In January 2015 a Fire Management Plan was approved that allows/promotes practices destructive to the Wilderness. It is based on an extremely flawed decision that these proposed actions would have no significant impact on the environment. These days, the public can no longer has access to the justification for the plan and the agency’s rebuttals to serious issues raised during the comment period preceding this decision.
This kind of plan with little respect for Wilderness can become policy, because, each federal agency devises their own guidelines for Wilderness management. Since provisions of the Wilderness Act can be at odds with other concerns of these agencies, Wilderness is often not protected as intended. The NPS essentially gives the manager (superintendent) complete responsibility for proper Wilderness management. So unless a superinten-dent not only understands and values, but makes Wilderness a high priority, it will not in fact be protected. If s/he decides there is a NEED for use of motorized equipment in the Wilderness, perhaps based on visitor experi-ence, that is what will be used. While NPS management policies require fire management activities in Wilder-ness to “conform to the basic purposes of wilderness,” and to “allow fire to perform its natural role as much as practicable…” once the Fire Management Plan is approved, its provisions supersede those more protective pol-icy guidelines. There is no recourse short of legal action. And the only Wilderness Watchdogs are small, private organizations.
The new fire plan shows little concern for the long-term health of the resource or the Wilderness Act. In fact, the NPS press release stated that controlled burns, herbicides, and mechanical equipment would be used in the area designated Wilderness. The controlled burns focus on altering the prevalence of various species, an action that contradicts proper Wilderness management. The Wilderness Act intends an area to be managed as a whole,” not in bits and pieces for ulterior motives. This fire plan is based on the erroneous concept that all the island vegetation/communities are “fire adapted,” meaning they depend on periodic fire to maintain their integ-rity. That concept was challenged in comments on the Environmental Assessment when it appeared in the pre-liminary proposed plan, but that input was obviously ignored. How does the public challenge this now that it has been incorporated in the final plan?
Mechanical mulching and herbicide use are two practices authorized in this plan that contradict both the letter and the spirit of the Wilderness Act. Mechanical mulching (using a large ma-chine to chop and shred standing vegetation, and then leaving the remains where they fall) is officially sanctioned in the Wilderness. Both sides of the Main Rd. will be mulched by heavy machinery to create a firebreak, as will several trails in the Wilderness. The character of the Wilderness will be defaced, mutilated.
This new plan continues fire management practices that are destructive to the Wilderness on Cumberland Island. If the Park had chosen to complete a Wilderness Management Plan before the FMP, better choices may have been made. It is important to note that the fire management problem is agency-wide, not simply an issue for individual parks. NPS management policies maintain complete control of the Wilderness, while going through the motions of abiding by the Wilderness Act.
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