Litigation in Montana leads U.S. Forest Service to adopt new approach to aerial spraying of fire retardant to control wildfires; chief Tom Tidwell signs record of decision
December 16, 2011
– U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell signed Tuesday a record of decision establishing new direction for the use of fire retardant applied from aircraft to manage wildfires.
The new direction, initiated as a result of litigation in Montana, will help the Forest Service better protect water resources and certain plant and wildlife species on National Forest System lands when fighting wildfires. It will allow the Forest service to aggressively fight fire with the use of airtankers while protecting aquatic ecosystems.
Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), the Forest Service identified and mapped waterways and habitat for certain threatened, endangered, and sensitive species in order to avoid applying retardant in those areas.
To decide when or where to drop fire retardant, fire managers now have roughly 12,000 maps identifying avoidance areas on 98 National Forest System units that identify locations of waterways and areas for hundreds of plant and animal species.
When fire managers determine retardant is the right tool to use on a wildfire, they will direct pilots to avoid applying fire retardant in the newly-mapped areas. All other firefighting tactics will be available in the avoidance areas.
The Forest Service has avoided the use of fire retardant in waterways since 2000. Guidelines used since 2000 provided three exceptions that allowed fire managers to drop retardant within 300 feet of waterways. The new direction allows one exception: when human life or public safety is threatened. However, this represents little change with how the agency fights wildfires.
“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. “Our new approach will benefit communities, ecosystems and our fire crews.”
Forest Service research has demonstrated that fire retardant, used since the 1950s, is twice as effective as water at reducing fire intensity. The agency continues to work with industry to develop more environmentally friendly fire retardants.
In July 2010, in response to a lawsuit, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ordered the Forest Service to fully comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and to re-consult with USFWS and NOAA Fisheries to comply with the Endangered Species Act.
The Forest Service involved the public in the development of the new direction, including hosting five community listening sessions, several stakeholder webinars, three technical listening sessions, a science panel discussion, and several Tribal engagement events.
The new direction includes procedures for monitoring and reinitiating consultation with USFWS and NOAA Fisheries if aerially-applied fire retardant impacts certain species or habitat. The direction also provides greater protection for cultural resources including historic properties, traditional cultural resources, and sacred sites through closer coordination with states and Tribes.
Tidwell issued the decision after reviewing the analysis of three alternatives in the October 2011 Final Environmental Impact Statement and the results of the consultation with USFWS and NOAA Fisheries.
The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Recreational activities on our lands contribute $14.5 billion annually to the U.S. economy. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world.