A sweeping plan to use prescribed fire on hundreds of thousands of acres of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest has been halted well before any drip torches were dusted off.
The national forest in southeastern Idaho had proposed using controlled fire to regenerate up to 1.7 million acres of the landscape, one that’s largely lacked natural wildfire, leading to thick understories, a dearth of aspen and decadent conifer stands.
But the Caribou-Targhee also sought to authorize that project using a “categorical exclusion” within the National Environmental Policy Act, which meant that analysis would have been minimal. Environmental advocacy groups and residents wrote in with concerns about the ambitious plans, and some of the issues they identified led to the project’s demise.
“Prescribed fire is an effective and natural approach to forest management,” Caribou-Targhee spokeswoman Sarah Wheeler said in an emailed statement. “However, based on wildlife concerns brought forth in the scoping period for the Targhee Prescribed Fire Project, the Forest decided not to move forward at this time.”
The U.S. Forest Service’s Washington, D.C., office did not authorize Caribou-Targhee officials to give an interview.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies Executive Director Mike Garrity and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection Executive Director Jason Christensen were among the parties that criticized the plans when they were first released late last year. It was a “welcome change,” they wrote in a joint column, for the national forest to press pause.
“It comes as no surprise that the environmentally disastrous Trump administration was desperate to approve the project in the final days of his presidency,” Garrity and Christensen wrote. “But using a ‘Categorical Exclusion’ to exempt the entire project from National Environmental Policy Act was an over-the-top abuse. Categorical Exclusions were originally intended for minor routine maintenance needs like painting outhouses — not million-acre burning projects in grizzly bear and lynx habitat on the border of Yellowstone National Park.”
Forest officials say that politics were not a factor.
President Biden’s administration did not instruct the Caribou-Targhee to withdraw the project, nor was the project based on Trump administration policies, Wheeler said in an email.
It’s not clear if the Caribou-Targhee will still pursue its prescribed fire plans using a more substantive analysis, like an environmental impact statement.
The now-paused proposal would have given wildland firefighters broad latitude to conduct 500- to 5,000-acre burns in areas where wildfire has been absent the longest.
Those burn units were not delineated in the proposal, but rather would have been possible on any part of the Caribou-Targhee outside designated wilderness, active phosphate mines, research areas, grizzly bear core areas and permitted and developed recreation sites.
Although technically proposed on up to 1.7 million of the Caribou-Targhee’s 2.6 million acres, the forest’s objective was to burn between 49,000 and 54,000 acres per year.
“However, based on wildlife concerns ... the Forest decided not to move forward at this time.” — Sarah Wheeler Caribou-Targhee national forest