“ Rhetoric attempting to link the ESA to the deaths must stop.”
Steve Moyer , Vice President for Conservation Progr, TU (703) 284-9406
Vice President for Conservation Progr
9/26/2001 -- Arlington, VA --
A U.S. Forest Service internal investigation has shown that, contrary to allegations of some members of Congress, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and endangered trout and salmon did not cause the death of four firefighters this summer in Washington State.
The results of the investigation, which were released today in a formal report, found that a number of factors contributed to the deaths including operational problems with water pumps and the failure to follow fire-fighting safety procedures. The report also cited a lack of understanding by some fire-fighting personnel with respect to endangered species consultation issues and responsibilities.
Over the summer at a Congressional hearing, Congressman Scott McInnis of Colorado, citing unnamed sources, constructed a timeline of events of the tragedy that he used to justify allegations that the ESA may have been responsible for the deaths. According to McInnis, the existence of endangered fish in the river near the fire may have prevented the helicopter from pulling out water to fight the fire in a timely manner. Mr. McInnis and six other members of Congress, in a letter to Forest Service Chief Bosworth, then expanded their allegations to implicate key fish habitat programs (called PACFISH and INFISH) recently instituted by the agency. Today’s report refutes these ill-conceived allegations.
A 1995 memorandum from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the ESA, gave specific guidance to firefighting agencies in regards to implementing the provisions of the Act in the case of a fire. It made clear that firefighter safety is the agencies’ primary responsibility in a fire, noting that, “No constraints for protection of endangered species or their habitat will be considered if they place firefighters in danger.” The memo then added in capitol letters, “FIREFIGHTER SAFETY COMES FIRST ON EVERY FIRE, EVERY TIME.”
“The findings of this investigation make clear that, contrary to the allegations of some members of Congress, the ESA and endangered trout and salmon were not responsible for the firefighters’ deaths. Those who made that claim either misread the law and its accompanying guidance or did so as part of a calculated effort to politicize these tragic deaths and undermine the Act,” said Steve Moyer, Trout Unlimited’s Vice President for Conservation Programs.
“Either way, out of respect for these firefighters and their families, the rhetoric attempting to link the ESA to these deaths must stop. We work closely with the Forest Service and the federal fisheries agencies to protect and restore fish habitat. We know their dedicated professionals well. To be clear, neither Trout Unlimited, the Forest Service, nor the federal resource agencies have ever had or supported policies that placed endangered species above the lives of firefighters.”
The report found that while there was confusion among some firefighting personnel over the impact of the ESA on taking water out of the river via helicopter, other factors of much greater significance caused the tragedy.
Moyer said it is incumbent on the U.S. Forest Service and other firefighting agencies, in addition to putting in place systems to prevent future fire tragedies from occurring, to provide firefighting supervisors with the 1995 ESA guidance memorandum from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to do everything possible to prevent the likelihood of future tragedies like that one that occurred this summer in the Cascades,” he said.