Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Impact of Wilderness Bulldozing in the 2018 Fire Season

A bulldozed fireline built across the PCT in the Soda Mountain Wilderness during the 2018 Klamathon Fire. As you can see the fire never reached this fireline and it played absolutely no role in fire containment.
With fire season fast approaching, federal land managers and local politicians are promoting aggressive, industrialized, backcountry fire suppression in our most intact, wilderness landscapes. Many residents in the region are concerned that the landscapes we know and love will be damaged in that process. Being generally rugged, remote and far from human communities, wilderness firefighting is often inappropriate, unnecessary, ineffective, environmentally damaging and extremely dangerous for fire crews.

Last year, fire managers in southwestern Oregon and northwestern California authorized the use of bulldozers in the Soda Mountain Wilderness east of Ashland, the Kalmiopsis Wilderness west of Cave Junction, and in the Siskiyou Wilderness between the Illinois Valley and Happy Camp, California. These authorizations for the use of bulldozers in local wilderness areas demonstrate a trend towards more damaging backcountry firefighting tactics in our region, they also account for as many authorizations as were approved throughout Oregon and Washington over the previous 12 years combined.

A mortar or grinding stone bulldozed in a Native American archeological site.
Last summer, during the Klamathon Fire, BLM and ODF fire crews bulldozed roughly 30 miles across the Soda Mountain Wilderness and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, bulldozing straight through streambeds, a number of rare plant populations and numerous Native American archeological sites. These dozerlines were driven extensively, providing vehicle access to the heart of the Soda Mountain Wilderness, compacting soils, creating erosion and spreading noxious weeds. Massive landings were also bulldozed on wilderness ridgelines to create helicopter pads, safety zones, medivac and hoist sites. Wilderness trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail, the Lone Pilot Trail and the Boccard’s Point Trail were bulldozed, degrading the wilderness experience for generations of backcountry enthusiasts and damaging natural habitats.

Ironically, the extensive bulldozing in the Soda Mountain Wilderness played no direct role in fire containment (an estimated 80% was contained with hand built firelines) and numerous bulldozer lines were miles from any fire activity. Yet, while crews bulldozed the wilderness, the weather was shifting, the fire was burning back on itself and had begun running out of steam. This allowed hand crews to “go direct” and build handlines, containing the Klamathon Fire with far less damaging methods than the dozerlines built crudely through the wilderness. 

Although the Klamathon Fire had tragic outcomes in the town of Hornbrook, California, where regrettably homes burned and a life was lost, the fire later burned at low to moderate severity throughout the Soda Mountain Wilderness, creating beneficial fire effects. It was largely the suppression efforts themselves that impacted ecological values, not the natural fire process.

The Klamathon Fire was largely a low severity grass fire within the Soda Mountain Wilderness and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. This picture was taken on Scotch Creek in the spring of 2019, less than one year after the Klamathon Fire.

Elsewhere in the region, fire crews for the Klamath National Forest bulldozed the Poker Flat Trail in the Siskiyou Wilderness and portions of the adjacent roadless area during the Natchez Fire. This dozerline was built into some of the most intact habitat on the Siskiyou Crest and again played no role in fire containment. It was built directly through headwater streams, serpentine outcrops, old-growth forests and high mountain meadows. The Natchez Fire burned in a rich and beneficial, mixed severity fire mosaic with substantial low severity fire effects, and once again, the most damaging effects can be attributed directly to suppression efforts.

Forest Service fire managers also twice authorized the use of bulldozers in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, proposing to bulldoze a high ridge south of the Illinois River and along the Illinois River Trail to Bald Mountain and beyond to South Bend Mountain. Despite attaining authorization, these dozerlines were never created and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness was spared the raw, bulldozed wounds inflicted on portions of the Siskiyou and Soda Mountain Wilderness last summer.

A fireline bulldozed across a high mountain meadow in the Siskiyou Wilderness during the 2018 Natchez Fire. This particular dozerline, built within the wilderness, played no role in fire containment.

Wilderness has become an increasingly rare resource and is important in maintaining clean water, biodiversity and wildlife habitat. It is also loved by many in the region and provides an opportunity to experience wild nature and escape the pressures of daily life. According to recent research in the Journal Nature, 77% of the global land base has been altered by economic development, resource extraction and other forms of industrialized land management. In southern Oregon, we are lucky to have significant wilderness landscapes and these landscapes define our region.

Wilderness cannot be replaced or recreated, it plays a vital role in sustaining our region’s ecological values, our sense of place and our quality of life in southwestern Oregon. We would be wise to preserve the wilderness we have left and focus on protecting homes when wildfires occur. 
The Natchez Fire burned beautifully through Twin Valley and the surrounding watersheds in the Siskiyou Wilderness. The fire burned in a mixed severity fire mosaic, with mostly low to moderate fire effects. The wild and intact landscapes of the Siskiyou Wilderness are irreplaceable and should be protected for future generations, not bulldozed and degraded in firefighting operations far from homes or communities.

This article originally appeared on May 26, 2019 as a Guest Opinion piece in the Medford Mail Tribune

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