Environmentalists cannot afford to give
DEC's recommendations inconsistent
"Lieut. Daniel Walsh, a spokesman for the Environmental Conservation Department's Bureau of Fire, said the chaotic piles of tree trunks and branches amount to as much as 150 tons of fuel per acre in some places. The Long Island blazes last summer fed on a fifth as much fuel." - New York Times, Sept. 25, 1995
The July 15 Adirondack Blowdown killed 5 people and damaged 968,888 acres of timber, of which 141,814 were most severely damaged. Yet four months later, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued a formal draft report that pooh-poohs the extreme fire threat that the report documents.
Without making recommendations for fire prevention or suppression, the executive summary of the November 20 report issued by Robert Bathrick, director of the Division of Lands and Forests states: "the pattern of fire weather suggests that conditions supporting wildfire can exist in the affected region." Separately, Mr. Bathrick emphasized that no timber would be salvaged from the State Forest Preserve.
The body of the 270-page report contains scientific analysis of fire characteristics for the fuel created by the blowdown which points to a clear threat:
"fuel loadings... within the storm affected area have dramatically increased from an average of 8 tons per acre (as measured in unaffected areas) to a range of 30 tons per acre on recently logged, private industrial forests to 150 tons per acre on the old-growth Forest Preserve."
The DEC report refers to 150 tons per acre as the highest "logging slash model," Model 13, "heavy cuts" in "over-mature stands."
"Fires occurring in this fuel model are generally uncontrollable with conventional fire suppression tactics."
In a further discussion of "extreme fire behavior," the report states that after over-winter curing of the fuels, for weather thresholds that "are frequently met in the summer months," wildfire behavior could reach the "stage where the main fire front creates its own micro-climate weather," and burn until fuels are consumed or weather again affects the fire.
DEC used a computerized burn analysis using the "Behave" system of the Fire Behavior Research Work Unit of the Intermountain Fire Services Laboratory at Missoula, Montana, to develop the fire hazard analysis.
The report does not make clear how DEC intends to take the extreme fire hazard into account. The appendix on fire suppression contains recommendations for a number of prevention and suppression measures from education, involvement of local communities and property owners, widening clearings along public highways, broadening trails, setting up heliports for fire fighting, air patrols, protecting the interface of wild and built-up areas and many other measures. But it is unclear why certain of these measures are part of the final recommendations or what funds will be allotted to implement them.
An earlier preliminary draft report that DEC exchanged with a diverse "working group" of individuals who were concerned about the blowdown, including environmental organizations and forest land owners, treated the blowdown fire threat less obtusely.
Environmental politics influence DEC
Instead of respecting the confidentiality of the preliminary document, the Adirondack Council, a member of the working group, jumped the gun because it was afraid that the word would get out about the fire threat before it put its own "spin" on the news.
Thus, the October 1995 Adirondack Council "Action Alert" mailing lambasted the DEC. "The risk of fire (by leaving the timber on the forest floor) has been exaggerated by some staff at DEC."
Skillfully disputing reality, the Adirondack Council claimed that although the storm caused "the loss of timber on private land in the Park, the blowdown was not a disaster for the Forest Preserve."
The Adirondack Council did no study of its own, but the thorough DEC study states, "Private forest resources appear to have been less severely damaged than state-owned resources," and that "the storm survey showed Wild Forest lands to be the most widely impacted land classification" of the forest preserve lands. Another member of the advisory committee was the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). Their threat of court action was compliantly reported by Associated Press on October 21.
"The plan that has been proposed doesn't include salvage," said Neil Woodworth, the ADK lobbyist, according to the wire service. "We were prepared to go to court if they wanted to put in fire roads, clear firebreaks and remove timber."
The environmental department also received an anonymous phone call that some of the trees in the Five Ponds area had been spiked, a radical environmental practice that can cause injuries to chain saw operators or sawyers when a saw blade hits the concealed heavy nail.
The State Constitution, however, referred to in a 1905 Attorney General's opinion cited in a lengthy legal analysis in the DEC study, appears to give ample grounds for salvage logging.
"The State in the exercise of its police powers has the same right to protect a citizen resident in the Adirondack region from the danger of a burning forest..." "it was never intended that the Constitutional provision should prevent the State from exercising the highest degree of sovereignty the protection of the life and property of its citizens."
The aggressive tactics of the environmentalists may have been successful. The fire draft report, while containing scientific information about wind damage, fuel loading and fire spread as background, drops any reliance on science to explain its inconsistent recommendations for fire suppression, such as they are.
On December 4, Robert Bathrick, the Director of Lands and Forests, issued a memorandum proposing a policy that "under no circumstances shall any of the blowdown or damaged materials be removed from Forest Preserve lands (with the exception of State Campgrounds...)."
The full draft "Assessment Report of the Adirondack Windstorm" is available from Robert Bathrick, director, Division of Lands and Forests, DEC, 50 Wolf Road, Albany, NY 12233.
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