Los Padres National Forest Watch – an environmental watchdog group – in concert with the research-oriented California Chaparral Institute, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service last week. The groups claim there is a lack of opportunity for public input into the USFS’s decision making process for land-management policy. More specifically, they are focusing on the Tepusquet Fuels Treatment Project, a prescribed burn program the two groups maintain was approved without an environmental analysis or public hearings.
“Our number one concern is looking at the bigger picture and the long term consequences of what’s happening now,” said Richard Halsey, an ecologist from the Escondido-based Chaparral Institute. “In the end, the fuel treatment of this 18,000 acres is a political one. It’s not good land management based upon science, and that’s not good.”
However, some residents of Tepusquet Canyon, which runs from Foxen Cayon Road to Highway 166 in northern Santa Barbara County, disagreed with the allegation that the Forest Service doesn’t involve the public. “Do I like everything they do? No,” said Linda Tunnel. “But they do try their darndest to work with the homeowners who live over here. When we have concerns, they always listen to us and have been very open about that they can and can’t do.” Tunnel is among the approximately 160 families who live in Tepusquet Canyon. The La Brea Fire, which burned nearly 90,000 acres in August, came fairly close to her home. “I want to be prepared, and if the Forest Service can do it using winter [prescribed] burns and other ways that can protect us, I’m in favor of it,” she continued, adding that she hadn’t seen anyone from Los Padres National Forest Watch or the Chaparral Institute at any of the public meetings she attended.
Halsey painted a different picture, saying that although he applauds the Forest Service for its firefighting efforts, it has a tendency to destroy chaparral when it doesn’t have to. “I am in complete agreement about doing proper vegetation management near population centers, but the Forest Service is going miles away from any picnic table. They’re doing their own habitat restoration under the false assumption that shrubland is unnatural,” he said, explaining that peoples’ fear of fire, and subsequent clearing of chaparral, is causing a conversion of the land into grassland. “Most people just see this stuff as brush and weeds -it’s not 100-foot sequoias, so it doesn’t seem to matter.”
According to researchers at UCSB and the University of Arizona, although grass fires don’t burn as hot as those fueled by chaparral, they do burn more frequently, and with just as high a potential to impinge upon safety and destroy property.
Halsey said the lawsuit is symptomatic of a “complete breakdown of the system currently in place,” and called for a reform of the way people look at wildland fire preparation. Instead of burning wild chaparral, he said, “You have to start at the structure and at the community level and work out.”
While the two plaintiffs in the suit are among the only environmental organizations to tread upon the controversial topic of fire protection, Halsey sees it as an opportunity to change peoples’ mentality about how fires are fought. Tunnel, for her part, has had enough. “I don’t think much of this lawsuit at all,” she said. “They’re nitpicking over paperwork and wasting taxpayer dollars.”