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Frequently Asked Questions: SO 3336 - Rangeland Fire Prevention, Management, and Restoration

Specific to the Order

Why take this action?

Answer: We are at a critical juncture regarding the preservation of important sagebrush-steppe ecosystems on our western rangelands, and in particular, protecting these landscapes from the repeating cycle of wildfire and the spread of non-native invasive species such as cheatgrass. It is vitally important for local economies, public land users and the viability of our natural resources that we get a better handle on this situation and stem the spread of invasives, which will aid in reducing the damage and threats caused by wildfire.

Does this work directed through the Secretarial Order become the Department’s first priority in wildland fire management in the sage-steppe ecosystem?

Answer: No. Safety and protection of the public and our firefighters will always remain the number one priority. With this Order, we may see more strategic movement of crews, as conditions allow, into areas of high priority rangeland.

Is this effort driven entirely by the potential listing of the sage-grouse as an endangered or threatened species?

Answer: Protecting and preserving key sage-grouse habitat is a priority for the Department, which will also benefit the more than 350 other species of plants and wildlife that depend on these rangeland environments—including the golden eagle, elk, mule deer, and pronghorn, just to name a few. There are a number of Tribes, businesses and livelihoods, from ranchers to recreational interests that also depend on healthy rangelands.

Didn’t the recently-passed Omnibus legislation delay a decision about listing the sage-grouse?

Answer: Regardless of what happens in other arenas, conditions on the ground remain the same. We are at a point where serious and significant actions are required if we are to stem the tide toward economic and natural resource losses, and restore and preserve the health of sagebrush-steppe ecosystems and rangeland landscapes, particularly in the Great Basin.

Does the Secretarial Order include any extra money for firefighting this summer?

Answer: For Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, Congress appropriated $896.8 million for the Department of the Interior’s wildland fire management program, including $10 million to support resilient landscapes as part of the Department’s efforts to reduce hazardous fuels. In part, this funding will help support the Department’s efforts to protect and restore ecologically crucial rangelands through fuels and resource management programs. Unfortunately, Congress failed to enact the President’s budget proposal to treat wildland fire like other natural disasters and include funding for suppression within the disaster cap adjustment. The Order places a priority on the Department of the Interior’s efforts to manage rangeland fire and to restore rangelands.

Why is the focus on the Great Basin states? Is there a greater threat to the sage-grouse there than the Gunnison sage-grouse that was recently listed as threatened in the states of Colorado and Utah?

Answer: This strategy is geographically and not species-based. It is mostly focused on the Great Basin states, applies to the habitat, and will benefit all species and economic activity impacted by rangeland fire. We are at a critical juncture on the western rangelands regarding the preservation of important sagebrush-steppe ecosystems and particularly the repeating cycle of wildfire and the spread of invasives species such as cheatgrass. It is vitally important for local economies, public land users, and our natural resources that we get a better handle on this situation and stem the spread of invasives, which will aid in reducing the damage and threat of wildfire.

Is this Secretarial Order a result of the conference in Boise, ID last November, “The Next Steppe: Sage-grouse and Rangeland Fire in the Great Basin?”

Answer: The conference in Boise brought together leading scientists, policy-makers and fire operations practitioners. The conference highlighted the challenges we face, the conditions on the land, and the fact that we have a lot of good science to implement on the ground. This Secretarial Order builds on the good work that is already occurring on the ground, and strengthens our collaborative efforts to protect this critical natural resource priority and moves us toward actions that could significantly improve the conditions in the field.

Don’t you already contain more than 90 percent of wildfire starts within the first day, before they get large? Can you achieve a higher percentage?

Answer: Depending on the year and the geographic area, the average is more in the range of 95 to 97 percent of fires that are contained in the initial attack. This high level of success is due to the work of federal fire crews, as well as a result of the agreements and partnerships we have with rural fire departments and rangeland fire protection associations. The remaining small percentage of fires that are not contained in the initial attack can lead to catastrophic wildfires, such as the Murphy Complex fire in Idaho in 2012.

