A Burning Desire -
Sierra Club Public Lands Fire Management Policy

Copyright 2002, by Mark Edward Vande Pol All rights reserved
(Original Source URL no longer functional)
Reposted on FreeRepublic.com July 11, 2002



If environmentalists were left to their own devices, do they have a better way to manage wild-lands? How often are their plans submitted for scrutiny, peer review, or an EIR? Their criticisms of private enterprise are so ubiquitous that it is high time to offer a critical analysis of one of their proposals. The sad part is that it is so easy to do. The cited text (in italics) is reprinted off the Sierra Club web site.

The key to this story is to recognze a system that exists at variance to its purpose, which is only to perpetuate itself, not to care for a forest. This policy leads to a structurally-incompetent system, bound by procedure and legality, incapable of accomplishing it's purported goals even if it were so dedicated.

It never will be, simply because when government controls resource lands, there is too much money to be made using regulatory power to manipulate the value of the resources. Not only does government environmental management not work, it CAN'T work, no matter how much political pressure is brought upon Congress to act. No reform, law, or initiative will change what the founders of this nation understood:

The only real alternative starts with private property.

Public Lands Fire Management

Sierra Club Policy: Public Lands Fire Management URL: http://www.sierraclub.org/policy/conservation/fire.asp
Sierra Club Board of Directors March 17-19, 1989:

Yep, this is the current policy, adopted immediately after the Yellowstone Fire of 1989. The Fire Policy itself will be in italics. My comments will follow each tenet in plain text.

1. Fire is a natural, integral, and valuable component of many ecosystems. Fire management must be a part of the management of public lands. Areas managed for their natural values often benefit from recurring wildfires and may be harmed by a policy of fire suppression. Long-term suppression of small wildfires may build up conditions making occasional catastrophic conflagrations inevitable."

Recurring fire is a natural occurrence in the West, but it was also long a human event as well. Indians set frequent fires in forests. In fact, it was the only effective management tool they possessed. Now people have suppressed fire for decades. That process of suppression is what has been harmful because the fuel loads are not at a ‘natural’ level. Fires under such conditions do not result therefore in a ‘natural’ fire. ‘Inevitable’ implies, ‘It is such a big problem that too much potentially harmful work must be done to mitigate the hazard’. It is implies that nobody is responsible for a conflagration as long as the ignition was not caused by people. If the fuel level was forced by human activity, does ignition absolve those who had a choice of the time of ignition and the composition of the fuel?

2. Every fire should be monitored. Naturally occurring fires should be allowed to burn in areas where periodic burns are considered beneficial and where they can be expected to burn out before becoming catastrophic. Human-caused fires in such areas should be allowed to burn or be controlled on a case-by-case basis.

Note the prejudice toward unplanned fires. They just said that catastrophic fire was ‘inevitable.’ Who is going to be responsible for determining what constitutes "beneficial," whether it will go out by itself, or whether it will progress to a catastrophe on a case-by-case basis without taking responsibility for controlling the process? Weather in the mountain regions of California is highly changeable, localized, and unpredictable. Are they going to get everybody together for a meeting before they decide while the fire builds? That is exactly what they want. Who controls the fire if the only plan for ignition is that there should be no plan?

If this policy is adopted,

And, most important,

One could go on. It’s easy.

3. In areas where fire would pose an unreasonable threat to property, human life or important biological communities, efforts should be made to reduce dangerous fuel accumulations through a program of planned ignitions. New human developments should be discouraged in areas of high fire risk.

What is an "unreasonable threat," how is that determined, and by whom? If there has been sixty years of fire suppression, then a threat to biological communities seems highly likely. Note no mention of exotic species abetted by fire. If it is an "unreasonable threat" to property, we should just burn it anyway? Note they talk of planned ignitions only when it’s an unreasonable threat. I guess they want the conflagrations with loss of life and property to be "human error" or some other piece of PR that advances the cause. Why won’t they allow someone to chop up the excess fuel, get it on the ground, away from structures and prime botanical specimens and then light it?

Where is there not a high fire risk in the West? Do they mean there should be no more new development? If they do, perhaps they should tell their Democratic Party masters. Real estate and development interests are among the biggest Democratic donors in California politics.

