Thursday, January 28, 2016

U.S. wildfire plan seen as biggest land policy change in decades

A year after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell shifted the national approach to fighting wildfires across a wide swath of sagebrush country in the West, her strategy is turning out to be one of the most significant federal land policy changes in some 80 years, public land experts, outdoor enthusiasts and scientists say. The five-page order she issued last January directed federal resources for the first time to fight massive blazes in open sagebrush steppe habitat that supports cattle ranching, recreation and some 350 species of wildlife, including the imperiled sage grouse. “It is one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the United States,” said Janice Schneider, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management. Firefighting officials say Jewell’s order led more of the nation’s firefighting resources to respond to blazes in Great Basin sagebrush steppe last year, when the U.S. experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons, with nearly 16,000 square miles burned. Experts say her strategy helped extinguish several smaller fires, though one giant blaze scorched sagebrush steppe in portions of Idaho and Oregon. Many ranchers have embraced the order despite wariness and sometimes anger with federal oversight, displayed in the armed occupation of a federal wildlife preserve in Oregon. The small group who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge more than three weeks ago says the government has no authority to enforce federal grazing contracts with ranchers. Ranchers backing Jewell’s order have formed Rangeland Fire Protections Associations, teaming up with federal firefighters to stop small fires from exploding and charring forage needed by cattle. The order led to the biggest change for sagebrush steppe since the Taylor Grazing Act of the 1930s, which sought to stop overgrazing on public lands, said U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist Matt Germino, who specializes in sagebrush ecosystems. “The initiatives that are underway — preserving the good habitat and restoring the bad habitat — that’s unprecedented,” he said...more

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