Ambitious plans are unfolding west of the Teton Range that seek to use prescribed fire on up to 1.7 million acres of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
The problem, according to Fire Management Officer Michael Johnston, is that the northern reaches of the Caribou-Targhee are dominated by mature, decadent stands of timber now poised for massive and potentially catastrophic wildfires. The answer, he said, is using controlled burns to replicate wildfire’s natural role and curb the hazard to nearby communities.
“Contrary to the Bridger-Teton, on the west side of the Tetons here we have not seen really any large fire to speak of,” Johnston told the News&Guide. “One of our concerns is that the Caribou and the Targhee have largely been unburned for going on 150 years.”
Large wildfires have consumed and regenerated tens of thousands of acres of the Bridger-Teton — the Fontenelle, Berry, Cliff Creek and Roosevelt fires are all examples, and those burned just in the past 8 years. But on most of the Caribou-Targhee’s 2.6 million acres those types of landscape-reshaping blazes have been absent for decades.
“I started my career over here in ’93, and the biggest fire they’ve had is probably 5,000 acres,” Johnston said. “They’ve only had a handful that have gone over 1,000 acres.”
He chalked up the absence to several factors: successful fire suppression, livestock grazing thinning out the understory and “luck of the draw.” The absence of fire has left parts of the Caribou-Targhee unbroken expanses of mature monocultures, susceptible to pine beetle infestations and extreme conditions when wildfires do ignite and then burn out of control.
“You see what’s happening across the West,” Johnston said. “We’re seeing more and more ridiculously large fires. I went to California on the fire that went over 1 million acres this year. It’s just crazy. I get surprised every single year, and I shouldn’t after 27 years.”
The Caribou-Targhee’s plan to remedy the situation relies entirely on using fire to fight fire. Wildfire managers often take multi-pronged approaches when executing “fuels reduction projects” to thin out forests, using de-limbing, thinning and even commercial logging of trees in combination with prescribed fire.
But by using prescribed fire alone this project, Johnston said, is eligible for a wildlife habitat-centric “categorical exclusion” to the National Environmental Policy Act that streamlines the approval process.
“It doesn’t put any acre limitations on us,” he said. “Under the [categorical exclusion], we can’t propose a million acres of logging.”
When the Bridger-Teton proposed its own large-scale fuels reduction project, along the forest front from Teton Village to the Snake River, the planning process took many years. The authorizing document, a lengthy environmental impact statement, was challenged repeatedly, based mostly on worries about harming the wilderness characteristics of the Palisades Wilderness Study Area.
Some of the same voices are taking the Caribou-Targhee to task for its use of a single-step categorical exclusion on an even larger project.
“There’s nothing about the long-term plan,” Wilson resident and ecologist Ann Harvey said. “There’s nothing in this document about how long they’re going to do this project. There’s nothing about where the locations of the burns are going to be. There’s no discussion about costs. There’s no discussion about what season they’ll be doing the burns.
“Basically,” she said, “they’re writing themselves a blank check to burn a million acres of national forest without public participation, and it’s just crazy really.”
Kathy Rinaldi, a longtime Greater Yellowstone Coalition employee based in Teton Valley, had a similar view of the process.
“We’re generally supportive of forest health projects, and we get that fire has been suppressed for a long time, and it’s not in a natural condition,” Rinaldi said. “But to simply go do a categorical exclusion on over a million acres and say ‘Trust us, it’ll be OK,’ yeah, that’s probably not the right NEPA approach.”
The Caribou-Targhee’s use of a categorical exclusion on such a large prescribed fire project is not novel, Johnston said. Land managers in other parts of the U.S. Forest Service system, like in the Southwest, have used the strategy for years.
“We’re just playing catch-up,” Johnston said. “That’s why we’re going down this road, because it feels like the right thing to do.”
Two scoping documents prepared for both the Caribou and Targhee show that all of the northern portion of national forest is included in the project, including all of the Palisades, Teton Basin, Ashland-Island Park and Dubois ranger districts. Over 1.7 million acres of those ranger districts can be characterized as either “moderately” or “highly” departed from their natural vegetation and fire-frequency regimes, and thus eligible for burning, according to the documents.
The specific prescribed fires Johnston and his staff will pursue have not yet been delineated, but the 500- to 5,000-acre burn units will be selected through a process that prioritizes places where wildfire has been absent for the longest period, and most depart from the natural regime. Areas that would be exempted from burning include designated wilderness, active phosphate mines, research areas, grizzly bear core areas and permitted and developed recreation sites.
Each burn proposed would be free of additional National Environmental Policy Act analysis, Johnston said, but they would be routed through a three-page “implementation checklist” that requires steps like coordinating burns with livestock grazing permitees and completing invasive species risk assessments.
Ultimately, Johnston said, the goal of the landscape-level burning is to produce a more varied and resilient forest, where natural wildfire has less of a chance of catastrophic growth.
“We want to be able to live with wildfire better,” he said, “and we’ll be able to do that.”
Still, some conservationists watchdogging the project say that wildfire managers are missing the mark if part of the objective is to mimic fire’s natural role. Harvey, an ecologist, contends that the plans she reviewed don’t appear to be science-based.
“They want to do low-intensity fires, during seasons that managers choose, in locations that managers choose,” Harvey said. “It’s not replicating a natural fire cycle at all, it’s turning it all into a managed landscape. That’s particularly inappropriate in a wilderness study area because they’re supposed to be self-directed.”
Comments on plans for the Targhee part of the forest are being accepted through Dec. 30. A comment deadline on the Caribou portion has lapsed. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. A copy of the scoping document is attached to the online version of this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com.