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The Politics of Fire: It Gets Worse

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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 V 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 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 V: It Gets Worse

A second draft of San Diego County’s Fire Management Plan was released on August 13, 2008. It was a major disappointment to the scientific and conservation communities. Nearly all of the criticisms of the first draft, including testimony given to the Planning Commission, were completely ignored. In fact, many of the first draft’s perspectives that most reviewers had found to be erroneous were expanded upon.

Although the document now had a list of citations, only two from the more than thirty-five scientific papers suggested in the Chaparral Institute’s comment letter were included. The Institute was taking the lead in organizing public comment on the county’s plan.

In an apparent misunderstanding of how scientific research is used, Oberbauer made a point of stressing that the report had an equal number of citations for Dr. Richard Minnich, a professor of geography at the University of California, Riverside, who supported the county’s views, and Dr. Keeley, whose research did not.

Probably the most bizarre feature of the second draft (and reminiscent of what occurred with the county’s 2003 task force report), was the inclusion of quotations taken from papers by scientists who had published data and/or conclusions that either rejected or raised serious questions about the county’s preferred “mosaic” approach. Most of the quotations were taken out of context and positioned in a way that appeared to support the county’s perspective.

During a limited, two-hour Department of Planning and Land Use meeting on August 14 with county representatives and invited participants, Oberbauer claimed that Dr. Scott Mensing’s work demonstrated that small fires had historically created a fine-grained mosaic across the landscape. When alerted to this afterwards, Mensing wrote back saying, “Whoever is stating that about our paper is misinterpreting it. We wrote about very large fires, not small fires.”

Along with Mensing, two other scientists from the National Park Service, Dr. Marti Witter and Dr. Robert Taylor, wrote to the county indicating their work had been misrepresented. The letters plus additional testimony caused the San Diego County Planning Commission to decide on August 22 to send a memorandum to the Board of Supervisors expressing their concerns about the draft and, as per the Chaparral Institute’s suggestion, indicated that the staff should be given more time to complete the plan.

The 3rd Draft

The third draft was issued on August 27. At first, it appeared to be a significant improvement. Nearly all mention of mixed-aged mosaics had been removed and most of the misconceptions about fire and nature had been eliminated. However, many reviewers concurred that the document’s authors continued to misunderstand several important ecological principles, favor unproven vegetation management techniques, and still failed to address the entire fire risk equation.

In addition, despite being rejected by reviewing scientists, the plan continued to erroneously insist that old-growth chaparral needed to be treated in order to improve “vegetative health.”

The draft was discussed during a Forest Area Safety Taskforce (FAST) meeting the following day at the US Forest Service Palomar Ranger District Office in Ramona. The intent of the meeting was to try and reach a consensus vote of approval for the document.

Concerns were again expressed by Kurt Robleck (US Fish and Wildlife Service), David Lawhead (California Department of Fish and Game), Halsey, and Fege. The plan still pushed for the burning of protected, native landscapes. It insisted that within the county’s protected Multiple Species Conservation Plan lands, “Controlled burns are the favored management tools in the areas that are not part of the urbanizing fringes.”

Robleck called the assumption “questionable.” “Who is this according to?” he asked. “Is this statement valid for all habitat types and fuel loads?”

Oberbauer promised, in exchange for a group consensus vote to approve the document, that he would incorporate changes discussed during the meeting. Besides recording the changes himself, he also requested the changes be submitted in writing by those who expressed them.

The vote to approve was unanimous except for Lawhead. He abstained due to a number of concerns including the fact that he had not been able to properly review the document. The county had not sent out the draft until 4 pm the day before the meeting. Considering the short time frame, it was likely many of the others who voted to approve the plan didn’t have time to read it either.

Robleck, Halsey, and Fege submitted in writing the changes they had requested during the meeting to Oberbauer.

At this point it became clear that the plan (now called a report) could not be completed by the board’s 90-day deadline. After a brief summary was presented to the Board of Supervisors on September 24, 2008, county staff requested another six months to complete the work. Reluctantly, the board approved the extension.

