In 2001 a fire in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area threatened homes near Wilson, including those at the upscale Crescent H Ranch on the forest edge. No buildings were lost in the battle, but the firefighting effort cost $12 million. (courtesy Jonathan Adams)

WILSON — Conservationists are fighting the Bridger-Teton National Forest over a plan to cut down or burn trees on 22 square miles above Wilson where wilderness rules are in place.

The “mechanical thinning” and prescribed fires proposed across more than 14,000 acres would reduce the threat of wildfires to Wilson and its larger neighborhood, the Forest Service proposal says. The Teton to Snake Fuels Management project also would eventually enable managers to allow natural fires to burn in the steep, sprawling Palisades Wilderness Study Area. It’s a place where natural forces are supposed to reign.

But it’s those wilderness rules, among other things, that are causing conservationists to balk. Wilderness areas are supposed to be places, as one advocate said, “where the hand of man has never set foot.” To many that means no chainsaw logging and widespread man-made fires.

“This is not an optional choice for the Forest Service to make,” said Ann Harvey, a biologist and activist who has lived in the area for decades. “Congress gave very clear, specific instructions. The Forest Service is to administer the Palisades Wilderness Study Area so as to maintain its presently existing wilderness characteristics and potential for inclusion in the national wilderness preservation system. Mechanical thinning violates both those standards.”

Such talk frustrates Andy Norman, the forest fuels specialist with the Bridger-Teton who spoke up at a presentation sponsored by the Wyoming Wilderness Association last week in Wilson. The Wilson hamlet is surrounded by subdivisions developed in the fire-threatened “wildland-urban interface.” Analysts count 1,597 private lots within a half-mile of the forest boundary.

“These are the cards we are dealt,” Norman said. “We have all the houses and I don’t think those people are going to move.” The Teton-to-Snake project, named because it would stretch from Grand Teton National Park to the Snake River south of Jackson Hole, would help resolve the danger, the Forest Service believes.

This map shows the areas where prescribed fire and mechanical thinning would take place in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area, according to the proposed Teton to Snake Fuels Management program. Critics say the Bridger-Teton National Forest should not use such a heavy hand. It would be better, they say, if residents protected their homes by creating defensible spaces and taking other precautions. (Bridger-Teton National Forest)

Norman wants fires to play their natural role in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area. The Bridger-Teton has one of the most aggressive wildfire programs in the country, he said. The Teton-to-Snake project seeks to allow natural fires, especially in wilderness areas that surround Jackson Hole. Bridger-Teton officials want to do the same in the Snake River Range just south of Teton Pass.

“How do we let natural fires burn and meet social needs of people outside [the forest boundary]?” Norman asked last week’s wilderness assembly in Wilson. The Bridger-Teton can’t allow a wildfire to get up a head of steam in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area and roll into subdivisions, he said. “The Forest Service,” the draft thinning plan says, “is bound by law and policy to be a good neighbor.”

Tony town in the path of danger

Wilsonites live in an enchanted community that offers it all. They can roll out of bed to a choice of a morning latte at Pearl Street Bagels or huevos rancheros at Nora’s Fish Creek Inn. There’s easy access to the Snake River for a cutthroat-trout excursion and two elite golf courses just up the road. Those who can’t afford the memberships and greens fees can ride mountain bikes over miles of trails on Teton Pass.

All its charm and easygoing ways obscure a frightening time in 2001, however. That summer the man-caused Green Knoll Fire ignited the horizon south of town and forced some 300 people from their homes. Only a $12-million firefighting effort that saw $5 million in aerial attack costs kept homes and outbuildings from burning.

The Green Knoll Fire put the Bridger-Teton on notice that a fire in the Snake River Range could overwhelm parts of the Wilson community. “Fires are routinely suppressed in the wilderness study area at this time because the existing fuels conditions create an unacceptably high risk of fire burning onto adjacent private land,” the Forest Service proposal says.

Firefighting is dangerous, too, the plan says, and costs are increasing. Aggressive firefighting can harm soil, water, wildlife and other natural resources. Fire managers’ worries about burning homes upends the natural, wilderness condition, “because fire cannot be left to operate freely as a natural ecosystem function,” the draft study says.

The 134,000-acre Palisades Wilderness Study Area faces a baffling dilemma; to preserve wilderness qualities — which include wildfire — the Forest Service must first violate wilderness qualities by logging and setting man-made fires. “This rationale is very hard to understand, Sierra Club representative Lloyd Dorsey said.

