Environment & Energy Report

Feds Issue Fire-Curb Plan That Activist Calls ‘Boondoggle’ (1)

Feb. 14, 2020, 8:37 PMUpdated: Feb. 14, 2020, 9:51 PM

The Bureau of Land Management released its final plan to build 11,000 miles of fuel breaks across the Great Basin to combat wildfires, a proposal an environmentalist called an unproven “boondoggle.”

The BLM on Friday released its final statement detailing the environmental impact of constructing and maintaining a system of breaks designed to control wildfires in a 223 million-acre area stretching across portions of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

Fire breaks are strips of open land with minimal grass, shrubs, and other fuels used to halt wildland fires or reduce their intensity.

The plan’s preferred alternative calls for building breaks as wide as 500 feet across using a mix of mowing, controlled burns, targeted cattle grazing, and herbicides to kill native plants and replace them with less flammable alternatives.

The treatments would be applied along roads and rights-of way on BLM lands to minimize new disturbance and wildlife habitat fragmentation while maximizing access for firefighers, the BLM said.

‘Important Tool’

“Fuel breaks are one of the most important tools we have to give wildland firefighters a chance to safely and effectively contain rapidly moving wildfires and potentially reduce wildfire size,” said William Perry Pendley, acting BLM director.

More than 13.5 million acres of sagebrush communities on BLM land burned in the region between 2009 and 2018. Wildfires that consume sagebrush allow invasive annual grasses to increase, making future large and severe wildfires more likely, the bureau said.

Existing fire breaks in Nevada failed to contain the largest fire in state history, the Martin Fire in July 2018, which tore across 435,569 acres of sagebrush and grasses, said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said.

“It’s a boondoggle,” he said. “They’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to bulldoze landscapes, spraying it with thousands of pounds of herbicides, and then plant invasive, non-native species. Meanwhile, there is zero evidence that this disastrous plan will actually stop fires.”

The new breaks will create fragments of habitat for a keystone species, the greater sage grouse. Donnelly said environmental groups believe BLM should abandon the project.

“Destroying our plant communities and fragmenting wildlife habitat is not the way to address fire in the Great Basin,” he said.

Federal and state agencies need to embark on a massive restoration project to rehabilitate Great Basin ecosystems to a more natural state, and work to restore a more natural fire regime, he said.

The final programmatic environmental impact statement and related documents are available for public review for 30 days.

(Adds further comments from Center for Biological Diversity official.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Tripp Baltz in Denver at abaltz@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Cheryl Saenz at csaenz@bloombergtax.com

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