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'Endangered' act blamed for fire

Posted By Sarah Foster On 05/21/2000 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled

The wildfire that has burned over 16,000 acres in Lincoln National
Forest in southern New Mexico — destroying homes and forcing residents
to evacuate — would never have occurred had the U.S. Forest Service not
stopped maintenance crews from doing their job, according to the
director of the local electric cooperative.

Press Photographer Doug Miller on the fire line at the
Scott-Able Fire. The flames had just exploded and Doug was getting set
to make a run for safety. Photo by J. Zane Walley.

The fire began May 11 when high winds, blowing through heavily wooded
Scott Able Canyon near the tiny village of Weed, toppled a decayed aspen
tree, causing it to fall across a power line owned by Otero County
Electric Cooperative, a rural utility company based in Cloudcroft, N.M.

Flames spread quickly through the thick forest underbrush, then
headed towards Weed, consuming everything in their path: homes, timber,
automobiles. Miraculously, the town itself was spared — though some
homes on the outskirts were destroyed. To date, the Scott Able Canyon
fire, which moved on towards other communities, has destroyed a total of
64 homes and 16 outbuildings, with property losses estimated at $2.8
million. Forty-seven 20-person crews have been deployed to battle the
inferno, costing taxpayers $2.9 million for fire-fighting efforts.

U. S. Forest Service employee Kim Knox at the helicopter base.
Helicopter in background is ferrying water to the fire. Cost to
taxpayers: $19,000 per day plus $790.00 per hour. Photo by J. Zane Walley.

From the point of view of locals like Robert Mershon, life-long
Cloudcroft resident and general manager of the electric cooperative, it
was an accident waiting to happen.

“About two years ago we had a contract crew clearing our right of way
along the Sacramento River and the Forest Service ordered us to stop,”
Mershon told WorldNetDaily.

“We have a power line going through the forest,” he explained.
“Trees grow up in it, limbs grow out from the trees. Then there are
dead trees and leaning trees and the fellows were cutting those to keep
them from coming into contact with the power line. It’s not a massive
clearing but it’s something we have to do about every five years
normally. The men were trimming the trees and bushes, keeping
everything clear of the energized conductors. The Forest Service
stopped us at some point short of Scott Able Canyon and it’s my position
that if they hadn’t stopped us, we would have gone in there and cleared
that line.”

Mershon said the Forest Service never gave a formal reason for the
order to stop work, but from conversations and correspondence over the
past seven years, he knew it was based on regulations stemming from the
1973

Endangered Species Act.
Specifically, cutting trees destroys the habitat of the Mexican spotted owl, a federally protected subspecies.

“In our other discussions — of which there have been many during this administration,” Mershon recalled, “they [the Forest Service] always cite the Endangered Species Act and, in some cases, the

National Environmental Policy Act,
as the guidelines they have to go by as the reasons we can’t do this or that — certain things that need to be done — like cutting trees back. That’s the common excuse.”

Contacted by phone, Max Goodwin, District Ranger for Lincoln National Forest, admitted the service had ordered the work stopped and explained that power lines across a national forest require a special use permit, each permit having different specifications. The specifications, he said, are based on “biological evaluations,” and are drafted after mandated consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Forest Service, he said, cannot write those specifications on its own.

In the case of Lincoln National Forest, the utility company is allowed to maintain a cleared swath 30 feet wide — “that’s 15 feet each side of the power line.”

“There’s still grass there, but it’s kept cleared of trees, shrubs and brush,” said Goodwin. The problem is not the swath, but the “hazard trees” — trees outside the 30-foot-wide area that may fall across a line, as the aspen did.

Photographer Doug Miller escapes the fire by going across a burned area. The fire was so hot because of the heavy fuel load that it baked the ground to a depth of several inches. Nothing survived in the hard-hit areas. Photo by J. Zane Walley.

“A tree like that could be cut,” said Goodwin, “but that’s where we run into a problem.”

The specifications of the permit allow only a very limited number of such trees — three to five per mile — to be removed.

“We believe that there are probably more trees than that, that need to be removed, but we haven’t taken that step to present a new biological evaluation,” Goodwin said. “Such things take time and, with everything else going on, we just haven’t gotten around to it.”

According to Goodwin, in order to identify all the hazard trees along the 500 to 600 miles of power lines in the Lincoln National Forest maintained by the cooperative as part of its distribution system, agency biologists would have to walk a long swath, evaluating the trees, writing-up their assessments “mile by mile.”

“That’s what it would take to do the job correctly,” Goodwin said, adding, “We could sure use some help from Congress to implement and enforce the Endangered Species Act — a lot more than what we’re getting. Still, we do the best we can with whatever we’re given.”

But for local residents, the problem that led to the fire goes far deeper than a lack of money from Congress for enforcement of an act they don’t support in the first place. As they see it, the Endangered Species Act — intended to prevent alleged pending extinctions of various plants and animals — has caused the Forest Service to eschew sensible forest management techniques and neglect protection of communities within forest boundaries. The stop-order of maintenance-cutting along a power line was just one incident.

