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Proposed wildfire breaks detrimental to wildlife and habitat

Oregon wildfire

Photo credit: Dreamstime

Wildfires have caused massive destruction in the West, turning critical habitat into ash, but are fire fuel breaks the solution? The federal government thinks so despite the possible repercussions to habitat, wildlife and, unfortunately, quite possibly the entire ecosystem. The Trump administration has proposed clearing 11,000 miles of fuel fire breaks across the Great Basin in Utah, Nevada, Idaho, California, Washington and Oregon “as a way to control giant wildfires,” Bloomberg Environment reports, and that land will be cleared through herbicides, bulldozers, mowers, grazing or an intentionally set fire.

“The direct effect of a fuel break itself is the reduced amount of available fuels should a fire move into fuel breaks,” said Marlo Draper, project manager for the BLM’s Fuel Breaks in the Great Basin project. “I don’t deny the uncertainty. The science will come in time. You have to have fuel breaks in order to study fuel breaks.”

Considered a “grand experiment” by the U.S. Geological Service (USGS), the proposal would add the additional mileage to about 6,200 existing fuel breaks within the Great Basin and greatly impact sagebrush and pinyon and juniper woodlands, according to Bloomberg Environment. A report conducted by USGS about fuel breaks found that, historically, they haven’t been consistently monitored or recorded and some federal data has shown wildfires to “have routinely burned through fuel breaks that were mapped in federal databases,” according to Bloomberg Environment.

And, while, technically, fuel breaks could work, they aren’t foolproof.

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“It’s easy to create an overly ambitious plan that the human resources aren’t there to do it the way it should be done or the way we want them to be done,” said J. Derek Scasta, an assistant professor and extension rangeland specialist in the Ecosystem Science and Management Department at the University of Wyoming. “There are big questions with fuel breaks, too. At this landscape-scale, how do we establish fuel breaks that are long enough, wide enough, enough in number to actually affect fires?”

And they could only potentially solve the problem while leading to other issues: an influx of invasive grasses and other non-native species and fragmented habitat for wildlife and, in particular, the greater sage grouse.

“[I]deally we will reduce wildfire, or at least the risk of wildfire, but at the same time, there’s going to be potentially negative impacts from additional disturbance of the fuel breaks themselves, and it can be argued that that’s the lesser of the two evils,” said Douglas J. Shinneman, a USGS supervisory research fire ecologist in Idaho.

Those who work with wildlife and habitat in the targeted area are worried that the plan would destroy large swathes of land without any real benefit.

“Without any evidence and science showing that these are beneficial, it makes very little sense to authorize these projects that could have untold adverse effects on the environment,” said Neal Clark, wildlands program director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

A draft plan was released by BLM in June and the public comment period ends Aug. 5.


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Andy M. - posted 5 days ago on 07-11-2019 10:40:28 pm

Prescribed burns are often good for habitat and animals. Some of the other ideas, like herbicide seem less beneficial or studied. Mechanical treatments can be good in some circumstances, but maybe not be swaths of forest. I know where I'm hunting if they push sendero through public land, though...
Bottom line, stick to proven methods.
Also, stop letting people build in burn prone areas without properly mitigating risk, and then we could let the fires burn.

dan k. - posted 5 days ago on 07-11-2019 04:51:11 pm

I think this is a good idea myself,,log what can be logged in the way and that could help off set the cost a little..i don't think it will effect the animals that much,,in fact it should create some food sources in areas where the timber was too thick anyway.

Cody K. - posted 6 days ago on 07-10-2019 02:36:09 pm
Mulberry, KS

Why not log part of it, sell the logs for money that goes back into the wildlife dept, create fire breaks, and improve habitat at the same time? Everyone knows how much better the forage (and in turn, animal) quality is after a burn (obviously not one that burns so hot, nothing returns). I think there needs to be some rules involved and as much care taken as possible, but I believe this could be a great idea IF DONE CORRECTLY.

Bruce B. - posted 6 days ago on 07-10-2019 11:37:51 am

If you don't address it then "let it burn" policies should be in place everywhere no matter the consequence of anything. Don't address the fuel problem or the fire problem. If a major city burns down then let it, if a major park burns down then let it. You can't have it both ways.

Bruce B. - posted 6 days ago on 07-10-2019 11:33:50 am

Prescribe burns in areas that protect human live and property are needed. Reducing fuel in the woods that create massive fires is something that needs to be accomplished. I think the plan has a positive side to it if the proper tools are used. Prescribed controlled burns, logging and even very controlled livestock grazing will help and benefit native wildlife. These three are very friendly to the environment if done correctly IMO. Herbicides and bulldozers not so much.

Josh S. - posted 6 days ago on 07-10-2019 07:55:26 am
S.E. Idaho

@Seth D., not to side track the discussion but what do you mean by "I survived the 1988 Yellowstone fires"? Were you living in the park or a fire fighter?

Nick J. - posted 1 week ago on 07-10-2019 06:09:10 am

Its an interesting idea. Anyone with any brain can see the mega fires we are having are going beyond tree top burning and are sterilizing the ground. We have a horrific problem of a gazillion dead trees laying on the ground, stopping growth, and making for non productive wildlife use. Its called forest MANAGEMENT for a reason, and like it or not, we need to not just let it manage itself. What we are currently doing, obviously isnt working, and while this might not either, I applaud the attempt. Museum management is a failure.

Floyde F. - posted 1 week ago on 07-09-2019 05:52:35 pm
Burns, OR

Intense livestock grazing would be the best way to accomplish this. Cost a lot less too, considering it's most likely on land already allotted to grazing permits. Ranchers are paying to pasture it, why not use them instead incurring incredibly high equipment costs. But the government can't use grazing, the naive and misinformed public would raise to much hell over such a common sense solution. Of course that's part of the reason this problem exists in the first place....

SETH D. - posted 1 week ago on 07-09-2019 12:13:20 pm
Sunny New Mexico

I survived the 1988 Yellowstone fires. They do need to clean up the prairie, I am not sure that using bulldozers and agent orange is the right way to do it.

SETH D. - posted 1 week ago on 07-09-2019 12:13:20 pm
Sunny New Mexico

I survived the 1988 Yellowstone fires. They do need to clean up the prairie, I am not sure that using bulldozers and agent orange is the right way to do it.

Erik S. - posted 1 week ago on 07-09-2019 10:38:01 am

This plan is sickening. Destroying the environment to "save" the environment makes no sense. Where can the public comment on this?