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Ear to the Sand
Fire on the Island

Fire on the Island

For fire protection on Cumberland Island, thick underbrush is mechanically reduced around structures when funding permits and owners agree. The National Park Service now has its own “Masticator,” officially called a Gyrotrac, with a wicked mulching head that makes short work of small underbrush and vines. The machine travels from park to park as requested and is no doubt expected to eliminate clearing by hand. The machine was on the north end of the island in mid-August 2014, clearing around Candler property and the Settlement. Unfortunately, it also mowed a 50 foot swath along the north side of North Fraser Road. Such a strip would hardly stop an on-coming fire, but is more likely to support deliberate burning at an optimal time to reduce fuels over a large area of the scrub, although the NPS denies that they are planning such a burn. Manipulating the scrub ecosystem by regular mowing will change the community over time, as will manipulating the natural fire regime. It has been only two years since it was last mowed (2012).

Besides changing the floral community by long-term manipulation, the timing of mowing is important for animal species. Two beautiful diamondback rattlesnakes were found killed by the Masticator in August. On the north end, of which very little (<1%) of the area mowed was surveyed. A young towhee was seen hopping around, rather than flying, following the destruction of roadside scrub. Perhaps it had not yet fledged? No assessment of impact to the natural systems by this method of fuel reduction has been done, making its continued use in the National Seashore, or on any federal land, improper.

An Environmental Assessment (EA) of the draft island fire management plan was released in October 2013 for public comment. To satisfy the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) either an EA or an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must receive public comment prior to the government taking any activity which may have a negative impact on the natural resources. If the agency feels that the action will have little to no negative environmental impact, an EA is chosen. The document presents the agencies obligations under law and presumably proceeds to explain how they are being followed, details measures which would mitigate any possible negative effects, and ultimately justifies taking the action itself. An EIS is produced to asses environmentally unfriendly actions, which naturally need more solid references and indisputable facts. An EIS is more detailed and costly to produce.

The following are some comments from the conservation community on the EA for the draft Cumberland Island Fire Management Plan.

  • National Park Service management policies require that a Wilderness Management Plan or equivalent be developed for every Wilderness. The Cumberland Island Wilderness was designated in 1982, but no management plan for it has been approved. The proposed Fire Management Plan seems to ignore mandates in the Wilderness Act, so implementing it with out a Wilderness Plan to protect Wilderness resources is improper.
  • A requisite for manipulations undertaken in Wilderness, a Minimum Requirements Analysis, is lacking for the island. A table shows steps to be taken but there is no analysis specific to this island provided.
  • The many diverse island communities are lumped into a single burning category to facilitate prescribed/controlled burns, which is the goal of the draft fire plan. The premise on which the NPS is basing the need to regularly burn the island is that the island ecosystems need restoring, and this will be accomplished by fire. No documentation is provided to substantiate that claim. Instead the EA focuses on establishing conditions that are convenient in which to fight future fires, rather than on the protection and sustainability of the resource.

A Wilderness Management Plan for the island must be approved before a legitimate Fire Management Plan can safely be developed. A full EIS is warranted before a draft fire plan can be considered.

This story originally appeared in the Cumberland Island Museum Newsletter (cimuseum.org).

masticator snake road fire


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