Nearly 47 million acres of American forests are now off-limits to slurry drops to fight fires because of a successful lawsuit by environmentalists who say the retardant kills fish and endangered species.
The Forest Service decision that was due before Dec. 31 says the new directions for the use of the fire retardant will help them protect water sources as well as plant and wildlife.
To decide when or where to drop fire retardant, fire managers now have roughly 12,000 maps identifying avoidance areas on nearly 100 National Forest System units that identify the locations of waterways and areas for hundreds of plant and animal species.
When fire managers determine retardant is the right tool to use on a wildfire, they will direct pilots to avoid applying fire retardant in the newly mapped areas. All other firefighting tactics will be available in the avoidance areas, the Forest Service says.
“These new guidelines strike a balance between the need to supplement our boots-on-the-ground approach to fighting wildfires while protecting our waterways and important plant and animal species at the same time,” Forest Chief Tom Tidwell said. “Our new approach will benefit communities, ecosystems and our fire crews.”
The new rules allow only one exception, when human life or public safety is threatened.
Robert Gordon, senior advisor for strategic outreach at the Heritage Foundation, questioned the decision in light of prolonged fights by environmentalists to ban logging in many forests to protect species like the “endangered” Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet.
“Now that they are preserved, the new plan is to let them burn?” Gordon asked.
The change is opposed by several Western Republican lawmakers, who say it will significantly hamper efforts to contain fires, and elevates the welfare of animals and fish above people and property.
Led by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R. –Calif.), the lawmakers called it a “one size fits all approach” that treats remote Montana forests the same as California lands next to highly populated urban areas.
“We must allow the use of fire retardant when property is at risk because of the large amount of homes and infrastructure surrounding our nation’s wildlands,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Tidwell.
The Nov. 10 letter pre-addressed the decision, but a spokesman for Gallegly said their concerns still stand. California Republican Reps. Dan Lungren, Duncan Hunter, Jerry Lewis, Gary Miller, Jeff Denham and Jeff Flake of Arizona also signed the letter.
The new policy addresses a lawsuit filed by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in 2008 charging that the retardant is toxic when it comes in contact with wildlife and is not an effective fire fighting tool.
According to the group, its data shows that national forests where the least amount of fire retardant is used, enjoys the highest success in putting out fires quickly.
The Forest Service argued that fire retardant has been used since the 1950s and is twice as effective as water in reducing a fire’s intensity.
However, Montana Federal District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the government failed to follow the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act when using the fire retardant and ordered the government to make the change.
Reports indicate that in 2003, a retardant drop killed 20,000 fish in one stream. In the last century, more than 260 wildland firefighters were killed in the line of duty, according to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.