Firefighters sprayed this building with foam to protect it from the Green Knoll Fire above Wilson in 2001. The Bridger-Teton National Forest wants fires to play their natural roles in the nearby Palisades Wilderness Study Area but only after thinning the forest to give firefighters a better chance at protecting forest-edge homes. (courtesy Jonathan Adams)

Forest Service officials is, if nearby homes were not a factor, the agency would welcome natural fires in the wilderness area — even large fires. Forest Service Jackson District Ranger Dale Deiter attended the presentation at the Old Wilson Schoolhouse and later defended the Teton-to-Snake proposal in an interview. “There’s already fuel treatment being done in designated wildernesses in California,” he said. “We have to have a reasonable expectation that the [wilderness] fire we’re trying to manage — [that] we can keep it on Forest Service lands. If you don’t, that has cost implications for the state and county. It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to say ‘We’ve really enjoyed our fire, we hope you like it as much.’”

Despite the strict language of the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act, the Forest Service cites the original wilderness law to support its proposal. In congressionally designated wilderness “such measures may be taken as may be necessary in the control of fire…” the act says. The thinning and burning proposed would disrupt wilderness character in the short term. “[W]ilderness character would improve in the long term due to less fire suppression and the increased ability to use light-hand tactics when fires must be suppressed,” it says.

Will thinning even work?

The Wyoming Wilderness Association raised another question at its presentation. Will the Forest Service plan even work? To debate that issue, it invited George Wuerthner, an ecologist with a degree in wildlife biology and a critic of federal fire policies. “He often challenges the dominant paradigm,” Harvey said as she introduced him.

Wuerthner’s advice to the Forest Service — “Don’t give a false impression you’re going to stop a severe fire.” It is better to spend efforts fireproofing homes than thinning the forest miles away. “I realize it’s a tough call,” he said. But there are too many misconceptions about wildfires and forests that cause people to take the wrong actions, Wuerthner said.

Central among misconceptions is that years of fire suppression have led to unhealthy forests clogged with deadfall and underbrush, he says. The idea grew from a natural fire regime in a ponderosa pine forest in the southwest. If smaller fires had burned more frequently, the idea goes, the large stand-replacing blazes would not occur or would be less dangerous.

Harvey agreed that the idea has been transplanted to the wrong area. “The Yellowstone ecosystem is not considered to be in that category,” she said. “That isn’t how forests here have ever been. Our forests are not overgrown. There’s nothing out of whack about these forests. We don’t need ‘restoring.’”

Large fires themselves are not bad, Wuerthner said. “We still have the attitude that wildfire — large, severe wildfires — are detrimental to the forest ecosystem,” he said. Politicians talk about “fixing unhealthy forests,” to prevent large fires, he said. “The assumption is if you have a large fire, that’s somehow abnormal.”

George Wuerthner has challenged conventional thinking about forest fires, saying large fires are natural in the Yellowstone ecosystem and should be allowed to continue. Fuel buildup is less a factor in large fires than are climate and weather, especially wind. He agreed the U.S. Forest Service faces a sticky wicket in dealing with the Palisades Wilderness Study Area above Wilson. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

An accompanying assumption is that by thinning the forest, large fires can be avoided. But factors other than fuel are more important, Wuerthner said. Climate and weather — wind especially — are primary factors driving large fires, he said. “You cannot fire-proof the forest.”

For example, in Yellowstone during the epic fires of 1988, drought and low humidity combined to make the forests flammable. But wind was the critical component of the conflagrations. Although the fires burned from June through September, 50 percent of the acreage burned in only four days when wind blew wildly, Wuerthner said. Thinning and creating fire breaks are ineffective, maybe even counterproductive, when the large fires rage, Wuerthner said.

A report on the Fourmile Canyon Fire in Colorado said as much. “In some cases treated stands burned more intensely than adjacent untreated stands, perhaps because of additional surface fuels present as a result of the thinning and higher wind speeds that can occur in open forests compared to those with denser canopies.”

Deiter disagreed. “I’ve personally seen those work,” he said of fire breaks. “They’re doing it all across the West as we speak,” he said of forest thinning. “Even under the most extreme conditions, at least you could make a stand and light a back-burn.”

Live trees are more flammable

Wuerthner also rejects the notion that dead trees — like beetle-killed timber — are fire hazards, Especially once they lose their needles. “Under severe conditions, live trees are more flammable than dead trees,” Wuerthner said.

Yet many people support “salvage logging” in beetle-killed forests, an uneconomic practice, Wuerthner says. “There’s a lot of political pressure for people to do these things,” he said. Instead, forest-edge homeowners’ best chance is to make their lots and houses fire-proof. “These agencies cannot be held responsible for homes burning down,” Wuerthner said.

