is well settled that the steady accumulation and thickening of vegetation in areas that have historically burned at frequent intervals exacerbates fuel conditions and often leads to larger and higher-intensity fires.”
The EISs, which are required by federal law, mark the beginning of fulfilling that promise. Comments may be submitted in writing until Feb. 20. Those comments may be submitted via:
* Website: https://go.usa.gov/ xnQcG.
* Email: GRSG_PEIS@blm.gov.
* Fax: 208-373-3805.
* Mail: Jonathan Beck, 1387 S. Vinnell Way, Boise, ID 83709
Meetings to discuss the proposed fire prevention efforts will be scheduled throughout the region and will be announced 15 days in advance in the local media and on the BLM website.
One of the reasons for the current initiative, according to the Federal Register notice, is that wildfires tend to increase the the risk of still more wildfires — a positive feedback loop.
“In warm, dry settings, sagebrush-steppe usually takes, at a minimum, many decades to recover, even where invasive annual grasses or other invasive plant species do not become dominant,” the notice states. “Invasive species and conifer encroachment can be exacerbated as a result of wildfires in sagebrush ecosystems, resulting in an increased risk of wildfires …”
Among the concerns that will need to be addressed and evaluated during the comment period and subsequent meetings is that fuel breaks and the accompanying road improvements, by their very nature, improve access for firefighters but also for the general public, which might lead to an increase in the number of human-caused fires. Also, such breaks reduce the cover for small wildlife to avoid predators.
The Associated Press quoted Matt Germino, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, as saying fuel breaks are a bit of a paradox. “Fires, especially large fires, are so unambiguously damaging to wildlife habitat in general — that is the motivating factor for getting these fuel breaks out,” he said. “At this point, it’s really difficult to predict which animal species will benefit and which ones won’t. Sometimes you have to just act in light of the uncertainty.”
That cautionary note aside, we strongly endorse this effort by the current administration to protect not only the environment but also those who earn their living from the land by ranching, farming, logging and mining and those who use the public lands for hunting and recreation. We encourage our readers to submit comments and attend meetings to counter the likely resistance by self-styled environmentalists.
A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.