Skirting NEPA or helping the forest? Comments sought on fire project for over 90% of Dixie National Forest

ST. GEORGEThe Dixie National Forest has proposed a large-scale prescribed fire project that would authorize controlled burns and associated treatments across 1.8 millions acres of national forest land.

In this July 2018 file photo, flames spread on the edges of the West Valley Fire in Washington County, Utah | Photo courtesy of Dixie National Forest, St. George News

According to a scoping document, the primary goals of the project are reducing the risk of wildfire and restoring or maintaining forest landscapes. To demonstrate a pressing need for treatment, the Forest Service cited the 2017 Brian Head Wildfire and the 2018 West Valley Fire. The two fires burned approximately 84,000 acres total within the national forest.

Treatments would not be carried out across the entire project area all at once. Under the proposed action, the U.S. Forest Service could authorize an annual treatment area up to 52,000 acres – four times the current yearly average – within the 1.8 million acres.

The specific locations for individual prescribed fires are not specified in the scoping document or letter. The agency stated that it plans to identify areas based on need, suitable conditions and available resources.

Conservationists have expressed concerns with the proposal, including Jonathan Ratner, Western Watersheds Project director for Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.

A prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, Colorado, June 6, 2016 | Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service, St. George News

“This is a copy-cat effort from the forest-wide burning environmental analysis on the Fishlake (National Forest),” Ratner said. “Basically the purpose is to do a short EA (environmental assessment) that they will use to authorize burning everywhere without any site-specific analysis or public involvement. It’s the next best thing for the Forest Service aside from getting rid of NEPA entirely.”

NEPA – the National Environmental Policy Act – requires thorough research and documentation prior to site specific treatments, and Ratner said his agency was particularly concerned that the scope of the proposed project and its lack of specificity would remove necessary precautions.

The Western Watersheds Project has also previously stated that even environmentally safe prescribed burns can be risky. The seasonal window for safe and effective prescribed burns is fairly short, and there have been controlled fires that have run out of control, though they represent a small segment of total burns.

St. George News reached out to Dixie National Forest for additional comment, but there has been no response as of publication of this article.

The Dixie National Forest contains almost 2 million acres across four districts throughout Southern Utah | Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service, St. George News

In the scoping document, the Forest Service references an analysis using LANDFIRE data that reportedly indicates that 1.546 million acres, or 83% of burnable acres across the entire 1.971-million-acre Dixie National Forest, is “moderately or highly departed” from its historic vegetation, fuel composition and fire frequency.

Furthermore, the document promises that the agency will not use prescribed fire within any congressionally-designated wilderness area or research natural areas. The proposal suggests pretreatment techniques such as thinning and limiting public access in treatment areas as well as post-treatment actions such as a livestock grazing rest period and possible reseeding.

The public comment deadline for the project is Wednesday. The Forest Service stated that it’s particularly interested in comments identifying specific areas or conditions that will pose issues with prescribed burns.

Comments can be submitted online through the comment portal.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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