Restricted Discussions

With the additional time, the County Planning Commission directed that a group be formed to discuss “vegetation management options” during two workshops. The workshop participants would include two commissioners, Michael Beck and Adam Day, invited scientists and fire experts, and a facilitator, Tom Scott from the University of California, Riverside. The goal of the first workshop was to come up with a “short list” of vegetation treatments. The second workshop would create a “product including the short list of vegetation management options and criteria for their use.”

The narrow focus of the workshops became an immediate concern. In an email to the county, Halsey wrote, “… it is essential we begin by asking the right question. Namely, ‘How do we protect lives, property, and natural resources from wildfire?’ If we ask instead, ‘How do we do vegetation management?’ we are both limiting and biasing the discussion. This piecemeal approach has plagued our county for a very long time. If we really want to do it right, we need to examine the entire fire-risk reduction equation.”

When the list of 27 invitees was released, there was an immediate negative reaction. The invitee list was skewed in favor of the county’s position. There were five representatives from the county, six fire managers, and seven individuals from the University of California, Riverside, all of which were connected to proponents of the county’s viewpoint. In contrast, there was only one scientist, Dr. Keeley, who had conducted research that raised questions about the county’s favored approach; only one representative from the conservation community, Richard Halsey; and no one from the county’s many land conservancies. There were three representatives from park and wildlife agencies.

After receiving complaints about the composition of the list, the county reconsidered and invited a number of others. The one glaring omission was Wayne Spencer. It appeared as if the county’s boycott of his services after his criticisms of the task force report in 2004 was still in force. When invitee Anne Fege informed the county she would be out of town on the days of the workshops and requested Spencer replace her, the county continued to refuse. However, after several invited participants expressed their outrage and suggested organizing a workshop boycott of their own, the county relented and allowed Spencer to participate.

Prior to the first workshop, a survey was sent to the invitees asking for their views on the county’s options for vegetation management. Many felt the questions reflected an unfortunate bias. Keeley wrote in an email to the facilitator, Tom Scott, “This questionnaire you sent doesn’t give me confidence that science will play a sufficient role in what you have labeled ‘a science advisory panel.’ It seems to suggest decisions have already been made about what is to be done and mostly what is needed at this point is how to do it; crushing, burning or trimming. In short the focus is on tactics for completing work already decided upon and less on whether or not it is even appropriate.”

Dr. Max Moritz, a fire scientist from the University of California, Berkeley, who was one of the added invitees but who couldn’t attend, wrote, “The materials sent so far suggest a quite narrow focus, which will benefit greatly from a more comprehensive and science-based assessment of: 1) all factors related to fire occurrence/behavior, 2) the expected performance of various mitigation efforts, and 3) all of the public goods that both fire and hazard mitigation can impact.”

The first workshop was held November 20, 2008, at the Cleveland National Forest supervisor’s office. More than twenty invitees attended. With Oberbauer taking notes on a large flip chart, the participants discussed a wide range of topics. However, the group did not fulfill the county’s original objective of making a “short list” of vegetation treatments. Instead, the participants forced a discussion to address broader questions.

Although there were definite disagreements, there was consensus on a number of major issues. In particular, the participants felt that, 1) the county must consider the entire fire risk equation because wildland vegetation management alone will not be effective and, 2) that the most effective use of vegetation treatments is directly around communities, not in the backcountry. Unfortunately, neither of these consensus points were reflected in the summary notes Oberbauer wrote and distributed to the participants three weeks later. The participants were never given the opportunity to review and suggest changes to those notes.

The second workshop was held December 2, 2008, at the same time as the Association for Fire Ecology conference was held in San Diego. This time the county was able to maintain the focus on specific vegetation treatment options, from prescribed burning to herbicides. One issue that continued to be stressed by a number of participants was the need for the scientific monitoring of the effectiveness and impacts of any treatment. Such an effort requires money, however, and thus far, long-term monitoring of vegetation treatments has never been accomplished in San Diego County.

As with the first workshop, the session became more a collection of personal opinions instead of a process by which the county could learn from and use the knowledge provided by participating researchers and consultants. For some, the county appeared to be more interested in the number of experts they consulted rather than actually listening to what they had to offer.

The fourth and final draft was released on December 23, 2008.

This is the fifth 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 VI of The Politics of Fire: This is Not it

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