“We’re sitting here in a national forest that’s exploding right beside our community and the Forest Service won’t let you cut a twig out of it,” complained J. Zane Walley — a resident of Ruidoso — in an interview with WorldNetDaily.

Walley, 55, a writer and photographer living in Ruidoso, is also public relations director of the

Paragon Foundation,
a non-profit organization based in Alamogordo, N.M., that advocates private property rights — including those connected with grazing, mining and logging in the national forests. In that role, he has been working to raise public awareness of the situation in New Mexico.

“I’ve just spoken with the county commission and the whole six counties here are saying the Forest Service is endangering our community because it has allowed this fuel buildup,” Walley said. “Everybody agreed totally. The Forest Service has not done what it’s supposed to do.”

Walley explained further, “What happens is, the Forest Service is empowered under the Organic Act of 1897 to do two things: maintain a sustainable timber harvest for the public and provide a healthy watershed for the communities. In both cases, they have to remove excess vegetation — and logging and grazing go a long ways towards doing that. The cow is a terrific mowing machine.

“But, because of the Mexican spotted owl and the southwestern willow flycatcher, they [government agencies] have shut down all logging and are restricting grazing — both of which keep the forest from becoming overloaded. That means the Forest Service cannot do the things it’s required to do. I’m not saying it’s their fault. It’s the fault of the Endangered Species Act.

“In any case, we have a seven-year fuel load here that’s exploded on us,” Walley said.

Weed resident Jay Georgeff couldn’t agree more. He and his wife Natascha lost their home in the inferno that swept the area. They and their four small children have been given shelter by Cindy and James Livers.

Jay and Natascha Georgeff stand in the ruins of their home. “This didn’t have to happen!” stated Jay. Photo by J. Zane Walley.

“This didn’t have to happen,” Georgeff told Walley, who visited the area just days after the fire swept through. “The forest is loaded with downed trees and there has been no logging allowed. … The Forest Service will not even allow citizens to collect fuel wood. We are victims of their poor management.”

Robert and Barbara Simeone and their two teenage daughters, like the Georgeffs, are also living with the Livers.

“We lost our home — it’s totally gone,” Simeone told WorldNetDaily. “Our house had cement walls, so the walls didn’t burn, but that’s all that’s left: the walls, some metal stuff, and ceramic cups and stuff. Other than that, it’s just ashes.”

Simeone said he and his wife had managed to save the family pictures and videotapes, but not much else. “It’s not the dollar value we’re concerned about,” he said. “Insurance will pay that. But it’s the things of sentimental value. We can never replace those.”

As Simeone sees it, “I believe people can get worked-up over a cause, like environmentalism, and not really realize or understand what the impact will be on people. I’ve heard that people over in Sky Ridge lost everything. That’s a little area near Sacramento. I’ve been told that every home is gone — about 40. Up in Los Alamos [in northern New Mexico], something like 260 homes are gone. The owl probably isn’t impacted at all by the fires — but people’s lives certainly are.”

Following a different line of criticism, Michael Nivison, former mayor and now city administrator of Cloudcroft, expressed “consternation” over the recent Forest Service policy of “trying to use and treat the forests like national parks” by outlawing logging and grazing which, in turn, has hurt the ability of counties and local governments to provide expected services.

Logging in the forests has always been done through private companies — large and small — that buy trees through a bidding process. The Forest Service is tasked with conducting the sales and overseeing the logging.

“Not allowing tree-cutting has seriously impacting the tax base of rural counties,” Nivison said. “In the past, communities close by or in the national forests were benefited by people cutting timber. For every dollar received on a tree that came out of a national forest, 25 cents went to the county for roads and 25 cents went for schools. With the elimination of timber cutting, you have school systems having to shut down one day a week.

“Now the agencies are saying, ‘We’ll pay you not to cut trees,’ but that’s really a welfare program and has nothing to do with what an industry does for the local economy,” Nivison observed and, as an example, cited a pending mill-closure in nearby Alamogordo.

“We’ve got a mill there that’s probably going to close within the next year,” he said. “That was an $11 million-a-year mill. It’s now an $8 million-a-year mill. It will be nonexistent because of this inability to cut trees and all those men and women will be out of work.”

But although he has sharp disagreements with current Forest Service policies, Nivison admits to being a “firm believer in the system.”

“A lot of the counties would like to kick the federal government out of the counties and the states,” he said, “But you can get into a good ol’ boy situation with the counties. I think there are checks and balances when the federal government is part of the picture, but the system is all out of whack because, basically, the federal government has figured-out how they can not invite you to the table for local decision-making.”

Nivision also questions the motives of the various environmental groups that are pushing the Forest Service and other agencies to develop the policies now being implemented.

“I really think that when you want no treatment in the forest and yet the biggest hazard for the spotted owl is fire — then I have to ask, are you really interested in saving the owl? Are you really interested in environmentalism? Or, are you interested in moving an agenda?”


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