Andy Stahl has made a habit out of challenging the status quo and raising questions people considered rude.
He was one of the small group of activists who put together the campaign to save the Pacific Northwest’s old growth forests by suing the federal government to protect the northern spotted owl. Later he became one of the loudest advocates for using fire to carry out forest management in part by forcing homeowners to protect themselves.
Then he forced the federal government to do an environmental impact statement on the retardant it drops from planes to fight fire. Now, in the wake of the latest deaths of two aviators fighting the White Rock fire in Utah, Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, is challenging the moral basis of aerial firefighting.
Stahl writings in a blog at the site, A Century of Forest Planning, that the 61 aviation deaths from 1999 to 2009 exceed every other cause. Stahl writes:
“When a firefighter risks his life rescuing a child from a burning home, we applaud his heroism. If he dies in the effort, whether successful or not, we honor his sacrifice, knowing he gave everything to save that child’s life. While we mourn his loss, our society agrees that saving a child’s life is worth the risk and the ultimate price paid.
“But, what are we to think when firefighters die trying to save sagebrush and juniper from burning? The White Rock fire threatens not a single home. It poses no danger to any person, save the firefighters themselves. The fire is burning in one of the least populated corners of our nation — the Utah/Nevada border — on federally-owned land inhabited by jack rabbits and coyotes.”
Stahl goes on to call the aerial fire war “fruitless, ineffectual,” and “immoral.” Those are strong words that will be trigger a strong response among the men and women in the firefighting community who put out 98 percent of the wild fires that start in the United States.
Stahl’s main logical challenge comes from potential listing of the sage grouse as an endangered species. Fire is listed by scientists and managers as the major threat to the sagebrush habitat on which the bird depends.
Unlike the forests where Stahl, a forester, learned his trade, fire threatens the vast sagebrush sea where the White Rock fire burned. This ecosystem is endangered by invasive species like cheatgrass that take control of the fire regime, making fires more frequent. In millions of acres across the West the productive sagebrush ecosystem is converted to desert.
Stahl is forcing a debate about firefighting morality. Firefighting aviators are not children. They know the risks. They make the choices.
But we as a nation make the choices as well. With a wildland fire management budget of more than $2.8 billion we are very invested in these decisions.