Clean, clear air is a vital economic necessity for Eastern Sierra communities because we rely on tourists from across the country and beyond to visit and enjoy our legendary landscape. Over the last few years the Eastern Sierra’s air quality and clarity has slowly deteriorated as new federal forest management protocols, meant to reverse 100 years of forest mismanagement, have been implemented by land management agencies (LMAs). These protocols, based upon fire “treatments,” are meant primarily to reduce wildfire management costs, protect Sierra communities from catastrophic fires, and promote healthy forests. One result of these new protocols is that the Eastern Sierra is impacted by smoke on an almost daily basis, ranging from haze to emissions that exceed federal and state standards. Eastern Sierra residents have not been notified of this shift in policy, let alone had a voice in the creation or implementation of these new protocols; nevertheless, the loss of our air quality will severely undermine the foundations of our economy, our quality-of-life, and our health.

In 2003, Congress passed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act and supplemented it in 2009 with the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. These Acts use terminology such as “forest health,” “forest landscape restoration,” and “forest treatment” but in reality this new protocol boils down to forest burning. The first fire treatment, hazardous fuel reduction projects, consists of “mechanical restoration”, i.e., thinning the forest and burning the slash in piles. An example of this is the slash currently piled along Highway 395 north of Wilson Butte. The second treatment, prescribed fire, burns the forest understudy “biomass.” The last treatment, natural fire regimes, allows naturally ignited wildfires to burn for months or until natural events put them out. Until recently, all of these treatments were subject to a smoke management plan (SMP) drafted by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and implemented by the Air Pollution Control District (APCD) of the region. The Great Basin Unified APCD oversees the Eastern Sierra, while the San Joaquin Unified APCD, Mariposa and Tuolumne Counties APCD oversee the west side. These SMPs require LMAs to identify smoke sensitive areas such as “towns and villages, campgrounds, trails, populated recreational areas, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, roads, airports, public events, shopping centers, and Class I Areas” and have contingency plans should smoke impact these sensitive areas. Currently, it appears that naturally ignited fires, which are allowed to burn for land management purposes, are no longer subject to SMPs and that the CARB cannot regulating them for impacts to smoke sensitive areas.

While LMAs have a directive to restore forest health, Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks’ current implementation of the naturally ignited Sheep, Slope, and Vernon wildfires violates Eastern Sierra residents’ civil right to clean air under the Clean Air Act (CAA) which was created “to protect public health and welfare from any actual or potential adverse effect [ . . . ] to occur from air pollution or from exposures to pollutants in other media, which pollutants originate as emissions to the ambient air.” Given the fact that both Parks could have put these fires out once they started in July and August, it is obvious they are not particularly concerned about the economy, health, or wellbeing of a handful of small Eastern Sierra communities.

The CAA established 156 national parks and wilderness areas as mandatory Class I areas and directed the EPA to “establish rules to remedy any existing visibility impairment and prevent any future impairment in Class I federal areas resulting from manmade air pollution.” Locally, these Class I areas include the South Sierra, John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Mokelumne Wildernesses, and Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. The Park Service is currently and conveniently sidestepping the CAA and the region’s Class I areas regarding the Sheep, Slope, and Vernon fires’ smoke because they can argue that these naturally ignited wildfires are not “manmade.” If private industry were to pollute our Class I viewsheds in this way, they would be sanctioned and fined, but since the gross polluter is the Federal Government they can excuse themselves by claiming a Congressional directive and that their actions are “for the greater good.”

This fire season, the LMAs have issued a steady stream of press releases that smoke from their naturally ignited management wildfires is having minimal impact on the Eastern Sierra and that it does not “threaten human safety or property.” These statements are patently untrue. Studies by scientific organizations such as the American Lung Association, the New England Journal of Medicine, and University of California, Davis, and the Washington State Department of Ecology find that wood smoke has dramatic and negative impacts on human health that can result in lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, congenital heart defects, asthma, and even brain damage as well as a shortened life expectancy. An EPA study states, “breathing wood smoke particles during high pollution days is equivalent to smoking 4 to 16 cigarettes.”

Despite the well-documented negative effects of wood smoke on human health, Great Basin Unified APCD (GB) is powerless to protect Eastern Sierra residents from the pervasive, long-lasting effects of forest management smoke. When smoke from these management fires exceeded federal and state standards, over the Labor Day weekend, GB Air Pollution Control Officer, Ted Schade, told the Mammoth Times, “If there was even an inch of that fire in our district, I could give them a ticket. But I can’t.” One thing GB could have done was issue a Health Advisory over the Labor Day weekend when emissions exceeded standards but apparently they are only capable of issuing notices during business hours. Additionally, GB has only two smoke sensors and these are located on the valley floor in Bishop and Lone Pine. This makes it impossible to quantify the smoke that stratifies at different elevations and impacts communities such as Aspendell and Swall Meadows and campgrounds such as Whitney Portal and Rock Creek, which are closer to the Sierra crest.

Currently, the Secretary of the Interior is accepting “restoration projects” from LMAs to fund “ecological restoration treatments.” Some of the criteria for funding eligibility are a 10-year plan and treatment of “at least 50,000 acres” of forest. The Sierra National Forest has already submitted the Dinkey Landscape Restoration Project. This project, starting this year, will “treat approximately 3,100 acres and generate 6.1 million board feet of timber and 3,052 acres of prescribed fire. The 10-year treatment schedule includes 34,000 acres of mechanical restoration and up to 40,000 acres of prescribed fire treatment.” This is only one forest, and one project. There will be more projects put into operation soon, more burning, and more smoke in the Eastern Sierra as LMAs lower their overhead costs for catastrophic wildfires with “fire treatments.” Many Eastern Sierra residents will be directly impacted by these new fire protocols with allergies, sinus infections, asthma, other respiratory problems, medical bills, and lost days at work. Our region’s economy will suffer as tourists, photographers, campers, and the film industry,

frustrated by the poor visibility and impaired scenic vistas, go elsewhere. If you are concerned about our air quality contact the California Air Resources Board:

Mr. John DaMassa, Chief
Meteorology Department
California Air Resources Board

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.