4. When fires do occur that pose an unacceptable threat to property or human life, prompt efforts should be undertaken of fire control.

Whoever was monitoring and didn’t put it out fast enough when the wind changed is at fault if that house burns down or the people die. How do you allocate sufficient equipment for all those unplanned fires? God forbid if, during the fire season, that equipment might be fighting a fire somewhere else they didn’t plan one. It had better be a "prompt" response!

Prompt enough to absolve the misbegotten progenitors of a plan like this?

"Go to a large remote area with a high fuel load, interspersed with homes, with minimal water available. Don’t touch any of the fuel. Start and contain a series of small fires (it would take thousands of them) without a single one getting out of hand. If they get out of control, put them out REALLY fast!"

On whose insurance policy? Does the Sierra Club stand behind this plan with their members' money?

5. In areas included in or proposed for the National Wilderness Preservation System, fires should be managed primarily by the forces of nature. Minimal exceptions to this provision may occur where these areas contain ecosystems altered by previous fire suppression, or where they are too small or too close to human habitation to permit the ideal of natural fire regimes. Limited planned ignitions should be a management option only in those areas where there are dangerous fuel accumulations, with a resultant threat of catastrophic fires, or where they are needed to restore the natural ecosystem.

Name a place in California that has NOT been altered by fire suppression. Limited ignitions only where it is dangerous? Where the threat is catastrophic? Minimal exceptions? The purpose of a plan should be to restore a natural fire balance. How are they going to get it done that way? Is this the best the Sierra Club can do?

What we once had was a landscape that the aboriginal tribes burned almost annually. That is what "fire adapted" really means. With all the air pollution measures and bureaucracy the Sierra Club advocates, can you even begin to contemplate the outcry they would make over the smoke? What would be the alternatives? Mechanical reduction or biological control, in other words, thinning, grazing, and browsing, none of which would be "natural." As a result, the only possible fires this plan produces almost necessarily involves a catastrophic fuel load, bad firefighting conditions, and inadequate equipment and personnel under peak hazard conditions.

You hear about it on the news every year. Now you know whom to thank.

6. Land managers should prepare comprehensive fire management plans. These plans should consider the role of natural fire, balancing the ecological benefits of wildfire against its potential threats to natural resources, to watersheds, and to significant scenic and recreational values of wild lands.

What good is a plan if the policy preference is for the conditions to be uncontrolled? What good is there sitting in an office writing a fire plan if the only way one can execute the plan is to wait for a an unplanned "natural ignition"? Would it not be a better use of personnel to be out in the field dealing with the problem according to established forestry principles with which most of the wilderness managers are familiar? In my peronal experience managing our property, we have so much we would like to do that does not get done because of limited time and money one hardly needs a list. Worse, if you are not planning the ignition, there are simply too many interactive variables over which one then has no control to make a plan very useful. Relative humidity, temperature, wind, and fuel moisture content ALL radically change the way that a fire progresses. It sounds like a plan that is too complex to be realistic. Deal with the FUEL first, then plan the ignition.

Now it IS possible to have a plan if you intend to ignite a fire under conditions known to be controllable. That might be possible, and in fact should be done in many cases.

Note the idea of fuel mitigation prior to a fire doesn’t even get discussed. They want scenic considerations taken into account? If the forest is overstocked, it won't stay healthy; water competition and beetle kill are the usual system responses. If the forest isn’t healthy it won’t stay scenic. It certainly won’t be scenic after a catastrophic fire. Not too many people will want to camp there for a couple of years at least, especially after one of those ‘unavoidable’ conflagrations (there is an awful lot of dust).

But more important: Why should scenery even be a consideration when it comes to ecological health? The answer is simple, the donors to the Sierra Club want scenery. They won't get it this way.

7. Methods used to control or prevent fires are often more damaging to the land than fire. Fire control plans must implement minimum-impact fire suppression techniques appropriate to the specific area.

You don’t get to fight unplanned conflagrations exactly the way you would prefer. The minimum impact is not to have a conflagration at all and be free to take the time to prevent the kind of problems that come with reacting to the very kind of competing emergencies this plan produces.

