On Oct. 21, 2011, the US Forest Service released its court-ordered programmatic environmental impact statement on fire retardant used to fight wildfires. The agency will use the PEIS as it makes a final decision by Dec. 31, 2011, on how, when, and where to use fire retardant in coming seasons. There are thousands of retardant drops each year, with the great majority occurring in the western half of the country.
The advocacy group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) sparked the current battle with a lawsuit in 2004. As part of the subsequent legal actions, federal agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries have raised substantial concerns about threats posed by current practices.
The USFS preferred alternative in the PEIS would result in small changes to current practices. For instance, the agency would add slightly more acreage to the lists of sensitive land and water areas where fire retardant could be dropped only in cases where human life or public safety is threatened. There would be no significant changes in the formula of the retardant, or the general strategy used to determine when and where it's appropriate to drop retardant.
The PEIS technically applies just to the USFS, but many other federal, state, and local agencies and private landowners closely emulate USFS practices, so USFS practices and policies likely will have a ripple effect on those jurisdictions.
- USFS, Aerial Application of Fire Retardant; press release; project contact, Glen Stein, 208-869-5405.
- Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.
- Maps of new proposed avoidance areas in each national forest with 300-foot buffer zones that must be avoided while flying during crisis situations at high speeds, sometimes with poor visibility. (Note that these maps don't address such zones for other federal, state, local, or private jurisdictions.)
One of the primary concerns of FSEEE is that the USFS has no solid science proving the retardant is effective, a fact the agency generally acknowledges.
- Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics; June 24, 2011, comments to USFS; Oct. 12, 2010, scoping comments; Andy Stahl, 541-484-2692.
More detail about risks posed if the USFS sticks with the program outlined in its preferred alternative should become available in coming weeks. The USFS says it will post the biological opinions of FWS and NOAA Fisheries as soon as they become available. To ask about the timing of these, contact Jim Milbury with NOAA Fisheries, 562-980-4006; or Vanessa Kaufman with FWS, 703-358-2138, cell 571-319-6342.
- US Fish and Wildlife Service, previous biological opinion on fire retardant.
FSEEE executive director Andy Stahl says his organization will wait until it sees the biological opinions and the USFS final decision before it decides what further action, if any, to take.
For more information, see the TipSheet of May 25, 2011.