USFS finalizes new rule for aerial use of fire retardants

Agency balances firefighter safety, community protection and endangered species protection

The U.S. Forest Service finalizes a new policy for the use of fire retardants. PHOTO COURTESY U.S. FOREST SERVICE.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The U.S. Forest Service last week finalized new guidelines for aerial application of fire retardants aimed at better protecting streams, rare plants and wildlife. All documents relating to the decision are online at this Forest Service website.

Under the changes, the Forest Service will use about 12,000 detailed maps identifying streams and lakes, as well as locations of hundreds of plant and animal species that could potentially be harmed by retardant. With some exceptions, the guideline prohibits use of retardants about 0.80 percent of national forest system lands.

“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,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said. “Our new approach will benefit communities, ecosystems and our fire crews.” More details in the formal Record of Decision.

The Forest Service update resulted from a U.S. District court ruling that found the Forest Service in violation of federal environmental laws. As a result of the order, the agency worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, to map  waterways and habitat for certain threatened, endangered, and sensitive species in order to avoid applying retardant in those areas.

The litigation dates back to to 2003, when the watchdog group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics sued to force the agency to evaluate the impacts of retardant use on endangered species.

In 2005, the United States District Court for the District of Montana held that the Forest Service violated NEPA and the ESA by not doing so. The Forest Service once again approved the use of retardants in 2007 after an environmental assessment and a finding of no significant impact, triggering yet another lawsuit, not only against the Forest Service, but against other federal agencies involved in the decision.

According to a press relaase from the agency, 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 has avoided the use of fire retardant in waterways since 2000. Guidelines used since 2000 provided three exceptions that allowed fire managers to drop retardant within 300 feet of waterways. The new direction allows one exception: when human life or public safety is threatened. However, this represents little change with how the agency fights wildfires.

Forest Service research has demonstrated that fire retardant, used since the 1950s, is twice as effective as water at reducing fire intensity. The agency continues to work with industry to develop more environmentally friendly fire retardants.

The Forest Service involved the public in the development of the new direction, including hosting five community listening sessions, several stakeholder webinars, three technical listening sessions, a science panel discussion, and several Tribal engagement events.

The new direction includes procedures for monitoring and reinitiating consultation with USFWS and NOAA Fisheries if aerially-applied fire retardant impacts certain species or habitat. The direction also provides greater protection for cultural resources including historic properties, traditional cultural resources, and sacred sites through closer coordination with states and Tribes.

Tidwell issued the decision after reviewing the analysis of three alternatives in the October 2011 Final Environmental Impact Statement and the results of the consultation with USFWS and NOAA Fisheries.

 

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