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Yosemite's Forest Wildfire Plan Hits Controversial, Potentially Dangerous Snag

If you’re in the mountains when fire erupts, how will you get out?

Currently, Yosemite National Park is cutting excess trees and branches along exits roads and elsewhere in the park to prepare for that kind of emergency and to prevent another big fire. But it’s hitting a snag. A lawsuit is delaying the work, and it’s not the only one holding up a growing number of logging projects nationwide – a result of the Biden Administration announcing this year its 10-year wildfire strategy. The strategy supports the National Forest Service’s goal of treating 50 million acres of forest nationwide.


“Every forest has a way that deals with the dead and down [trees]…but in some way, you need to remove the fuel that’s in there,” said Yosemite ecologist Garrett Dickman. “We want to use prescribed fire as much as possible to restore the landscape.”

But fighting fire with fire comes with risks. The 2012-2016 drought was the hottest and driest in 1,200 years, Dickman said. More than 100 million trees died. Whether they’re standing or on the ground, they’ve become prime fire fuel sometimes blocking emergency access routes.

“We can’t just put fire on the ground and have firefighters safely be able to implement a prescribed fire. That’s not going to happen, and so what we’re doing is preparing for prescribed fire,” Dickman said.

Preparing means trimming, cutting and logging excess branches and trees in Yosemite before controlled burns. The park’s project is laid out as followed on the National Park Service’s website:

  • In seven areas of Yosemite National Park, crews will cut down an unspecified number of ponderosa pine, incense cedar, white fir and douglas-fir tree that are <20” diameter.
  • The work extent of each segment will be 200 feet from the center of roadways unless otherwise noted.

Conservationist Critics

“What goes on paper and what goes on in the field are always different,” said wildlife biologist Maya Khosla. She doesn’t believe general forest thinning necessarily works and fears it’s threatening Yosemite’s ecosystem.

“Crews on the ground, they gravitate towards the big stuff,” Khosla said.

While many leading forestry experts support some sort of wildfire prevention that includes thinning, conservationists like Khosla believe the federal government is coming in too hot and lawsuits, at times, are necessary to prevent overreach.

Khosla and ecologist Chad Hanson have worked on several forest projects together. Hanson heads the John Muir Project under the Earth Island Institute, which is a non-profit that’s now suing Yosemite’s superintendent and the National Park Service over what Hanson calls a “large-scale commercial logging program.”

“We’re trying to protect native biodiversity in our forest. We’re trying to protect human communities from wildfire,” Hanson said. “This is not just a technicality or some procedural thing. It really matters in terms of what [Yosemite] is doing and what the impacts would be.”

Lawsuits Worsening Wildfire Risks?

This fight over how to manage our forests is nothing new. But the Property Environment Research Center (PERC) contends lawsuits, like the one filed by the Earth Island Institute, are creating a new kind of danger. According to PERC, a typical project involving machine removal and controlled burns takes anywhere from three and half to nearly five years just to begin. If there are lawsuits, it can take more than a decade. And, with climate change, PERC’s Vice President of Law and Policy Jonathan Wood said there’s no time to waste.

“There have been examples of situations where litigation and red tape delayed projects to the point that catastrophic wildfire actually burned through the area and destroyed the environmental resources that were supposed to be protected,” Wood said. “A decade ago, the Klamath National Forest came up with a plan to reduce wildfire risk and protect northern spotted owl habitat. And several environmental organizations raised objections to that project…those objections slowed down the project for a decade. In the meantime, the Antelope Fire actually burned through the area.”

The Nation Forest Service agrees forest management needs to happy now and at a large scale in Yosemite and nationwide. The agency told the Investigative Unit “the scale and methods on the ground have not matched the need” when it comes to forest treatment, and it’s now confronted with “a full-blown wildfire and forest health crisis.”

“It’s like a big experiment on nature,” Khosla said.

Source: NBC Bay Area

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