Western Shoshones upset over wildland fire plan

LAS VEGAS - What's viewed as a fire management plan by the Bureau of Land Management is being denounced by some leaders of the Western Shoshone National Council as desecration of aboriginal land.

Over the next two decades, they fear thousands of acres of pinyon pine - a historic food source to the Shoshones - could be lost to wildland flames.

Council officials face a Friday deadline to appeal the Ely BLM District's decision to issue a final plan that includes elements of both ''let it burn'' and intentional fires.

The council contends the document contains the views of only a few Shoshone tribes and that the national governing body was not included in the plan's development.

The BLM intends to let wildfires in designated areas burn naturally up to a point while setting some controlled blazes over the plan's 20-year span to both improve the health of the wildlands and to reduce long-term threats from catastrophic wildfires.

''Obviously, there is no such thing as a 'controlled burn,''' council official Ian Zabarte said, recalling a National Park Service prescribed burn in May that jumped its containment and destroyed more than 200 dwellings in Los Alamos, N.M.

Zabarte contends a lack of notice from the BLM's Ely Field Office violates an executive order that requires all federal agencies to prepare assessment of their effects on minority, low-income populations and those with subsistent lifestyles.

''They haven't done that,'' Zabarte told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Zabarte said the Western Shoshones have a symbiotic relationship with the rugged trees.

''We plant these trees. We pray for these trees. They feed our animals. They feed us,'' he said.

Zabarte said it takes a pinyon pine 75 years to mature and the trees bear fruit - pine nuts - for 400 years.

Gene Kolkman, the BLM's Ely field manager, said he's puzzled by the council's sudden interest in the plan.

''It's very late in the game. A lot of these comments surprised us,'' he said. The Ely Shoshone indicated they need another 40 days. We'll probably give it to them.''

Kolkman said the plan is designed to reduce the amount of trees and brush, particularly dead and dying vegetation, in areas where firefighters have snuffed out natural fires. The fuel load now is so great, he said, that wildfires burn too hot, sterilizing the soil so that newly dropped seeds won't sprout.

''These larger and hotter fires are not healthy for the land,'' Kolkman said.

Zabarte says the plan's environmental assessment is inadequate because it doesn't consider impacts on all of the 10,000 or so Western Shoshones throughout the Southwest.

Zabarte also contends that the plan fails to recognize Western Shoshone's rights to a wide swath of Nevada which cuts diagonally across about one-third of the state - land that he says was never relinquished under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.

BLM's Ely Field Office manages 8 million acres. The 20-year fire management plan covers roughly 3.5 million acres of bureau-controlled public lands

In a worst-case year in the Ely District, wildfires burn 50,000 acres, Kolkman said.

''That's one-half of 1 percent of the pinyon-juniper,'' he said. ''If we assume in the future that it could expand to 100,000 acres, that would be 1 percent of the pinyon-juniper wood base,'' he said.


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