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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Parks Stewardship Forum

UC Berkeley

National Park Service fire restoration, policies versus results: What went wrong

  • Author(s): Botti, Steve;
  • Nichols, Tom
  • et al.

In the 1960s the US National Park Service developed a policy designed to restore the natural ecological role of wildland fire. The policy was driven by growing understanding of ecosystem management benefits, as reflected in the 1963 Leopold Report on wildlife management in national parks. The new policy was designed to reverse decades of aggressive wildfire suppression that had caused disruptions in habitats and vegetative communities, and unnaturally high wildland fuel accumulation. More than 50 years later, the policy has largely failed to achieve its goals. This failure is due not just to climate change and the rise of new fire regimes dominated by mega-fires. It also was due to a lack of clear and unified organizational commitment by many parks, along with continued administrative comfort with fire suppression-oriented thinking, particularly during the window of opportunity between 1970 and 2000. During this time program emphasis shifted from ecosystem restoration to hazard fuels reduction, and program direction from Natural Resources staff to Emergency Services personnel. Efforts to establish a balance between emergency response thinking and resource management thinking largely failed due to institutional barriers and funding/staffing decisions driven by the threat of large wildfires. Park managers became wary of natural fire regime restoration efforts after the 1988 Yellowstone fires and the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire. This accelerated the demise of the Leopold Report vision of restoring and maintaining the ecological role of natural fire. In its place, wildfire suppression philosophy again became predominant, as reflected in the National Fire Plan with its focus away from ecological fire use and toward hazard fuel reduction in support of protecting the wildland urban interface. Restoring the Leopold Report vision requires an interdivisional commitment by Park emergency response and resources management organizations, guided by leadership at all organizational levels. It now may be timely to establish an NPS advisory board on wildland fire management similar to the one that produced the Leopold Report. This Board should review wildland fire policy implementation over the past 58 years, determine whether the ecosystem restoration paradigm is still valid, and if so, then the types of leadership and organizational changes required to achieve it.

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