In some areas, the fire “regime,” or the frequency of fire occurrence, has gone from once every 60 to 100 years to once every 3 to 5 years. Unless we can slow or break this continual cycle of fire followed by the increased spread of flammable invasives, most notably cheatgrass, followed by more fire, we will continue to see the potential for those few percentage of fires that become serious conflagrations such as the Murphy Complex.

What will the Task Force established by the Order do?

Answer: The Task Force, chaired by the Deputy Secretary of the Interior, is composed of high-level policy and management leaders. This group is charged with designing a path forward to a more effective approach to rangeland fire, looking at using science and best management practices to effect some real change on the ground. They will look at what actions can be implemented prior to the onset of the 2015 Western fire season and long-term actions that can be implemented beginning in 2016 and beyond. The group will have reporting dates for progressively more detailed direction beginning with an Implementation Plan due February 1 this year; an Initial Report due March 1, 2015; and a Final Report due May 1, 2015.

Aren’t these rangeland health and habitat issues broader than just the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management?

Answer: Yes, this work and our efforts to design and implement improvements to rangeland fire prevention, management and suppression will require increased cooperation, collaboration, and partnerships with private and governmental entities at the Tribal, state, local, county and regional levels. This Secretarial Order provides the leadership and framework required for accomplishing much on the ground.

Does this portend a move from protecting property to making natural resources a priority?

Answer: The safety and protection of firefighters and citizens’ lives will always be our top priority. With this Order, we will see more funds for fuels management projects go into areas of critical concern. We will also see a more strategic movement of crews, as conditions allow, into rangeland areas of high priority to conduct fuels projects and fight wildfires.

Protecting, conserving, and restoring the health of the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem and, in particular, greater sage-grouse habitat, while maintaining safe and efficient operations, is a critical fire management priority for the Department.

We have long stressed the need for homeowners and communities to take necessary measures to better protect their homes and properties from wildfire and we will continue to educate and assist in those efforts.

Haven’t fire programs been working on improving the response to wildfire in sage-grouse areas for several years; what makes this different?

Answer: Significant progress is being made, particularly on the operations side, for how firefighters are dispatched and respond to sagebrush fires, the equipment they use, and more. We hope to fine-tune these best management practices even further, and we hope to make significant strides in post fire rehabilitation and restoration efforts. We believe recent scientific research shows great progress in this area and we are working to apply that science on the ground.

Some suggest that a listing will grind the Western economy to a halt.

Answer: The sagebrush landscape is an important economic driver for Western economies.

This unique American landscape not only supports energy development, but it also supports ranching and outdoor recreation, like big game hunting, camping, and hiking.

A recent peer-reviewed study found that there were 13.8 million visits to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sagebrush lands in the 11 states last years. Those visitors spent $623 million within 50 miles of the recreation sites in 2013.

Another recent study found that there is little overlap between key habitat for sage-grouse and areas with high potential for energy development.

So it’s a fundamentally false choice between healthy landscape and a healthy economy.

BLM’s Resource Management Plans—like the Lander Plan in Wyoming—will take a landscape level approach to focus development where there are areas of high potential and low conflict with important wildlife habitat or other uses and toward ensuring development in habitat occurs in a manner consistent with viable greater sage-grouse populations.

If pressed on delayed projects: There are a number of projects and programs that require careful consideration from the BLM about the impact to the habitat before final decisions can be made to move them forward. These projects and programs are the subject of a dynamic land-use planning process.

In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that listing the greater sage-grouse was warranted, but precluded by higher priorities. Do you think they’ll reach the same conclusion in September that the species deserves to be listed?

Answer: With thoughtful planning and collaborative discussions, we are optimistic that—in partnership with tribal, state, and local governments, oil and gas companies, private landowners and other partners—we can put smart and effective conservation measures in place that not only benefit the bird but preserve the Western way of life.

The ultimate decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 2015 on whether the actions taken are enough will come down to using the best available science to review the status of the species and the ability of the plans and other conservation efforts to address threats to the greater sage-grouse habitat.

We understand that FWS believes you can’t “create” new sagebrush habitat. Is that true? If so, what does that mean for all the work and resources that have gone into restoring or reclaiming habitat?

