After one of our readers told us about the video above about the U.S. Forest Service trading away land, we added it.
(Originally published at 1:54 p.m. MDT September 27, 2016)
The four highest ranking politicians in South Dakota are backing legislation that would require the U.S. Forest Service to turn over two of the most beautiful areas of the Black Hills National Forest to the state. In exchange for approximately 2,000 acres, the USFS would receive an equal number of acres from four parcels in three counties scattered around the state. The size of the parcels could be adjusted based on an appraised value.
The South Dakota politicians are trying to take from the federal government two of the crown jewels of the Black Hills National Forest — Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake.
The state wants 1,468 acres in Spearfish Canyon. The road through the canyon, framed by towering 1,000-foot limestone canyon walls, is officially designated as a Scenic Byway. South of the city of Spearfish, it attracts large numbers of visitors to see the fall colors when the aspen turn brilliant yellow in September. One of the best known features is Bridal Veil Falls that cascades down a sheer 60-foot cliff alongside the road as it feeds the creeks that run through the canyon. Hikers enjoy the many trails that meander through the area. Fly fishermen take advantage of the incredibly scenic pools and rapids along the creek.
The second crown jewel the state wants to take from the federal government is 524 acres east of Custer, including Bismarck Lake. With the nearby campground, it is set amidst a scattering of aspen groves and Ponderosa pine at 5,000 feet. The lake supports populations of rainbow and brown trout, a variety of sunfish, smallmouth bass, northern pike, and catfish. At the campground, a short foot trail traverses the forested shoreline, offering opportunities for birding in early morning or picnicking in the afternoon.
The parcels of land the four politicians want to trade for these crown jewels are in the counties of Lyman, Pennington, and Lawrence.
We don’t know exactly where in those counties the land is that the politicians want to trade for the USFS land, but the photo above is a typical scene in central Lyman County in the middle of the state, more than 150 miles east of the Black Hills National Forest.
If the land grab occurs, the state would use Spearfish Canyon to expand its Roughlock Falls Nature Area and designate it as a state park. The 640 acres around Bismarck Lake would be added to Custer State Park.
In written testimony during a Senate hearing last week about the bill, the USFS opposed the transfer of land. Leslie Weldon, the Forest Service’s deputy chief of the National Forest System, wrote, “the bill is unnecessary and contains provisions that raise concerns.”
“Normally in a land exchange process, just like in a real estate transaction, you have a willing buyer, a willing seller, or at least two willing parties, and you have a mutually beneficial agreement,” said Mark Van Every, forest supervisor for the Black Hills National Forest. “And in this particular case, we don’t believe that this land exchange is mutually beneficial.”
Van Every said the Forest Service has invested heavily in both the Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake areas, from campgrounds to trails and more. In addition to that predicted revenue loss, he said the Forest Service was not consulted on the bill.
“The state of South Dakota has proven time and again that it can preserve and protect South Dakota’s natural resources while providing unparalleled outdoor experiences that attract people from across the state and nation,” said Senator Thune. “I’m confident this track record will lend itself to creating similar opportunities in the Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake areas once this land exchange is completed.”
Senator John Thune and Representative Kristi Noem are up for reelection in November.
Senator John Thune has been critical of federal firefighters previously.
A U.S. Senator has proposed an amendment to introduced legislation that would require additional procedures before federal agencies could conduct a prescribed fire. Senator John Thune from South Dakota wants to require consultation with local and state fire officials before the project begins. One of his reasons is that he contends local and state officials know more than the federal professional prescribed fire managers.
“Local officials are going to know a little bit more about what the conditions are in the area”, Senator Thune said in a newsletter distributed by his office on September 15.
This requirement has been offered as an amendment to a Republican backed bill introduced by Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas June 22, 2016, titled S.3085 – Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act of 2016. Senator Thune contends that the amendment was adopted by unanimous consent during a Senate Agriculture Committee markup, but no official action after the introduction is showing up at bill-tracking websites. After three months the bill has no cosponsors, and GovTrack.us predicts a 2 percent chance of it being enacted.
The primary purpose of the bill is to eliminate some environment restrictions for planned “forest management activities”. The list of these activities is long and vague enough to cover a very wide range of land treatments, including timber harvesting.
