November 24, 2014

Who can prevent wildfires?

By Ethan W. Blevins Attorney

Smokey the Bear isn’t telling the whole story — you’re not the only one who can prevent wildfires. The National Forest Service can help, too. But if environmentalists have their way, the Service’s fire prevention efforts will suffer.

Last Friday, Pacific Legal Foundation filed an amicus brief to support the Forest Service’s struggle to keep forests and surrounding communities safe from wildfire. The lawsuit involves an effort to stop a project to thin overgrown trees in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest that would reduce risk of wildfire. The Forest is home to the northern spotted owl, a species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The project would thin some of the tree stands in a few parts of the owl’s critical habitat. According to the plaintiff, Conservation Congress, this tree-thinning would hurt the owl. The trial court decided otherwise, and Conservation Congress has appealed.

The Forest Service has a legal duty to avoid actions “likely to . . . result in . . . adverse modification of [critical] habitat.” Conservation Congress insists that the tree-thinning will adversely modify the owl’s critical habitat. But the Forest Service’s plan is designed in part to help the owl. According to the Service, the project would encourage healthy trees and reduce the risk of wildfire. After all, the owl is probably better off if its home is not reduced to an ash heap.

Pacific Legal Foundation’s amicus brief argues that the Forest Service’s duty not to hurt threatened animals does not mean it should ignore the safety of surrounding communities. People deserve protection too, and here, the owl’s needs are not opposed to human interests. Wildfires pose an increasing risk to forests and the people living near them. In 2012, wildfires destroyed 4,244 buildings and claimed the lives of fifteen firefighters. The Forest Service has a duty not to harm endangered species.  But it also has an obligation to protect people.

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