Firefighters at the schoolhouse meeting said less than 10 percent of homes in Teton County’s wildland-urban interface are protected to fire-wise standards. In 2010 the county adopted stringent construction fire codes for wildland-urban interface zone. Standards go so far as to require  screening on vented portions of roofs so embers aren’t sucked or blown in by air currents..

Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based nonprofit, has said costly fire-fighting efforts in the West will continue to be unsustainable if communities allow development in the wildland-urban interface. If local governments had to pay for firefighting costs, they would institute stringent zoning instead of adding to the problem, the report suggests. (Click here for an interactive map of the wildland-urban interface in the West.)

NASA shot these pictures of the area around Jackson Hole on July 27, 2001, when the Green Knoll Fire raged. The pictures, actually Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer images, show the extent of mountains and forests west of the Jackson Hole valley. (NASA Earth Observatory)

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack rejected that Headwaters position while in Jackson earlier this summer. Firefighting is an appropriate federal responsibility — it needs to be funded differently, he said. Everyone agrees with Vilsack, however that homeowners need to act responsibly.

“There’s a joint responsibility,” Vilsack said. Communities need to be smart by “making sure whatever construction takes place is basically fire-wise. People have to be sensible.”

Finally, Wuerthner also argues that large fires are required to maintain ecosystems. “Large fires are a major source of biodiversity,” he said. Dead trees are more important to the forest ecosystem than live trees, he said. Forty-five percent of all birds depend on dead wood. Rotten logs are lunch counters for ant-eating bears. Rotting wood adds richness to the soil “Removing [dead trees] impoverishes the forest,” Wuerthner said.

People who want to comment can do so through Oct. 5 via this Forest Service website. They also can contact fire officer Steve Markason (307) 739 – 5431.

Intense interest in Teton-to-Snake

There might be intense interest in the Teton-to-Snake project because of its size inside the 209-square-mile Palisades Wilderness Study area. “There’s also been a feeling I’ve gotten that we don’t do what we need to maintain the wilderness character,” Deiter said.

For example, the Teton-to-Snake proposal was set back when critics charged that the Forest Service hadn’t properly mapped the Palisades Wilderness Study Area boundary. That was more than 25 years after the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act. Conservationists have successfully challenged commercial helicopter skiing in the study area. Also, they are miffed that the Forest Service sanctioned a downhill mountain bike trail on Teton Pass after cyclists created, then popularized it.

Deiter said he believes he shares the same vision as conservationists for what happens in the heart of the area in the long run: “My goal is to have minimum interference,” he said. Wilderness Watch, a Montana group, suggested how minimum that should be in quoting Howard Zahniser, the author of the Wilderness Act of 1964. “We should be guardians,” Zahniser wrote, “not gardeners.”

A helicopter drops water on the Green Knoll Fire in 2001. Only a $5-million aerial effort, plus $7 million in other firefighting activities, saved homes from the blaze. (courtesy Jonathan Adams)

While in Jackson earlier this summer Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack complained that the U.S. Forest Service can’t complete some of its programs when it is forced to pay for fighting large fires.

“Congress does not appropriate the resources to help us suppress fire,” Vilsack said. The consequence is that the agency must fight fires with money it had targeted for forest-thinning projects themselves.

“You absolutely cannot do the work everybody wants us to do,” some of which seek to reduce fire danger, he said. “There’s a very good chance we will have to borrow from these restoration and resiliency accounts,” he said at the start of this summer’s fire season.

Instead of taking firefighting funds out of its operating budget in severe seasons, the agency should have an emergency account that would cover the largest incidents — “the top one, two percent of fires,” Vilsack said. The result would be an agency that could better plan and do its job, instead of having its programs succeed or fail based on annual firefighting costs. “That would allow us to have certainty,” Vilsack said. The Forest Service made its case earlier this month with the publication of a paper titled The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations.

U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) said recently he would investigate a solution to the problem.

“Congress needs to find a fiscally responsible solution to wildfire funding and fire borrowing,” he said in a statement. “We need a focused discussion on this issue and I plan to begin the conversation with key offices and states — Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, Alaska, Washington, California, Nevada, Montana, Colorado and others that would like to join and will be constructive to its resolution. I look forward to working with my colleagues on a durable and long-lasting solution that fits our fiscal priorities and is responsible budgeting.”

