U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has cleared the way for continued use of aerial fire retardant as long as pilots use special maps to avoid hurting threatened or endangered species.
The decision answers a lawsuit the agency lost over whether its aerial firefighting tactics properly consider fire retardant's environmental impact. Fire retardant is essentially ammonium-based fertilizer, which kills fish and aquatic insects and promotes the spread of noxious weeds. A misplaced retardant drop in 2003 killed 20,000 fish in a single stream. In 2008, the Forest Service reported 65 drops where retardant may have hurt a plant or animal protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
"These new guidelines strike a balance between the need to supplement our boots-on-the-ground approach to fighting wildfires while protecting our waterways and important plant and animal species at the same time," Tidwell said in an email statement on Wednesday. "Our new approach will benefit communities, ecosystems and our fire crews."
The new rules will make it challenging for fire management, according to Neptune Aviation President Dan Snyder. The Missoula-based company is the nation's largest provider of retardant-dropping airplanes.
"It won't be much of an issue for our operations," Snyder said, noting Neptune pilots already fly to avoid water bodies. "But for fire commanders on the ground, when an aircraft shows up on the scene, they're going to have to keep these guidelines in mind."
In particular, the new rules carve out lots of exclusion zones around communities and subdivisions along the fringe of national forests. Those areas are also the places where aerial fire retardant is most effective in initial attack because of the planes' ability to have a big impact before ground crews can arrive, Snyder said.
The new maps put nearly 30 percent of the Forest Service land into aerial buffer zones to protect waterways, and list another 1 percent as sensitive ground. The buffer zones protect more than 300 plants and animals on the endangered species list and another 3,700 species considered sensitive to retardant effects.
Andy Stahl, whose Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics filed the successful lawsuit, was skeptical of the results.
"The final (environmental impact statement) acknowledges the Forest Service has no evidence fire retardant contributes to any firefighting objective," Stahl said. "They made their decision on the basis of cherry-picking from a biased sample that fire managers claim retardant makes a difference."
Stahl also argued the 12,000 new maps were never put out for public review. His organization was able to examine six of them, and concluded the areas where threatened or endangered species existed appeared based on predicted data - not actual field checks of habitat.
"If they have a fuels-treatment project or a ski area expansion, the Forest Service does field work on (threatened and endangered species)," Stahl said. "But where the Forest Service isn't doing anything, where there aren't any projects going on, they don't do any surveys. Yet they will still be dumping fire retardant in remote, out-of-the-way locations such as wilderness areas."
Forest Service fire managers in Montana and Idaho rarely use air tankers in wilderness areas. But Stahl said that wasn't the case in California, where the fish kills that triggered the lawsuit took place.