Rep. Bill Harris’ Guest Opinion blamed last summer’s 270,000 acre Lodgepole Fire east of Winnett on the presence of a BLM Wilderness Study Area (WSA). He used this situation to support Sen. Steve Daines’ bill to “release” WSAs, which he says would enable Federal agencies to fight future fires “rather than sitting on their hands until it’s too late.”
While my sympathy lies with everyone who lost property/livestock, Harris’ blame is misplaced, and his solution would not prevent such fires.
The involved WSA is roadless, remote, and the terrain is steep. It was unsafe for crews to enter the area. Life, health, and safety must always take priority over grass and timber. Contrary to Harris’ assertion, aerial tankers were used in the WSA, but only after the winds died down. A road was bladed into the area when it was safe to do so. So WSA management does not prevent fire suppression activities. In fact, prescribed burns and fuels treatments are allowed to prevent fires in the first place.
There were 11 lightning-caused fires in the area. The storm occurred during severe drought, high temperatures and high winds. Firefighters had to prioritize where limited resources should be placed. Some fires threatened lives and property; these took precedence over a fire in a remote WSA. BLM, local ranchers, and volunteer firefighters all worked hard to control the fires and extinguished seven of them. However, under the conditions, the remaining fires grew.
He is wrong that fire suppression in WSAs can only be done by firefighters on foot with what they carry on their backs. He is wrong that aerial support is not allowed. He is wrong that BLM’s hands are tied by the WSA rules. And he misrepresents the action firefighters took in trying to suppress the fires.
Daines’ bill to “release” WSAs does not include any BLM WSAs or affect the area of the Lodgepole fire. It would “release” a few WSAs on Forest Service land around the state. “Releasing” a WSA does not increase public access for hunting, fishing, and other recreational activities in a BLM WSA as Harris asserts; these are all allowed.
I assume the reason Harris and Daines want to “release” WSAs is to provide for more motorized access, timber harvesting, mining, oil and gas exploration, and other developments. There is nothing wrong with these commercial activities, which are part of multiple-use. But multiple-use also includes noncommercial values such as wilderness and wildlife habitat.
I wish Daines would put greater emphasis on addressing climate change and its effects on fire severity instead of blaming fires on WSAs and the lack of timber harvesting. The complex causes resulting in large fires will not be fixed by simple solutions.
Dave Mari of Lewistown retired from the Bureau of Land Management, where he was Lewistown office manager from 1991 to 2004.