BOISE, Idaho— If the Bureau of Land Management has its way, the future of wildland firefighting may be 11,000 miles of fuel breaks on 223 million acres of public lands in the Northwest and western states.

The federal proposal issued last week calls for removing vegetation in large strips, up to 165 yards wide, on BLM-managed lands in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada and Utah — the region commonly known as a the Great Basin.

Fuel breaks are a proven defense for onrushing wildfires. They’re created by thinning or clearcutting wide swathes of vegetation, usually on both sides of existing roads and rights-of-way. If used properly, BLM says, they could protect about 350,000 square miles by slowing down rangeland fires and given fire crews more time to encircle and extinguish them.

But the project would take place in the heart of sage grouse country, and critics say it could fragment the threatened bird’s habitat, along with that of many other species. Project managers would have to decide whether to remove all vegetation, replant the strips with fire-resistant shrubs, or simply mow the existing plants on a regular schedule.

There’s no dollar cost attached to the massive project yet, but it’s up for public comment at https://go.usa.gov/xnQcG. You can make your input known by Aug. 5, and public meetings are scheduled. The nearest for Washington residents will be held July 10 in Spokane.  

Jefferson Robbins: 679-7013

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