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Moratorium on ‘Let It Burn’ Policy Urged

Times Staff Writer

A federal advisory panel, concluding a high-level review of the way the nation fights its forest fires, recommended Thursday that government policy be clarified to ensure that fewer naturally caused fires are allowed to burn unchallenged.

Until the policy can be revised, a moratorium on the current “let it burn” strategy should be imposed to require fire managers to combat every fire that erupts in national parks and wilderness areas, the panel said.

The team, convened last summer after lightning-ignited blazes burned large portions of Yellowstone National Park, said its report represented a reaffirmation of existing federal policy, which calls for certain naturally caused fires to be permitted to burn so that fire can play its natural ecological role.

But in its report to the secretaries of interior and agriculture, the panel reported that the “let it burn” policy had in practice often been irresponsibly enforced by fire managers who failed to take proper account of the consequences of their decisions to let blazes burn unhindered.

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At least 25% of the fire management plans now in place in parks and wilderness areas contain serious shortcomings and are “subject to abuse,” panel co-chairman Charles W. Philpot reported at a news conference here.

In the long term, the panel said, the government should use man-made fires to serve ecological ends rather than to rely heavily on lightning-caused blazes, which are more difficult to control.

The panel members cautioned that their report not be interpreted as a post-mortem on the causes of this summer’s devastation at Yellowstone, which left about 32% of the 2.2-million-acre Wyoming park blackened.

But co-chairman Brad Leonard, a senior Interior Department official, said that “there might have been fewer fires on the landscape” at Yellowstone had federal policy been properly enforced.

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Environmentalist Approval

Environmental groups generally welcomed the panel’s endorsement of the “let it burn” policy, which they had championed in the face of sharp attacks from Western governors and other politicians during the Yellowstone blazes. The environmentalists regard fire as a natural part of the forest cycle.

“We didn’t expect any change, and there isn’t any,” said Steven C. Whitney, national parks director for the Wilderness Society.

But Whitney and others expressed some concern that the more stringent guidelines--and, in particular, the proposed “let it burn” moratorium--would make park officials overly “skittish” and less likely to leave a natural fire alone, even if risks appeared minimal.

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“The concern is that it will go too far,” said David J. Simon, a spokesman for the National Parks and Conservation Assn. “We have to take natural events when they occur.”

Revised Policy by May

Panel members and Interior Department officials said they expect that a revised fire management policy can be formulated before the next fire season begins in mid-May, meaning that an interim moratorium would have little practical effect.

While hailing the current “let it burn” policy, the advisory panel justified its recommendations for more stringent guidelines by saying that current “misuses . . . could eliminate the program itself--and lose the benefits that derive from it.”

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