Keep the wild in wildfire

November 26, 2012  |  Ear to the Sand

Restoring fire to Cumberland Island is a necessary and positive step.

But because the National Park Service has never produced a Wilderness Management Plan for the island, as mandated, special care must be taken to ensure that pro-active fire activities remain within the guidelines and spirit of the Wilderness Act.  It is unfortunate that the limitations of the Wilderness Act are so flexible as to be easily abused.  Almost any activity can be justified, one way or another, in the name of fire.  Yet to preserve the Wilderness character of Cumberland Island, which is a primary goal, restraint must be exercised.

In the past, Wilderness areas on Cumberland Island have received no kinder treatment than those outside the protective boundary.  For example, all “trails,” which had originally been roads, and allowed to narrow with the removal of vehicular traffic, were opened wider than the original roadway using chainsaws and  leafblowers.  Trees that had been across a trail for decades and were easily stepped over, were cut with chainsaws, leaving ugly scars throughout the Wilderness, and all in the name of firebrakes.  The Wilderness character was destroyed for campers and hikers.  That is one obvious result of fairly recent fire fighting activity.

Not so obvious is the insidious pressure to manipulate the so-called protected area.  Fire is an integral part of most CI communities, and natural ignition is frequent.  The proposed plan calls for unnatural ignition, prescribed burning, in what appears to be slightly less than half of the designated Wilderness.  At the meeting there was mention of deliberately introduced fire being used to aid specific species.  This concept is in opposition to the Wilderness Act, which advises to manage the resource as one unified system, with no inseparable parts.  To manage for a particular species is to ignore the whole.  Wilderness supports naturally functioning systems which can and will heal themselves from the decades of NPS fire suppression.  To step in now and  manipulate further to try to “make things right’ is unnecessarily aggressive.

NPS policies governing Wilderness also apply to Potential Wilderness.  Already heavy equipment has “mowed” much of the scrub vegetation in Potential Wilderness both to secure an area around development (which is acceptable) and as a general firebreak along a road a considerable distance away, which is not acceptable.  Too much of the scrub community will be sacrificed and its Wilderness character lost in the name of fire protection if fuel reduction is not limited to the area immediately surrounding structures.

Suggestions for managing fire in the Wilderness:

•    There should be no unnatural ignition except immediately around structures to create a defensible space and/or to retard an advancing natural fire line threatening a structure.

•    Trails should not be opened as firebreaks, but maintained at a minimal width as trails.  Many of those shown in orange on the map divide areas that should be allowed to burn.  The extent of the proposed development of trails by the NPS further deteriorates the Wilderness by compromising its character.

•    Saltwater is lethal to many species of plants and animals.  Its use should be restricted to immediate protection of structures.  The use of fire retardant chemicals should also be so restricted.

•    Water should not be taken from Whitney Lake for firefighting operations.  Fire usually occurs at times of drought and drought alone imposes stress on that community.  Buckets that have been used with retardant also introduce inappropriate chemicals to the natural system.  Large tanks for bucket dipping may be filled with freshwater at the Candler compound, Plum Orchard, Stafford Field, and Dungeness.

Wild Cumberland is encouraged by the interest of the NPS in re-establishing a natural fire regime on Cumberland Island, and we hope that it can be done without modifying the character of the Wilderness.


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