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Bulldozers In The Wilderness: Are They Worth The Environmental Cost?

Federally designated wilderness areas are strictly protected. So it raised eyebrows last summer when fire managers brought bulldozers and other heavy equipment into wilderness areas to fight wildfires in Southern Oregon and Northern California. JPR’s Liam Moriarty visited a wilderness area in the Klamath National Forest, to get a look.  

I'm hiking the Poker Flat trail in the Siskiyou Wilderness. We’re in old-growth forest at about 5,000 feet of elevation. Late last summer, the 38,000-acre Natchez fire burned through here ... With me is Luke Ruediger, an activist with the Klamath Forest Alliance, based in nearby Orleans, California.

“So you can see here where they brought in a bulldozer and they scraped an area down to bare mineral soil about 15 feet wide,” he says. “And this extends for maybe two and a half miles into the wilderness area.”

Soon, we come to a place where it looks like a dozer blade pushed right through a stream that feeds into Indian Creek, a tributary of the Klamath River. Ruediger says the disturbed soil along the bank is likely to wash downstream, damaging fish habitat. He says heavy equipment can cause a lot of damage in sensitive wilderness areas like this.

“The noxious weed spread, the soil disturbance, the soil compaction, the soil displacement. And then the sedimentation that leads to in the streams here.”

Ruediger says fire managers are using increasingly aggressive tactics in wilderness, tactics that are taking an ecological toll.

Tim Ingalsbee shares those concerns. Ingalsbee heads a Eugene-based non-profit called Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology.

“Firefighting damages the land, in some cases more significantly than the effects of the fire itself,” he says. “Dozers are the biggest and worst example of that.”

Ingalsbee is a former firefighter himself. He says too often managers see fires as an enemy to be defeated, rather than as a necessary part of forest ecology.

“Fire in wildlands often provides ecological benefits to that system,” he says. “The effects of fire in forests are not the same as the effects of fire in communities.”

Ingalsbee says deploying heavy equipment near homes and communities can make sense. But in remote wildlands, he says, using dozers is expensive, puts operators at risk and is often counterproductive.

Patty Grantham pretty much agrees. Grantham is the Klamath National Forest supervisor. She says -- given the rugged terrain in this region -- using heavy equipment to fight fire in the wilderness is hardly ever the right move.

“It’s not going to buy you anything and it’s probably going to risk the lives of operators significantly in about 99 percent of the situations,” she says.

That’s why – during 11 fire seasons as forest supervisor -- Grantham never used heavy equipment in wilderness … until last summer. What changed?

“In the Nachez fire, its progression was towards the community,” she says. “It was steadily marching towards homes and the community. And we had the ability to try to stop it long before it got there. And that involved using heavy equipment.”

Officials at the Bureau of Land Management say similar concerns led them to deploy bulldozers in the Soda Mountain Wilderness and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument during the Klamathon fire last summer. Elizabeth Burghard is manager of the Medford BLM District.

“Our objective was to keep the fire below the Siskiyou Crest,” she says.

Last July, the Klamathon fire raced north across dry California scrubland, growing to 30,000 acres in two days. The fire destroyed several dozen homes; one man died. Burghard says fire managers faced a crucial decision.

“We knew that if it continued north, it was very likely that it would proceed there, it would be difficult to stop.”

Burghard points out that several small communities – as well as a major power transmission line – were in the fire’s path.

Both Burghard and Patty Grantham say crews repaired the damage when the firefighting was over. But Luke Ruediger is skeptical. He says using more heavy equipment to try to put disrupted wilderness back together is mostly cosmetic.

“You can mask the impacts, but it’s not going to address the actual environmental impacts associated with that use,” he says.

For Patty Grantham, this feels like Monday morning quarterbacking. Last summer, when fires were raging across the landscape and resources were stretched thin, she says, managers made their best call.

“In the moments, in terms of the decisions that have to be made to protect communities and to protect homes and power lines and infrastructure and stuff like that, you make the decisions about what you’re going to do next or the fire makes the decisions for you.”

Grantham says the damage caused by heavy equipment in the wilderness is short term and will heal. Given the other values at risk, she says, that’s a trade-off she’s willing to make.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.