8. Steps should be taken to rehabilitate damage caused by fighting fires. Land managers should rely on natural revegetation in parks, designated or proposed wilderness areas, and other protected lands. Where artificial revegetation is needed, a mixture of appropriate native species suited to the site should be used.

How big would the nursery have to be to revegetate the acreage of all likely conflagrations to be started by unplanned ignitions? Each should have all the local genotypes of plants in adequate quantity for all of the areas subject to serious fire risk ready to go. While they are at it, they should also collect all the necessary local insects, amphibians and other animals and provide them their specially selected diet. How many horticulturists, entomologists, and animal behavior specialists are we going to need? Keep them from cross breeding or contamination by humans while you are at it!

Conflagrations are a risk to biodiversity. It is better not to have them.

9. The occurrence of a fire does not justify salvage logging or road building in areas that are otherwise inappropriate for timber harvesting. Salvage logging is not permitted in designated wilderness areas or National Park System units.

It justifies anything but having a way for somebody to cover some of the horrific cost of thinning, replanting some of those natives, and assuming the risk of lighting it on fire. It might even help to offset some of the cost of monitoring and assisting the reestablishment of various native species, and keeping out the pests. Oh, but the government can thin as long as they don’t sell logs! Then in the next breath they tell you that they don’t have the "funding". Meanwhile somebody logs somewhere else to provide the wood.

Perhaps that is what this plan is all about?

Nobody knows how to solve problem of a sixty-year fuel load in an area infested with pests and exotic species optimally in all circumstances. NOBODY. Government certainly does not have the resources to do it. Government does not have the local knowledge to manage all of the controlled burns needed. On private lands, they don’t know where the water is, they don’t know where the roads are, the patterns of breezes, they don’t know the site-specific information that only a landowner can. Indeed, government is in the way.

It doesn’t have to happen this way!

If we were to reduce the fuel risk by removing some of the fuel prior to the burn we could manage these fires. The problem is that it would cost a lot of money. That means it won’t get done. Somebody could make some money to pay for at least part of it by selling logs. This can be done with less impact than that inevitable conflagration. God forbid, these people just can’t bring themselves to admit that an occasional stump might be preferable to a conflagration. The stump will break down in about 20 years and we can start over with a fire management plan that is similar to what the native Americans did for thousands of years before anybody had a Sierra Club to from an office in San Francisco.

The Clean Air Act must be amended to minimize impact on controlled burning plans. When we have wild fires with unplanned ignitions there is air pollution. If it is a wild fire they call it smoke instead. When we don’t plan the ignition (as is proposed in the majority of cases by the Sierra Club) we have no choices about the atmospheric conditions that minimize the air pollution impact of the smoke. When we have conflagrations, the recovery time greatly increases. There is more erosion from the runoff and subsequent water pollution of the lakes.

The Sierra Club plan is a good one if only if you had forests in a primeval condition, but they have not been primeval for a very long time. The problem with the Sierra Club plan is that the ideal circumstances upon which it presupposes hardly exist. To assume that the forests will return to primeval condition, or even benefit from hands-off management after species have been selected for fire response by anthropogenic means for 10,000 years is beyond mere stupidity.

For a political organization of the size and power of the Sierra Club, to demand that the solutions be ideal when the situation precludes that possibility is either psychotic or represents an agenda having nothing to do with forest management. It’s offensive, resembling more vacuous posturing for the benefit of the ignorant to hustle donations than anything else. They should look at the size and scope of the fires this year and be ashamed. The response has been one of denial and blame.

It’s time they were held accountable.

Unfortunately, Clinton Executive Order - 12986 exempted ALL members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources from civil liability. The Sierra Club is a member. That EO was a TOTALLY unconstitutional violation of 14th Amendment equal protection.

George Bush should rescind that EO, now.


Mark Edward Vande Pol is a medical device engineer, author, and hobbyist in habitat restoration science. He has no interest in commercial logging. His book: Natural Process - That Environmental Laws May Serve the Laws of Nature details the adverse environmental impact of political and legal ecosystem management. He proposes an alternative, free-market environmental management system capable of evolving an objective pricing system for ecosystem resources. This article was adapted from a piece of flotsam that didn’t fit in the book.