Lawsuit: US withholding wildfire fuel break information

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists are accusing federal land managers of illegally withholding information about environmental assessments used to justify plans to create fuel breaks to slow wildfires by clearing forests and shrubs across six western states with little if any public oversight.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act in federal court in Reno this week against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

A lawyer for the group says he’s disappointed the Biden administration is continuing the “obstructionist tactics” of the Trump administration, which first announced the plans last year.

The center is seeking more details about potential projects on federal rangeland across 348,000 square miles (901,300 square kilometers) — an area twice as big as the states of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio combined.

The government announced plans in November 2020 to begin mapping out the fuel breaks in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah.

Fuel breaks involve clearing extended stretches of vegetation to slow the progress of fires. The bureau has said that assessments of more than 1,200 fuel breaks dating to 2002 found that 78% helped control wildfire and 84% helped change fire behavior.

The new lawsuit filed Monday says the blueprint adopted in environmental impact statements approved in January allow the activity to occur in an area that is home to at least 25 threatened or endangered species “with minimal public notice and no formal opportunities for public comment.”

The Center for Biological Diversity first filed a FOIA request for the plan’s supporting data in March with the bureau, which is overseen by the U.S. Interior Department.

“Unless enjoined and made subject to a declaration of the Center’s legal rights by this court, BLM will continue to violate the Center’s right to timely determination under FOIA,” the lawsuit states.

Scott Lake, a staff attorney for the center, says the agency is months late in responding to the FOIA requests “so it appears they’ve quite determined to keep this information secret.”

“It’s dismaying to see the government continue to prioritize secrecy over transparency, especially in the management of public lands, where transparency should be a no-brainer,” Lake said in an email to The Associated Press.

“And it’s unfortunate to see this administration continue the obstructionist tactics of the last one,” he said.

Tyler Cherry, the Interior Department’s press secretary, said in an email to AP on Thursday the department had no immediate comment. Neither did the bureau, an agency spokesperson said.

The Bureau of Land Management’s fuel break plan doesn’t authorize any specific projects. Instead, its analysis can be used to OK treatments for projects involving prescribed fires, fuel breaks and other measures to prevent or limit massive blazes that have worsened in recent decades.

As wide as 500 feet (152 meters), the breaks would be established along roads and federal rights-of-way. If all 11,000 miles (17,700 km) envisioned are finished, the breaks cumulatively would stretch the equivalent distance between Seattle and South Africa.

Extreme drought conditions have left trees, grass and brush bone-dry throughout many Western states, making them ripe for ignition. Climate change has made the region warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more destructive, according to scientists.

The center filed a notice of intent to sue over the fuel break plans in January along with the Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

They said the bureau had failed to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service regarding impacts to threatened and endangered aquatic species as required by the Endangered Species Act.

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