Controversy over Forest Service's Landfire project

Independent report, Wilderness Society question usefulness of $40 million project.

The Forest Service and the Interior Dept are cooperating on a $40 million fire mapping tool to identify communities most at risk of wildfire, but an environmental group has criticized the project because it contains ecological data but none on where people live, the Billings Gazette reports

Federal officials have said that the Landscape Fire and Resource Management Planning Tools Project, or Landfire, will improve their ability to choose high-priority fire-prevention projects.

But an independent government report found the Forest Service has not developed national guidelines to assess the risks communities face from wildfires.

"Forest Service officials believe that Landfire, a new system being developed, will provide more accurate nationwide data so that they can more accurately define and identify a community most at risk," the report said.

Landfire uses satellite imagery to map the land and software models to provide more detailed information about soil, vegetation, climate and fire history.

Although Landfire will serve as a research tool to identify areas that may need ecological restoration and will provide a lot of good information, it will do nothing to identify communities that need protection, said Bo Wilmer, landscape scientist with the Wilderness Society.

"None of the information Landfire relies upon has anything to do with where people actually live," he said. "In terms of identifying communities most at risk, it's really missing the mark."

But government officials say Landfire is well-suited to job it was designed to do.

Landfire has been developed as a tool to identify vegetation conditions across the landscape and where those conditions pose threats, said Dave Tenny, Agriculture Department deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment.

"You use that along with other data sets we have that show where communities are and you just lay one on top of the other," he said. "We already have that (population) information so we didn't have to generate that," Tenny said.

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