Answer: Once gone, it is very difficult to re-create sagebrush-steppe habitat with the same ecological potential. We know that the best sagebrush habitat is land that hasn’t been fragmented or destroyed—so certainly one of our top priorities is to conserve existing, core habitat areas.

However, it is possible in the short-term to improve existing habitat through actions such as the reduction of conifer encroachment. Habitat improvement and removing or reducing threats to habitat integrity are promising means of mitigating unavoidable impacts to sagebrush habitat.

Questions and Answers – Specific to Actions by BLM

How much land did BLM’s fuels program treat for invasive species in Greater Sage-Grouse habitat in FY 2014 and how much did it cost?

State Acres of treatments of invasive species funded by the BLM fuels program – accomplished in FY 2014 \1 Amount spent in FY 2014 \1
CA 876 $0
CO 1,892 $256,600
ID 56,675 $3,416,350
MT 6,624 $498,525
NV 10,829 $755,867
OR 11,045 $123,000
UT 20,213 $419,500
WY 4,808 $288,750
Total 112.962 $5,758,592

1 Source for data is the National Fire Plan Operations & Reporting System (NFPORS).

What has BLM done to prevent fire in Greater Sage-Grouse habitat?

Answer: A recent statistical analysis showed that 28% of all fires that burn sage-grouse habitat are human-caused. In 2014, BLM used Fire Prevention Teams in Idaho, Oregon and Washington which incorporated habitat conservation messages into public education and outreach efforts. In addition, the BLM completed fuel treatments to reduce wildfire impacts to sage-grouse habitat and promote habitat conservation. Treatments mainly focused on building and maintaining fuel breaks (14,000 acres), reducing conifer encroachment (112,000 acres), and treating invasive species to reduce wildfire hazard (112,000 acres).

State Fuel treatment acres on BLM lands to conserve sage grouse habitat accomplished in FY 2014 \2
CA 7,010
CO 3,390
ID 77,355
MT 10,622
NV 23,001
OR 51,979
UT 57,222
WY 8,449
Total 239,028

2 The source for data is NFPORS and includes: (1) treatments in sagebrush to address conifer encroachment; (2) fuel breaks; and (3) treatments to address invasive species.

In California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Montana, cumulative investments by BLM for weed treatments in 2012-2014 have ranged from $5.7 million to $7.3 million.

How much Greater Sage-Grouse habitat managed by the BLM has been burned?

Answer: Millions of acres of sage-grouse habitat on BLM lands have been burned in the past few years. The 2012 fire season was quite active.

Year Sage-Grouse Habitat Burned (acres)
2012 1,994,718
2013 251,473
2014 314,969
(as of fiscal year end, September 28, 2014)

What is BLM doing to restore greater sage-grouse habitat after a fire?

Answer: The BLM plans to stabilize and rehabilitate hundreds of thousands of acres of land that were burned during the 2014 fire season. These treatments may be implemented through FY 2017:

State Stabilization Acres Planned Treatment \3 Costs Rehabilitation Acres Planned Treatment Costs
CA 9,478 $313,373 22,676 $87,120
CO 100 $10,000 324 $43,122
ID 57,464 $1,621,273 38,553 $227,279
NV 26,266 $2,101,265 30,146 $942,135
OR and WA 249,541 $7,859,303 134,433 $11,888,137
UT 9,586 $896,014 3592 $40,000
TOTAL 352,435 $12,801,228 229,724 $13,227,793

3 Source for data is NFPORS and the Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation System (ESRS). Multiple treatments may occur on the same acres.

What’s the timeline for BLM’s plans?

Answer: The BLM is working as expeditiously as possible to complete comprehensive and effective Resource Management Plans (RMPs).

We expect that the Final Environmental Impacts Statements (EIS) will be released in late spring 2015, and the Records of Decision in summer of 2015.

The BLM plans are one piece of the puzzle; successful conservation will require collaborative efforts from federal, state, and private landowners.

Does that mean the FWS won’t be able to take BLM plans into consideration in their decision? Doesn’t this mean you need a delay?

Answer: We believe that FWS will be able to consider the BLM plans and our schedule is not a reason for delay.