Senator Thune advocated his consultation procedure before when he introduced a stand-alone bill in 2015. It had one cosponsor and never advanced beyond being introduced. Apparently the powerful Senator did not work hard to promote his idea, or perhaps he only wanted some publicity.
Senator Thune has generated publicity before in matters regarding prescribed fire. In 2015 he distributed to the media a strongly-worded very critical letter he sent to the Secretary of the Interior after the Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota escaped, burning an additional 5,420 acres of prairie. It never spread beyond the park boundaries.
Four days after the escape and months before the official report came out, the Senator was apparently very satisfied that he knew exactly the cause, writing to the Secretary, “The Cold Brook Fire could easily have been prevented”, and “the intense smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves in the vicinity resulting in high risk of pneumonia and death loss.”
Ready. Fire. Aim.
The escaped fire was in grass and ground fuels beneath scattered trees that had been treated with prescribed fire before, and there was no significant crowning. It was basically over after one afternoon, but that didn’t stop Senator Thune from prognosticating about the lung condition of calves outside the park.
The National Park Service has released a “Facilitated Learning Analysis” (FLA) for the prescribed fire that escaped in Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota April 13, 2015. The Cold Brook prescribed fire spotted almost 200 feet across U.S. Highway 385 burning an unplanned 5,420 acres beyond the 1,000 acres planned, all within the boundaries of the park. There were no injuries and no structures or private property burned. (In the interest of full disclosure, for five years the writer of this article was the Fire Management Officer for the NPS’ Northern Great Plains Fire Management Group which includes Wind Cave NP.)
During the suppression action an all terrain vehicle with two people on board overturned. It was destroyed immediately by the approaching fire as the firefighters “jogged side-slope away from the fire until they had sufficient visibility to see their escape route safely into the black.” The line gear belonging to one of the two firefighters was consumed in the fire, since he did not have time to retrieve it from the tipped-over vehicle as the fire bore down.
The 72-hour preliminary report on the incident stated that the FLA would be “due to the NPS Midwest Regional Director by May 29, 2015”. The report that was released through the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center is dated today.
The document, which you can download here (9 Mb), is long (62 pages of small font) and quite thorough. It delves deeply, very deeply, into the on site weather and long term weather records, as expected, and explores in detail the use of ATVs on prescribed burns and wildfires. In addition to discussion of the fire-related aspects of the analysis, the four writers, from the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service, recommended that the “Technology and Development” program develop a wildland fire standard for equipment, configuration and performance of motorized off-highway vehicles.
The report includes a link to a time-lapse video, unlisted on YouTube, which I had not previously seen. Below is, first, a screen grab from the video, which we annotated, and after that the video itself. At 0:30, it goes by very quickly, but you can see the spot fire taking off.
It may just be the time compression of the video, but it appears that the ignition within a few hundred feet of the highway, including the patches of pines, was aggressive. A gust of wind that occurred as a patch of pines were burning intensely laid the smoke down close to the ground just before the spot fire became visible. The firefighters had expected that if there were spot fires on the east side, it would be short range and in grass, easily suppressed. In the video, it appears possible that burning embers could have been lofted from the patches of timber that burned intensely, rather than grass spotting into grass. Embers from heavy fuels and standing trees can travel much farther than from grass.
There are no earth-shaking revelations in the report. As is typical with FLAs, it has a long list of “notable successes”. Here are a few:
The fire remained within the park boundaries.
No structures burned.
Training and experience led to a smooth transition to suppression.
In spite of the escape, they still completed the prescribed fire.
Interagency involvement, response and support for both the prescribed and wildfire side of operations was quick and supportive with no delays.
Knowing that a Red Flag Warning was in the forecast for the next day, they aggressively staffed the night shift in order to pick up the escape, knowing that if they failed it would be difficult to acquire adequate staffing for the next day. They stopped the spread that night, therefore large numbers of resources were not needed the next day.
A sampling of some of the issues identified in the report:
There was pressure from the Chief of Resources in the Park to complete the burn that day.
There was a perceived need to burn on the high end of the prescription in order to achieve the desired level of tree mortality.
