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New Fire Strategies Needed 

by Mike Petersen

In recent weeks, some politicians and some U.S. Forest Service officials have repeatedly misrepresented the conservation community's position on wildfires, home protection and fuel-reduction. It is our hope that this letter will clarify our position on these issues of critical importance.

First, the conservation community has always supported common sense approaches designed to protect homes and communities from fire. The Forest Service's own fire experts have found that a home's survival rate depends almost entirely on its location, its condition and its immediate surroundings, not on more commercial logging and roadbuilding in the backcountry.

To help support the goal of effective home and community protection from forest and grassland fires, the conservation community has taken a leading role in educating homeowners about the importance of treating flammable material adjacent to homes and communities.

On countless occasions, representatives of the conservation community have sat down with Forest Service officials to discuss plans and projects that will effectively protect homes and communities from fires. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has chosen to focus their priorities largely on commercial logging projects far removed from communities, not on effectively protecting the communities themselves.

Over the last two years, conservation groups have been advocating that Congress should increase funding for community protection and fire education, and that Congress should continue to direct the agencies to spend National Fire Plan money to protect communities at risk in the wildlands/urban interface.

While we support effective home and community protection efforts, what we are finding "on the ground" is that National Fire Plan funds have been misused by the Forest Service to promote commercial logging, have not been targeted towards the highest risk areas and have failed to effectively protect homes and communities from fires.

In April, a report by the John Muir Project revealed that 83 percent of all Forest Service projects funded by National Fire Plan brush reduction funds in the Sierra Nevada are actually commercial timber sales. Congress provided these funds to reduce flammable brush adjacent to homes; however, the Forest Service has misused these funds for commercial timber sales located an average of six miles from the nearest town.

This Forest Service abuse of NFP funds is occurring despite NFP warnings that the agency's wildland fire policy "should not rely on commercial logging or new road building to reduce fire risks."

Then there are the results of an independent assessment of the Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona conducted by Pacific Biodiversity Institute. Much of the area burned by these fires is land that has been subjected to extensive commercial logging and road-building over the last 50 years. The assessment identified more than 2,100 miles of logging roads in the fire area. If commercial logging and roadbuilding prevents fires -- or at least reduces their intensity, as the Forest Service claims -- then why did the Rodeo-Chediski fire burn so fiercely?

The assessment also highlights the national wildfire situation and calls attention to the fact that most wildfires nationwide are burning on private, tribal and state land -- not on national forest land as commonly believed. Federal wildfire statistics reveal that over the last decade, less than 18 percent of the nationwide wildfire burn area is in national forests. It is also important to note that over the past 10 years nearly 90 percent of all wildfires were started by people -- usually on or adjacent to a road.

When it comes to restoring the ecological integrity of our nation's national forests, the conservation community again has been at the forefront of developing a new approach -- including safely restoring fire to fire-dependent ecosystems outside of the wildland/urban interface.

During the past year, the conservation community -- together with input from forest practitioners and community forestry groups -- has drafted restoration principles to promote ecological forest restoration and to implement ecologically sound restoration policies and projects in national forests.

The conservation community is deeply committed to the protection of homes and communities. We will continue to expand our efforts to safeguard communities, while at the same time promoting and supporting ecologically based restoration projects on our national forests. If the Forest Service supports these goals, we feel strongly that we can work together. However, if the Forest Service continues to misuse National Fire Plan money, the conservation community will continue to hold your agency accountable. The American people and our nation's public lands deserve no less.

Mike Petersen is executive director for the Lands Council. This letter was co-signed by 143 other conservation groups.

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