The time to address the threats to sage brush habitat is now, not 5 or 10 or 20 years from now, when the West is more fragmented, wildfires are more intense or invasive species have gained more ground

Western Governors have criticized Interior for not engaging with them early or often enough.

Answer: State plans are a key piece of the puzzle. There’s no doubt that collaboration is key to this unprecedented and proactive effort to conserve sage grouse habitat:

  1. State and Federal partners are meeting every two months dating back to 2011 as part of the Sage-grouse Task force that then-Secretary Salazar established; and
  2. More informal conversations happen between states and regional/state directors on a much more frequent basis.

Risk Based Wildland Fire Management

How will the Order affect the Department’s proposed Risk Based Wildland Fire Management (RBWFM) Program and how it sets priorities for allocating funds to the Bureaus?

Answer: The goals of the Department of Interior (DOI) RBWFM program are to: 1) improve our ability to safely and appropriately respond to wildfire; 2) pre-position the right resources in the right places to safely and appropriately respond to fire that will damage or destroy something we care about; 3) manage fuels to reduce the spread, intensity, and/or severity of wildfire in order to protect resource values that are at risk; 4) contribute to community adaptation to fire by increasing the likelihood that net ecological and social impacts are positive or neutral; and 5) display the capability to formulate/justify budget requests among bureaus and maximize return on investment, be cost-effective, and reduce risk.

The five tenets of the RBWFM program align with those outlined in the Order. Additionally, there are eight life, property and resource values preliminarily identified for the program, of which sage-grouse is included.

Resilient Landscape Program

Will the Resilient Landscapes Program funding of $10 million be available for use to complete potential actions defined in the Initial and Final Reports?

Answer: The Resilient Landscape Program received $10 million as part of the Department’s efforts to reduce hazardous fuels. In part, this funding will help support the Department’s efforts to protect sage-grouse habitat, and through the fuels management program, support activities to restore sage-grouse habitat. Unfortunately, Congress failed to enact the President’s budget proposal to treat wildland fire like other natural disasters and include funding for suppression within the disaster cap. The Secretarial Order places a priority on the Department’s efforts to manage rangeland fire and to restore rangelands.

Tribal Consultation and Outreach

The Department is consulting with Tribes on the implementation of the Order. Did the Department also consult with Tribes on the development of the Order?

Answer: The Department is working with Tribes on the issues of wildland fire and protection of sage-grouse habitat, and that cooperation will continue. The Order provides that protecting, conserving and restoring the health of the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem while maintaining safe and efficient operations is a critical fire management priority for the Department. It does not prioritize the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem over tribal resources. Rather, the Order establishes a process to engage with tribes, states and other stakeholders to develop an integrated, science-based fire prevention, suppression and restoration strategy to reduce the threat of large-scale rangeland fire to habitat for the greater sage-grouse and the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem.

The Order provides for the development of two reports--an Initial Report (due March 1, 2015), which defines a set of actions that can be accomplished prior to the 2015 Western wildfire season, and a Final Report (due May 1, 2015), detailing activities that can be accomplished during the remainder of calendar year 2015, 2016, and beyond.

The Initial and Final Reports required by the Order have the potential to identify actions that will directly affect Tribes and result in the development of specific policies down the road. Therefore, two government-to-government consultations are planned--one prior to the completion of the Initial Report, on February 19, 2015, in Portland, Oregon, and the second prior to the Final Report, in Reno, Nevada, on April 7, 2015. Tribes will have the opportunity to provide feedback and comments at those times and throughout the implementation process. The reports will not be finalized until all comments received are considered. (NOTE: The comment deadline for the February consultation is February 23; deadline for the April consultation comments is April 22)

Tribes have limited time and staff to engage in consultation. Was it possible for the Department to coordinate consultation efforts under this Order and the recently concluded tribal consultation on the Risk Based Wildland Fire Management strategy?