There were not enough firefighting resources on the east side of the burn when the escape occurred. More emphasis was placed on the south and west sides near the park boundary, areas with heavier fuels, where they figured escapes were more likely and would have serious consequences if they spread outside the park.
Because of drought, fuels were abnormally dry.
Before the project began, the Burn Plan was amended and approved, reducing the number of personnel required from 52 to 30. On the day of the burn 38 were assigned.
Staffing levels in fire management at Wind Cave NP have suffered reductions, as has most of the NPS, but there has been no reduction in expectations for the accomplishment of prescribed fires in Wind Cave or the other seven parks the Fire Management Officer is responsible for.
The Fire Management Officer reports to eight different park superintendents, all with different expectations, similar burn windows, and priorities for burning.
The eight-foot high bison-proof fence on the western boundary of the park and the burn unit would have required that if firefighters were about to be entrapped by the fire or if there was a spot fire across it, they would have to scale the fence. The location of the fence, and the boundary on that side of the project, was not easy to defend.
Some of the personnel interviewed for the report were disappointed that there was no After Action Review after the escaped fire.
Everyone assigned to the incident was qualified for their positions, except for one person whose Work Capacity Test expired four days before the prescribed fire.
The rollover of the ATV was the second one at the Park in three years. About 13 years ago another ATV caught fire on a prescribed fire in the Park and was destroyed, but did not roll over.
ATV training does not include learning to operate the vehicle on the fireline.
The Ag Pumps used on the ATVs on the incident had been switched out for Mini-strikers which do not provide enough power to be successful during aggressive suppression activities.
We have one criticism of the report, which is otherwise quite good. The maps are difficult to read. This is partially caused by the very dark background satellite image which does not add value but instead makes the maps, at least as they are represented in the .pdf document and viewed on a computer screen, almost useless. They might be more usable if printed, but who prints a 62-page report anymore? Unfortunately, maps are an integral part of documents like this.
One segment of the report that is interesting is that after acknowledging that risk is involved in prescribed fire, the authors wrote, “If you choose not to accept the risk of prescribed fire, then you may be transferring risk” to communities, the public, private lands, natural resources, or a situation that is significantly less manageable than the current situation such as a wildfire.
About four days after the incident South Dakota’s senior Senator, John Thune, sent a very strongly-worded letter to the Secretary of the Interior using phrases like “could easily have been prevented”, “jeopardizing lives and property”, “smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves”, and demanding that reimbursement is made quickly to “private individuals, landowners, and local, county, and state entities who suffered economic losses”. Ready, Fire, Aim.
One of the conclusions identified in the report is:
The ignition of the prescribed fire was within the prescription parameters set forth in the prescribed fire plan, it was not ignited during a fire weather watch or warning and the burn was expected to be completed prior to the next day, April 14th.
The Senator also has introduced a bill that would require “collaboration with state government and local fire officials before a prescribed burn could be started on federal land when fire danger is at certain levels in the area of the prescribed burn”.
The report has an entire section, Appendix Five, titled “Interagency Communication and Comment”. Here is an excerpt:
Interagency support for the prescribed fire program at Wind Cave National Park is strong, and the lead interviewer stated she heard “a tremendous amount of support” in the interviews she conducted. It is of note that the Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center was one of the first in the nation to fully support not only Federal agencies, but the state of South Dakota as well, beginning in 2003. Since the Center serves as the central ordering point all agencies, communication is streamlined, and resource availability is better known to all the partners.
It was apparent to all Team members that NPS staff has put a great deal of effort into the Interagency working relationships over the years and are considered professional partners.
Senator John Thune of South Dakota had a video edited that stars him as he makes statements and asks questions during a committee hearing about forestry issues. The hearing occurred July 16 before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. The panelist in the video is Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment.
Mr. Thune was pushing Senate Bill 1100 that he is sponsoring (without any co-sponsors) titled Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2015. You can see the entire hearing HERE (it starts at 17:00). Mr. Thune’s edited version is below.
