The Land Management Agencies (LMAs) meeting in Lone Pine on August 1st, to discuss the Lion Management Fire smoke impacts to the Eastern Sierra economy and welfare, revealed a gapping chasm of ideology and expectations between the officials and the region’s residents.   It was as if the two groups spoke different languages. While Eastern Sierra residents acknowledged the need to fire treat parts of the landscape, and were willing to accept a certain amount of smoke, the LMA officials seemed unable to recognize or empathize with the dramatic economic and health impacts being suffered by the community. Most of these officials felt it was acceptable and reasonable to allow their management fire to impact the community of Kernville so badly that a “clean room” was necessary for folks suffering from smoke-related respiratory problems. At the Lone Pine meeting, Western Divide District Ranger Priscilla Summers acknowledged that the smoke was negatively impacting the region’s economy and public welfare but was adamant that the ends justified the means. While the LMA officials talked about forest health, improved wildlife habitat, and the natural role of fire, Eastern Sierra residents talked about the inability to breathe, being housebound by smoke, and the loss of essential tourism revenue because of impaired scenic visibility. What the LMA officials fail to grasp is something that successful environmental organizations around the world know to be an undeniable truth about environmentalism, and that is that if communities adjacent to their projects don’t support or benefit from conservation, their projects are doomed to fail.

The ideological/expectation gap between LMAs and Eastern Sierra residents results from past failed fire suppression and logging practices and new protocols that seek to reverse these ecological damages by fire treating millions of acres of public lands in 10 to 20 years. This situation has created some very complex and far-reaching environmental and social problems. First, it is not reasonable, or maybe even possible, to reverse almost 100 years of damage to our public lands in 10 to 20 years. This is a decidedly human solution that most likely does not fit into the larger natural rhythm of the landscape. Secondly, the new land management protocols, the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003 and the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLR) of 2009, have arisen more from a desire to mitigate national fire fighting costs than from thoughtful, well-researched, scientifically-proven knowledge. Thirdly, the LMAs have failed to acknowledge and uphold one of the most important laws of the land, the Clean Air Act, while implementing the HFRA and CFLR protocols, and by doing so, have violated Americans’ civil right to clean air.

The Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970 to address the growth and complexity of air pollution and stipulates, “to protect and enhance the quality of the Nation’s air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population.”

The Clean Air Act is a complex document with several sections that defines and qualifies clean air qualities and requirements. At the Lone Pine meeting, the LMA officials addressed only one aspect of the Clean Air Act, the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). They stated that the Lion Management Fire smoke had not exceeded this standard at any of the Great Basin Unified APCD air quality monitoring stations. While that is true, the Great Basin Unified APCD does not have sensors in the mid-level or high reaches of the Sierra and therefore cannot quantify smoke impacts to those areas. Given the amount of smoke that poured through Bishop Creek Pass and points further south, it is quite likely that the smoke emissions would have exceeded the NAAQS 24-hour standard had communities and campgrounds in those areas had sensors.

Additionally, the Clean Air Act stipulates that public health and welfare must be protected even when air pollution does not exceed the NAAQS under the Prevention of Significant Deterioration of Air Quality:

To protect public health and welfare from any actual or potential adverse effect which in the Administrator’s judgment may reasonably be anticipate to occur from air pollution or from exposures to pollutants in other media, which pollutants originate as emissions to the ambient air, not withstanding attainment and maintenance of all national ambient air quality standards; (Emphasis added).

Subpart 1 of that same section is of critical importance to the Eastern Sierra tourism-driven economy. It addresses the “mandatory visibility protection” for Class I Areas: the Emigrant, Hoover, Ansel Adams, John Muir, and Kaiser wildernesses and Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks.

To preserve, protect, and enhance the air quality in national parks, national wilderness areas, national monuments, national seashores, and other areas of special national or regional natural, recreational, scenic, or historic value;

To insure that economic growth will occur in a manner consistent with the preservation of existing clean air resources;

To assure that any decision to permit increased air pollution in any area to which this section applies is made only after careful evaluation of all the consequences of such a decision and after adequate procedural opportunities for informed public participation in the decision making process.

Congress hereby declares as a national goal the prevention of any future, and the remedying of any existing, impairment of visibility in mandatory class I Federal areas which impairment results from manmade air pollution.

Clean, clear air is imperative for the Eastern Sierra economy. If the region gets a reputation for poor visibility and choking smoke, tourists will go elsewhere and the region’s communities will wither and die. Therefore, the importance of the mandatory visibility protection for Sierra Class I Areas and the Eastern Sierra cannot be overstated as emphasized in two recent LA Times tourism articles:

California’s Outdoor Economy is Thriving, May 15, 2011

California’s vast outdoor assets are at the center of its $95-billion tourism industry, the state’s fifth-largest job creator. Those resources produce more than just hotel receipts and restaurant tabs. They generate revenue from surfing schools, sporting goods stores, ski resorts, whale watching tours, white-water rafting outfitters and golf courses.

Eastern Sierra Town of Bishop tries to Reel in More Tourists, July 14, 2011

Outdoor recreation plays a vital role in California’s economy, generating an estimated $44 billion in spending annually. But perhaps nowhere in the state are the great outdoors more important to the local economy than in rural towns like Bishop, Wrightwood, Truckee and others that turned to tourism when mining, lumber and similar industries all but dried up.

Almost 70% of Bishop’s revenue comes from tourist spending in hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and sporting goods shops. Bishop’s hotel bed tax alone generated $2.2 million last year, or about a third of the city’s total general fund revenue.

What the LMA officials don’t seem to understand is that, while they’re fire treating the Sierra Nevada ecosystem for the greater good, the Eastern Sierra economy, health, welfare, and quality of life are going up in smoke.

Fire is a natural component of the Sierra Nevada ecosystem, but the LMAs, and indeed Federal policymakers in Washington, can’t expect to reverse 100 years of mismanagement in 10 or 20 years. Haste and shortsighted policies have gotten us into this situation; we need to make sure that more haste and shortsighted policies don’t make the current situation worse instead of better.

Eastern Sierra residents insist that the LMAs uphold the federal and state laws governing air quality and visibility requirements while managing our public lands. For more information on the issue and how to protect your clean air, please go to: www.clearsierra.org.

About the Author

Liz O’Sullivan has lived in the eastern Sierra for 26 years. She became an advocate for air quality and public health and welfare when the federal land management agencies changed their forest management policy from fire suppression to fire treatment and profoundly degraded the Eastern Sierra’s clean air, tourism economy, and quality of life.