Answer: The Risk Based approach to Wildland Fire Management and the Order are two different activities, though related. Risk Based Wildland Fire Management provides the Department and bureaus with tools and methodologies to build budgets and allocate funds based on what our greatest risks are. At the national level this will provide a sound basis for allocation of preparedness and fuels funding to each of the bureaus; bureaus are then responsible for sub-allocations and distributions within their organizations. One of the key features of this methodology is to identify values that we strive to protect and enhance. The Order provides some guidance about values (that is, sage grouse) but there are many other values that we are collectively interested in as well. We have received a number of comments from tribes regarding the Risk Based approach and are currently evaluating those comments.

The Order addresses broader issues than the formulation and allocation of the wildland fire budget and was issued well after we began the consultation process on the Risk Based approach. The upcoming consultation sessions on the Order will cover more topics than the wildland fire budget of the Department. However, we recognize the areas in common between the two topics and will be mindful of them as we proceed.

The Order says that the Department will “commit wildland fire management resources and assets to prepare for and respond to rangeland fires.” Does this mean that the Department will move assets away from Tribes that do not have rangelands?

Answer: At the national level, allocations of preparedness and fuels funding to each of the four bureaus in FY 2015 are already set and will not change. Those allocations MAY change in the future as we proceed with implementation of the Risk Based approach to wildland fire management. Within those allocations, each bureau will continue to distribute funds based on highest priority and need. The Order places a priority on funding for rangeland fires and, in particular, limiting the impact of fires on sage-grouse habitat and sagebrush-steppe ecosystems. Under the Implementation Plan for the Order a task group has been identified to provide clear direction on the prioritization and allocation of fire management resources and assets. The drafted approach will be available for comment on the Rangeland Management web page prior to the consultation. A face-to-face tribal consultation on the Initial Report is scheduled for February 19, 2015, in Portland, Oregon. Comments will be accepted during the consultation and via email through February 23, 2013, at rangelandfire@ios.doi.gov.

How will the Department consult with Tribes moving forward?

Answer: The Initial and Final Reports required by the Order have the potential to identify actions that will directly affect Tribes and result in the development of specific policies down the road. Therefore, two government-to-government consultations are planned: one prior to the completion of the Initial Report, on February 19, 2015, in Portland, Oregon, and the second prior to the Final Report, in Reno, Nevada, on April 7, 2015. There will be the opportunity provided for feedback and comments from the Tribes. The reports will not be finalized until all comments received are considered. (NOTE: The comment deadline for the February consultation is February 23, 2015; deadline for the April consultation comments is April 22, 2015)

The Order calls several times for a science-based approach. Is the Department willing to consider Tribal traditional knowledge in formulating its plans and strategies? If so, how will the Department engage with Tribes to gather this knowledge?

Answer: The Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GBLCC) has a very active Science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (S-TEK) program and will be invited to be part of the task groups dealing with science. Tribes are partners in the GBLCC, and four tribes serve on its steering committee. The GBLCC is engaging tribes in drafting an S-TEK strategy document, funding S-TEK research projects, and will soon be launching a new website which will include TEK resources.

How will the Order affect Tribal Wildland Fire funding for the 2015 wildfire season?

Answer: FY 2015 allocation of funds, including funding for the special Tribal initiatives outlined in the FY 2015 budget, was made to the Bureau of Indian Affairs prior to the issuance of the Order.

Why is this Order being issued?

Answer: The Order was issued to improve the prevention and suppression of rangeland fires in the Great Basin region of the western U.S., and to restore these landscapes after wildfires have occurred. The Order also calls for the protection of sage-grouse habitat, especially the Great Basin states of Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Idaho and California.

Did the Bureau of Indian Affairs have input into the Order?

Answer: All of the bureaus at the Department of the Interior had the opportunity to comment on the Order before it was signed, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the other wildland fire management bureaus.

How will the Order affect tribes?

The Secretarial Order emphasizes preventing and suppressing rangeland fires and restoring sagebrush landscapes in the West, especially in the Great Basin region. The Order may increase fire suppression and restoration activities on Indian trust lands as needed.

Will the Order create tribal jobs?

We are not able to say at this time whether any new jobs, tribal or otherwise, will be created through the implementation of the Order.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) firefighters.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) firefighters.

Last modified: Monday, 10-Apr-2017 12:48:05 CDT