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Judge says state must reevaluate forest fire prevention program

By Don Thompson The Associated Press
Tuesday January 08, 2002

SACRAMENTO — California must re-evaluate a decades-old forest fire prevention program in which the state paid for controlled burns on private land, a judge ruled Monday. 

The state isn’t adequately gauging the environmental affects caused by participating private landowners who are likely to use herbicides to control re-growth once an area is burned, ruled San Francisco Superior Court Judge David Garcia. 

Louis Blumberg, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, couldn’t immediately say if the department would comply or appeal the decision. 

He called the vegetation management program “a critical part of our fire prevention efforts” that has burned an average of 37,000 acres a year for 20 years. The state has conducted the burns for more than 50 years, he said, and last year burned 65 plots totaling 23,700 acres at a cost of $125 to $150 per acre. 

“For every dollar we spend on prevention, we save $8 to $12 down that line that we would be spending on fire suppression,” Blumberg said. 

But Patty Clary of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATS), one of the groups that brought the suit, called the program “a timber company welfare program.” 

The state pays 80 percent of landowners’ costs, but can’t control what landowners do with the private property once the program is complete, Blumberg said. 

CATS, based in Arcata, and the Environmental Protection Information Center in Garberville alleged the state’s failure to take into account the private landowners’ subsequent actions violates environmental restrictions, and the judge agreed. 

“Californians want protection from wildfires but don’t want the environmental degradation” that could be result, EPIC spokeswoman Cynthia Elkins said in a statement. 

The state must take into account the possible effects of erosion, harm to sensitive species, and the potential spread of noxious weeks from the burning programs, in addition to the potential harm from herbicides, the environmental groups said. 

The judge’s ruling comes as the state and federal governments focus increasing attention on fire prevention efforts across the West. 

It is the second similar court victory for CATS. Last year, a federal judge ordered the U.S. Forest Service to reevaluate the potential environmental harm from using herbicides to control re-growth in 320,000 acres of planned fire breaks in three Northern California national forests.