In the video, he said, referring to two recent escaped prescribed fires on federal land in South Dakota, [The agencies]….”had no business in a couple of these circumstances starting fires given the weather conditions that were existing at the time, and people at the local level would know that. So all we’re asking for is consultation at the front end before this happens and work with folks and get their sign-off and then on the back end when something like this happens a response that is timely, expedited and effective.”
The Senator got fired up after two recent large escaped prescribed fires in South Dakota. In 2013 the Pasture 3B prescribed fire escaped in the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands in northern South Dakota. It was planned at 210 acres, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.
More recently, on April 13, 2015 the Cold Brook prescribed fire, which was planned as a 1,000-acre project in Wind Cave National Park in southwest South Dakota, spotted across U.S. Highway 385 and burned 5,420 acres of park land outside of the intended burn unit. The escape was entirely within the boundaries of Wind Cave National Park. A few days later Mr. Thune sent a strongly worded letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel criticizing the National Park Service for the escaped prescribed fire.
The legislation the Senator is pushing is not lengthy, but has some interesting requirements, such as, a prescribed fire can’t be executed on federal land if the grassland fire danger index indicates a high, very high, or extreme danger of grassland fire, or if the Chief of the Forest Service has declared very high or extreme fire danger. However, the project could still be carried out “if the head of the Federal agency obtains prior approval from the applicable State government and local fire officials”.
And there’s this: “A head of a Federal agency that authorizes a prescribed burn shall be liable for any damage to private property caused by the prescribed burn, notwithstanding chapter 171 of title 28, United States Code (commonly known as the “Federal Tort Claims Act”) or any State law.” The proposed bill also says damages must be paid within 120 days of receipt of a substantiated claim.
These provisions raise a few questions. The grassland fire danger index is exclusively designed to predict the potential for non-agricultural grasslands to carry fire. This could be a useful indicator for prescribed fires in grasses, but not necessarily for projects in other fuel types and elevations.
And I am not aware of the Chief of the Forest Service making a proclamation establishing a daily fire danger rating.
I am no attorney, but it appears that the legislation, if it becomes law, would make the head of agencies personally liable for damages resulting from escaped prescribed fires. If so, and if they would not be automatically reimbursed, it could be difficult to entice anyone to accept those positions.
The text of Senate Bill 1100 introduced by Senator John Thune is not yet available; the passage above was included in a newsletter distributed by his office on April 29.
Our position is that it is very appropriate for the legislative Branch to provide oversight of actions taken by the Executive Branch of government. However, that oversight should NOT be a knee-jerk reaction based on the quick assumptions and guesses of a Senator about what caused a particular outcome. Wait until the facts are in, THEN provide reasoned advice based on science.
An example of a Senator’s ready-fire-aim approach to fix a perceived problem is Senator Maria Cantwell’s and Representative Doc Hastings’ hastily conceived Public Law 107-203 in 2002 following the Thirtymile Fire that killed four firefighters. That bill resulted in the firefighters’ crew boss being charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter. The law destroyed the process of obtaining information about the cause and prevention of serious accidents on the fireline. We hope that Senator Thune is not following in Senator Cantwell’s ill-conceived footsteps.
Politicians should take a breath, and resist the overwhelming temptation to criticize the administration of the other party before the facts are known.
Below is a press release from the office of Senator Thune:
“Thune Introduces Bill to Prevent Reckless Prescribed Burns on Federal Lands
U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) last night introduced a bill that would require collaboration between federal and local officials before initiating a prescribed burn on federal lands when fire danger is high. Thune’s bill follows two prescribed burns in South Dakota in the past two years that have burned out-of-control, one set by the Forest Service (FS) in northwestern South Dakota known as the Pautre Fire and most recently one set by the National Park Service (NPS) on April 13, 2015, known as the Cold Brook Fire at Wind Cave National Park.
“Over the past two years, the federal government has twice exercised a complete disregard for imminent fire danger by starting prescribed burns under unsafe conditions in South Dakota,” said Thune. “The Pautre Fire caused extensive property losses and both fires required multiple firefighting units, equipment, and personnel to fight the out-of-control fires. It is reasonable to require federal agencies to collaborate with state governments and local fire officials before setting prescribed burns under these conditions, and that is exactly what my bill would do.”
