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The Politics of Fire: Denying the Science

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The following article is a serialized story of the decade-long effort to convince intransigent government officials in San Diego County that science matters and that the region’s native chaparral ecosystem has value. In the name of fire protection, the county attempted to establish a plan that could have allowed it to clear tens of thousands of acres of native habitat without proper oversight as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The story is timely because of the current politicization of science in the United States and the impact that process can have on public policy. The story also provides valuable lessons to activists dealing with the enforcement of environmental law.

This is part IV of VII.

Click here for Part I of The Politics of Fire: The Struggle Between Science and Ideology in San Diego County

Click here for Part II of The Politics of Fire: Academic Nonsense

Click here for Part III of The Politics of Fire: Huge Fires are Natural

Click here for Part IV of The Politics of Fire: Denying the Science

Click here for Part V of The Politics of Fire: It Gets Worse

Click here for Part VI of The Politics of Fire: This is Not it

Click here for Part VII of The Politics of Fire: Attempting an End Run

Part IV: Denying the Science

On July 18, 2008, the plan’s first draft of San Diego County’s Fire Management Plan was released. The document started with the assumption that “to prevent the start, slow the rapid spread, and moderate the intensity of all but the most intensely wind-driven massive wildfires,” lands set aside for habitat preservation need to be managed with masticators, goats, and controlled burns. Unfortunately, as with the 2003 task force report, there was no attempt to present a science-based analysis of all the available data in order to consider viable alternatives. No scientific references were cited to support the document’s recommendations.

The new plan repeated two of the same assumptions found within the county’s earlier 2003 task force report that had been repudiated by fire scientists: large chaparral fires are the result of “unnatural” accumulations of vegetation due to past fire suppression activities, and mixed-aged mosaics are the “natural” condition of chaparral. The plan also introduced two new perspectives that were again not supported by scientific evidence: it is “critical” to begin “managing” chaparral when it reaches 30-40 years old for its own “health,” and there is a “debate” over whether or not high fire frequency can in fact type-convert chaparral to non-native grasslands.

Denying scientific evidence or giving equal time to discredited ideas has been a pervasive problem in how San Diego County deals with fire issues as it has been in national discussions concerning climate change and evolution. In fact, in an April 2, 2010, comment letter to the California Board of Forestry on the development of a new California state fire plan, San Diego County’s Department of Planning and Land Use made a definitive claim that chaparral is not threatened by type-conversion and urged the state not to consider climate change in developing long-range fire management plans. Recognizing type-conversion, they wrote, “would impact our ability to obtain funding to carry out important vegetation treatment programs here.”

Fortunately, the Board of Forestry ignored the county’s request to ignore the science. The new plan acknowledges the earth’s climate is changing and that such change may impact fire patterns. In addition, the plan stated that “many chaparral shrubland ecosystems may be impacted by a too-frequent fire interval, especially in Southern California,” and as a result, “these areas may be at risk of conversion from native to non-native species, which can pose an increased fire threat.”

The county’s notion that old-growth chaparral “needs” to be “managed” for its own “health” after 30-40 years (i.e., burned) comes from earlier range management literature that saw chaparral as a “problem” because it was not conducive to ranching or deer hunting. For example, in 1954, Harold Biswell, a professor of forestry at the University of California, Berkeley, whose viewpoint has been characterized as seeing chaparral as merely degraded grassland, wrote, “The brush problem in California has been “pin-pointed” as one of lost acres  ̶  once productive acres now lost to invading brush. Because the brush has increased in abundance, the production capacity of many lands has gone downward. The problem now is how to control the brush…”

The reference to “vegetative health”  to justify burning or masticating increasingly rare stands of old-growth chaparral habitat is nothing new. A similar argument has been used to justify the logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific-Northwest. A decade ago, the US Forest Service insisted that, “A mature stand of timber is largely stagnant. Some liken it to a desert. Decay and death of individual trees diminish what’s there. Nothing much happens until management begins” (USFS visitor information at the Olympic National Park in Washington state).

A proposal that had not been part of the county’s previous approach was to re-establish forests burned during the 2003 Cedar Fire by doing “specific treatments for removal of the invading chaparral shrubs and modifying the understory of replanted and seedling conifers as they grow.”

Once again, the county ignored the scientific research. Ceanothus shrubs, the primary so-called “invading” species the plan was referring to, are in fact a natural part of the successional process. Ceanothus species are nitrogen-fixers (they facilitate the movement of atmospheric nitrogen into soluble soil forms) and are hence critical to restoring the soil’s nitrogen balance in post-fire environments. Removing them would negatively impact the ecosystem’s recovery and would likely compromise the growth of conifer seedlings the county wanted to foster.

Numerous scientists and conservationists submitted comments after the draft plan was released. Wayne Spencer, who had been involved in reviewing the county’s ill-fated 2003 task force report, summed up the views of many by writing, “It is extremely frustrating to see the same unsupported, unjustified, opinions stated as facts after all these years of accumulating science, observation, and discussion of the realities of fire in Southern California.”

Dr. Keeley reminded the county in his comment letter that, “I believe there is incontrovertible evidence that any sustainable solution must involve a multi-prong approach that considers all of the factors contributing to the fire problem in San Diego. This perhaps is the major failing of the 7/18/08 draft.”

The first gathering to discuss the draft was held on July 24 during the Forest Area Safety Taskforce (FAST) meeting at a Rancho Santa Fe Fire Department station. FAST was a group composed of representatives from fire, wildlife, and conservation organizations charged with evaluating the county’s plan.

During the initial review by county representative Thomas Oberbauer, there appeared to be an effort to minimize controversial sections and emphasize conservation values despite the fact that such values were generally ignored in the document. Oberbauer stated that one of the plans main focuses was to “maintain habitat values” and that “sensitive species are of primary focus.” Neither goal was stated in the document.

On August 8, 2008, a hearing on the draft was held by the San Diego County Planning Commission. Seven individuals testified against the county’s plan including Kurt Roblek from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Michael Beck (a commissioner on the Planning Commission itself), and Dr. Anne Fege. No one who provided public testimony voiced support for the county’s approach.

This article is the fourth in The Politics of Fire series.

Click here for Part I of The Politics of Fire: The Struggle Between Science and Ideology in San Diego County

Click here for Part II of The Politics of Fire: Academic Nonsense

Click here for Part III of The Politics of Fire: Huge Fires are Natural

Click here for Part IV of The Politics of Fire: Denying the Science

Click here for Part V of The Politics of Fire: It Gets Worse

Click here for Part VI of The Politics of Fire: This is Not it

Click here for Part VII of The Politics of Fire: Attempting an End Run