UPDATE: Bridger-Teton National Forest Supervisor Patricia O’Connor has extended the comment period for the Teton to Snake fuels reduction project proposal. The new comment deadline is Oct. 5, 2015, and this story now reflects that. O’Connor extended the comment period in response to requests. In a letter to interested citizens, she said accurate maps of the Palisades Wilderness Study Area were not posted until Aug. 20. The new comment deadline reflects a 46-day period from that posting. — Ed

Read these related WyoFile stories:
USFS chief opposes Barrasso’s forest health bill, July 21, 2015
Report: Climate change likely to kill Yellowstone forests, June 9, 2015
Retired firefighters; wildland colleagues in danger, July 22, 2014
Firefighter safety started in Wyoming, July 22, 2014
Campaign launched to shift forest firefighting costs, July 15, 2014

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. If I had limited money to spend, the best investment in this situation would be to improve fire resistance of homes near the wilderness study area. And this money should come from the beneficiaries, the homeowners, not the general public or federal government. Also, what kind of forest is it — lodgepole, or ponderosa, or something else?. Lodgepole doesn’t really benefit from thinning to reduce fire risk, whereas ponderosa might, if done properly. Backfiring in the event of a fire is still an option even without spending all that money on thousands of acres of low priority timber cutting. And the FS should respect wilderness study area protocols. I should know; I was the FS Deputy Chief.

    Jim Furnish

  2. in Jackson ” Circus Eco Maximus” Hole??? Critical rich people habitat vs the wild. Let the ‘games’ begin!

    Paul Cook

  3. The area around Wilson WY is just a petri dish in which to examine the pandemic of debilitation of western forest management in the past three decades – IF you are using the obsolete early 20th century wildfire playbook and policy manual. Let’s face it. here in the 21st century the Forest Service is now the nation’s largest rural-exurban fire department. It takes half or more of their annual budget, to the expense of everything else the Forest Service should be doing , but is not. Congress has failed to replenish that budget , and truth be told wants to starve the agency. ( E. g. thank you Senator Barrasso for your insidious forest health bill , a massive unfunded mandate) To be fair this is not a new development with USFS…the agency began diverting actual day to day logistical operations away from the forest themselves to indoor desk work…fewer trails cleared, more paper and screen analyses of projects and bureaucratic make-work , before the wake up call of the Yellowstone Fires of ’88. My Shoshone Forest surrounding Cody is suffering severe neglect these days, only a generation removed from once commendable backcountry management and actual silvaculture . Nowhere is that more apparent than wildfire work —or the lack of it. Call it PowerPointitis.

    The Perfect Storm of climate change breeding landscape scale fire conditions; the Forest Service’s own self-inflicted atrophy in doing actual longterm land management ; and the overarching politics that push the narrow special interests to the front burner , by fiat, without considering the consequences — all that has brought us to the current state of affairs. No better example of that than Barrasso’s proposed forest bill. Yet the reality is the federal government and the States have gone past the point of being able to physically grapple with wildfires, with or without the National Guard to help. The fires are ” winning” because they’ve exhausted the ability of government to meet them head on —from the Hollywood Hills to Wilson WY.

    The only solution is for the people themselves to completely unlearn everything they thought they knew or could expect from governments with respect to wildfires , and accept the new paradigm of climate-driven firestorms everywhere in the West.

    The Firebirds have come home to roost. Your McMansions will burn. Don’t expect the government to save yours…they’re overwhelmed and underfunded. There isn’t anywhere near enough manpower and mechanical equipment to handle the level of wildfires now , and that will only get ” worse”. Like it or not, we have a new defacto national wildfire policy called ” Let Burn”. The planet is compensating thus and so for the follies of a certain upright walking primate that is overruning the world.

    Dewey Vanderhoff

  4. Ignore Wuerthner, he is putting out bad information. It is impossible to “fireproof” a home but you can make it fire-resistant; see my book “The Fire Smart Home Handbook: Preparing for and Surviving the Threat of Wildfire” for full details. While it’s true that you can’t fireproof a forest either, with proper mitigation the fire can be kept on the surface and out of the crown. He is correct that beetle-killed forests are not more flammable than live trees but that is besides the point that mechanical thinning and prescribed fire is proven effective. He also mischaracterizes the problems with the Fourmile Canyon Fire, which same within a half mile of our house, since that was a mishmash of mitigation with hundreds of slash piles not a well-planned project. Your lodgepole/spruce/fir forest indeed has a very different fire regime from our ponderosa/doug-fir. That doesn’t mean mitigation is wrong, only that the techniques are a bit different. You WILL have a fire someday and it WILL go big because that’s what lodgepole does. Your community has a much better chance of surviving and maintaining the healthy forest with the Teton-to-Snake project, plus creating survivable space for your homes. Good luck!

    Clyde Soles

  5. Currently not enough people and equipment to fight all fires in Washington, some areas out of luck.

    Edna ELZE