Monday, July 11, 2005

More fire for health; LA Times backs bighorns

A tall cloud of smoke rose yesterday and today from the Santa Rita mountains south of Tucson. Last night flames were clearly visible from the city. A crown fire indeed. Sky Island ranges in the southwest need fire for forest and ecosystem health.

The Florida (flor-rit-a) fire is natural, started by lightning striking the scenic Santa Ritas on Friday. But the Forest Service wants to hop on almost every fire to risk it all, and spend big trying to put it out. They'll have little effect.

Any good firefighter will tell you that wildland fires go out when weather conditions change, like when humidity goes up, winds die or shift, or it rains. Nevertheless, the feds dispatch firefighters, hotshot crews, smokejumpers, air tankers, choppers, bulldozers, and backburns to chase the fire around.

The UA facility on the Santa Rita experimental range already has created defensible space to make it fire safe, the director was showing it off on TV recently, but still news crews insist firefighters are working to save it from burning down.

Unwisely, many cabins in Madera Canyon do not have defensible space, and fuels have built up due to past government fire suppression. Too many owners took no precautionary action, thinking Smoky will protect them, so we all pay both in money and lost forest health as the crews are called in.

When building owners take responsibility to fire-proof their property less fire fighters will be at risk as the forest can burn, and we'll save money to better manage public lands.

The federal fire effort is largely a jobs program in many western states. Some fires should be fought, including desert blazes and careless human-caused fires. But why not give some fire fighters restoration jobs?


On Saturday, the LA Times told the Bush Forest Service to do as I suggest: keep disease-spreading domestic sheep away from recovering Sierra Nevada bighorns.



Battle of the Bighorn

Over the last six years, a battle to save the endangered bighorn sheep has succeeded beyond the expectations of the state and federal agencies and advocacy groups that launched the project along the eastern Sierra Nevada in California and Nevada. The numbers of this unique species, separate from the desert bighorn in Southern California, have rebounded from about 100 to as many as 350. Now the state Fish and Game Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are considering a regulation that would allow them to trap or kill bighorns, ostensibly in order to save them. It's a classic case of bureaucratic wrongheadedness.

The aim is to protect the bighorns from catching fatal diseases, such as pneumonia, from domestic sheep that are allowed to graze in portions of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, home to about 20 of the wild sheep. Incredibly, the U.S. Forest Service still allows about 6,500 domestic sheep to graze on leases covering about 175,000 acres. That's a fraction of what it used to be, but enough to present a danger if the two species mingle. Then the Fish and Game Department would be summoned to trap or kill the bighorns to prevent them from infecting other wild sheep.

In summer, the nimble and elusive bighorns rock-hop as high as 14,000 feet in the Sierra. At times, however, they drop lower to graze. That's the danger zone.

Summer grazing of domestic sheep in the mountains was mostly phased out over the years as sheep-raising dwindled and recreation use of the forests mushroomed. "Locusts," John Muir called the herds, even though his first trip into the High Sierra was as a sheepherder.

To Daniel Patterson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, the answer is obvious and simple. "Get rid of the domestic sheep," he told The Times' Tim Reiterman.

The bureaucratic culprit here is neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor state Fish and Game, but a U.S. Forest Service that insists on an anachronistic leasing program. The Forest Service says it will monitor both kinds of sheep over the next year in hopes of keeping them from mixing. But who knows how many bighorns might have to be quarantined or killed to see if they are ill?

The service should do as Patterson suggested. The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest covers 6.3 million acres, the largest forest outside of Alaska. Surely officials can find a safer place for the sheep to graze.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Interesting post.