Great Smoky Mountain National Park Is Updating Its Approach to Fire Management – Comments are Welcome

Firefighters at work.

NPS photo.

How should wildland fires be managed at Great Smoky Mountains National Park? The park is updating its plan to answer that question, and has prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA) as part of the process. If you have an opinion, now's the time to let the park know your views.

When we hear the term "wildland fire," places like California and Yellowstone often come to mind, due both to the frequency and media coverage of fires in those locations. Wildland (as opposed to structural) fires are a potential—and important—issue for many other parts of the country, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park is no exception.

In recent years, the park has experienced from four to eight wildfires annually, and the number of acres burned has been small by western standards. That doesn't diminish the importance of a fire management plan (FMP) for the park and the accompanying Environmental Assessment (EA). The previous EA for the park's fire management program dates to 1996, and policies and approaches in fire management have continued to evolve, so it's time for the park to update those documents.

To some extent, the lack of large fires in the park in recent years may even raise the importance of how the park plans to address subjects such as the use of prescribed fire, management of naturally caused vs. man-caused fires, and hazard fuel reduction.

If those terms are unfamiliar, you'll find some basic definitions and other details about the park's plans to manage wildland fires in the EA, which can be downloaded at this link. Here's a summary of the document and the process, as provided by the park.

The EA addresses the proposal by the NPS to update, develop and implement a Fire Management Plan (FMP) for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The FMP addresses fire management operations for the entire Park and encompasses a five year program period of those operations.

Two alternatives are analyzed in this document. Alternative 1 is the No Action Alternative and Alternative 2 is the Implement National Fire Management Policy Alternative.

Alternative 1, No Action Alternative, is the baseline condition with which proposed activities are compared. This alternative represents a continuation of current management actions; it does not mean an absence of active management of fire and fuels.

Under the no-action alternative, the Park would remain geographically divided into three Fire Management Units (FMU), and park managers would develop an "appropriate management response" to all wildland fires.

The appropriate management response is currently restricted to suppression actions for all wildfires in FMU 1, an area encompassing the developed areas of the Park and its boundaries, and for all human-caused fires throughout the park, regardless of their location.

Lightning-ignited fires may be managed for resource benefits in the two FMUs in more remote areas of the Park, a practice that has been called Wildland Fire Use. Finally, under the current plan, the Park may conduct prescribed burns and hazard fuel reduction projects in selected areas.

Alternative 2, Implement Fire Management Policy Alternative is identified in the EA as the "Environmentally Preferred and Preferred Alternative."

Under Alternative 2, all fires that could threaten developed areas or are near the Park boundary would continue to be suppressed as they always have. This proposal combines the other two FMUs in the current plan and allows for a "strategic fire response" that would replace the appropriate management response.

Unlike adaptive management response, strategic fire response is more holistic and allows for a full range of management options and tactics to be considered and implemented on all wildland fires. Additionally, multiple objectives may be considered on each fire, and those objectives may change as the fire spreads across the landscape.

Typically, strategic fire response will range across a spectrum of tactical options (from monitoring fire spread at a distance to intensive suppression actions). Beginning with the initial action to any wildfire, decisions will reflect the goal of using available firefighting resources to manage the fire for the safest, most effective, and most efficient means available while meeting identified fire management unit objectives. Under Alternative 2, the Park will continue to conduct prescribed burns and hazard fuel reduction projects in selected areas.

What's the bottom line? It appears that impacts on the environment, park visitors and area residents won't be significantly different under either option; Alternative 2 would bring the park's approach to fire management up to date in terms of national policies and procedures, and provide a bit more flexibility for local managers.

The environmental consequences of each alternative are very similar, given that Alternative 2 is a logical outgrowth of implementing appropriate management response policies over the years. It is not unexpected that the environmental consequences or impacts associated with each proposed alternative would be similar.

Alternative 2 permits a bit more discretion in methods and thus may increase acres burned and therefore slightly increase potential for short –term impacts to air quality and also an increased potential for extended response operations thereby slightly affecting park management and operations. Public access by visitors and the surrounding community would only see a negligible increase in disruption of their uses by fire operations extending.

The standard 30 day public review period for this EA is currently underway, and ends on November 9, 2009. If you'd like to submit comments, you can do so either on-line or by U.S. Mail.

You'll find the link for on-line comments at the project website; all such comments must be received by November 9, 2009.

If you'd prefer to use U.S. Mail, your comments need to be postmarked by November 10, 2009, and mailed to the following address:

Superintendent
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, Tennessee 37738

Comments

The environmental consequences of each alternative are very similar, given that Alternative 2 is a logical outgrowth of implementing appropriate management response policies over the years. It is not unexpected that the environmental consequences or impacts associated with each proposed alternative would be similar.
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lucy