Both prescribed burns in South Dakota were started under extremely dry conditions. Thune’s bill looks to address numerous issues that came about as a result of these fires. Under Thune’s bill, the Cold Brook Fire would not have been set due to the restrictions on prescribed burns during dry conditions unless state and local officials had consented. Additionally, if this bill had been enacted at the time of the Pautre Fire, individuals impacted by out-of-control burns would be reimbursed for their damages in a timely manner. Pautre fire victims still have not been reimbursed by the FS, nor has the FS accepted fault.
Thune’s bill, the Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2015, would require the head of a federal agency to first collaborate and obtain approval from state government and local fire officials if the Grassland Fire Danger Index indicates a high, very high, or extreme fire danger or the FS has declared very high or extreme fire danger. Thune’s bill also stipulates that should a federal agency proceed with a prescribed burn that damages private property, it is liable for any damage to private property caused by the burn, with damages to be paid within 120 days of receipt of a substantiated claim.
South Dakota Senator John Thune sent a strongly worded letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel criticizing the National Park Service for the escaped prescribed fire, (the Cold Brook Fire in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota), that burned 5,420 acres of NPS land outside of the intended burn unit. The escape was entirely within the boundaries of Wind Cave National Park.
In the letter, Senator Thune makes assumptions about the cause of the escape, citing “extremely dry conditions”, and saying it “could easily have been prevented”.
Below is the complete text of Senator Thune’s letter to Secretary Jewel, and below that the response from the NPS:
“On April 13, 2015, the National Park Service Forest Service (NPS) conducted a prescribed burn in the southern portion of Wind Cave National Park, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The prescribed burn was intended to cover 1,100 acres; however, due to the extremely dry conditions present at the prescribed burn site the fire, named the Cold Brook Fire, quickly escalated out of control consuming more than 6,500 acres of Wind Cave National Park.
In certain circumstances prescribed burns play an important role in federal lands management. However, when a prescribed burn is the recommended management tool, intentionally setting one for any reason in tinder dry forestland or grassland when extremely dry conditions exist is entirely unwarranted and inexcusable and once started has a high likelihood of burning out of control. Historically, carelessly set prescribed burns have resulted in unnecessary endangerment of firefighters, and have destroyed homes, personal property, and public lands.
I strongly urge a thorough and critical review of the Department’s prescribed burn policies and collaboration with local and state authorities and adjacent landowners prior to initiating any future burn. The current prescribed burn practice of following a “prescription” checklist before starting a fire obviously is not adequately preventing prescribed burns from being set in unsafe conditions that are resulting in out-of-control wildfires. There is an urgent need for you to do more to ensure that prescribed burns can continue to be used as a management tool without jeopardizing lives and property.
I fully expect the Department of Interior to assume complete liability for any damages caused as a result of the Cold Brook Fire. Even though the fire was contained to Wind Cave National Park property, I have been informed that fire lines were established on private property and that the intense smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves in the vicinity resulting in high risk of pneumonia and death loss.
Within 30 days please provide me with a detailed plan for reimbursement to all who were damaged due to this fire, including private individuals, landowners, and local, county, and state entities who suffered economic losses or contributed resources to fighting this fire. Included in the requested plan please provide how claims will be established and processed, and the timeline for reimbursement.
The Cold Brook Fire could easily have been prevented and I strongly urge you to take whatever actions necessary to prevent future occurrences. I fully expect the Department to accept full responsibility and liability for the damages, losses, and expenses due to this fire.”
A day or two after receiving Senator Thune’s letter, the National Park Service issued this response:
“The National Park Service has performed thousands of prescribed burns over the past decades and successfully burned millions of acres as a way to prevent more catastrophic wildfires. It is unfortunate that the fire at Wind Cave escaped prescribed boundaries, but no lives were lost and no structures burned. The fire was almost wholly contained within the boundaries of the park, with a small section of U.S. Forest Service property burned (20 x 20 yards). The fire did not burn onto private land. We are dedicated to determining what happened in this particular instance and will begin the review process immediately. We will share the outcome of that review process with the Congressional delegation, community members and other partners in order to help determine how to prevent similar occurrences in the future.”