The California Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the voice for our wild public lands, waters, and wildlife in the Golden State, is closely monitoring the Forest Service District 5 decision to close all 18 National Forests in California due to the numerous, devastating fires tearing through the state. We have been in contact with USFS representatives at the highest levels regarding this issue since last year when we began closely monitoring public land closures relating to fire danger across the state.
First and most importantly, we would like to thank the brave men and women at CalFire, the USFS Wildlands Firefighters, and others who are fighting these dangerous conflagrations. They are putting their lives on the line to protect people, property and our public lands from these unprecedented dangers, and we are extremely grateful for their hard work. Many of these men and women are members and volunteer leaders with our organizations and our comments are informed by their frontline perspectives.
We understand that the wildfire risk is high in all areas of our state and sympathize with USFS and CalFire who are already taxed and overextended with limited resources to begin with. We also support necessary closures in active fire zones and acknowledge the volatility of fire conditions across California. We believe, however, that public lands that lie hundreds of miles away from active wildfires should remain open to the public for recreation, including hunting and angling – particularly during hunting seasons that only come once a year. This is consistent with management practices in neighboring jurisdictions and other western states and provides a model that could be emulated here.
It is no secret that California and the West are facing dramatic drought, and that in the last few years catastrophic wildfires have destroyed homes, towns, and entire ecosystems in the state. It is also clear that the danger from wildfires will not abate anytime soon. That said, the wholesale closure of public lands - especially when adjacent national park lands remain open—is troubling. This has a disproportionate impact on hunters since hunting isn't allowed on National Park lands. The regional disparities also create confusion when Forest Service lands that make up a contiguous habitat remain open in one state and closed across the border to another, as is the case along the Oregon/California border. Last year, blanket closures were called “historic” and “unprecedented,” but sweeping closures again this year suggest that management practices are shifting. We strongly encourage decision makers at the Forest Service in Region 5 to implement only targeted restrictions for public land closures.
We understand the difficult position management agencies are in and welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues with USFS and other decision makers so that we might explore strategies for fire prevention and forest management that allow for continued access of lands that are not in imminent wildfire danger. It will take significant, sustained investments from state and federal entities to address the issue of wildfires across the West to support the Forest Service's mission of "caring for the land and serving the people." Know that we are eager to work side-by-side with the USFS in keeping our public lands healthy, safe and accessible to all Californians by investing our own time and resources and encouraging responsible behavior while recreating on our public lands.
Further, we are aware that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Fish and Game Commission and the Wildlife Resources Committee may be considering changes to big game hunting seasons to avoid public land closures during the peak hunting season. To that end, the Chapter encourages and looks forward to the agencies engaging with hunters, biologists, local communities, and stakeholders like BHA to ensure that hunters have a significant voice in the process and continue to have expansive hunting and fishing opportunities on public land throughout the state.
We will continue to update our members and the hunting community in California about how to stay informed on this issue and when and where to provide public comment.