DENR exec: More forest rangers needed for Mt. Banahaw

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Friday, March 21, 2014

DOLORES, Quezon -- Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Calabarzon Regional Executive Director Reynulfo Juan said Friday that authorities are now tightening the monitoring of Mt. Banahaw from trespassers.

In an interview, Juan mulled the tightening of surveillance and monitoring operations and perimeter guards around the Mt. Banahaw-San Cristobal Protected Landscape (MBSCPL) in the wake of pilgrims, devotees, and mystical believers breaching into the restricted areas.

“Our reconnaissance during the aerial inspection using the Philippine Air Force helicopters prompted us to forgo the choppers’ 'Bambi bucket' operations due to strong winds and observed the grassfires have subsided,” Juan said.

Juan, who is concurrent chair of the Protected Areas and Management Board (PAMB) of the MBSCPL, said they are considering to impose tighter restrictions and to extend the moratorium on the public ban at the sacred mountain beyond 2015.

Juan said the grassfires at the Mt. Banahaw peak has dissipated with rains drenching the affected areas but authorities are now tightening the protected landscape from trespassers.

He said the surveillance and assessment teams witnessed only the smoke emitting from the slope from the burnt “cogon and talahib” (reeds) and cinders of grasses and some bushes near the crater going up the Mt. Banahaw peak.

“Strong winds fanned the fires but the blaze did not spread to the outer slope because of the thick foliage and the dense forest cover with the closed canopy forest that served as 'fire break',” Juan said.

He added the Mt. Banahaw grassfire incident is the biggest so far at fire damage affecting 50 hectares and the last highland fire recorded five years ago.

Juan said the fire incident may have been attributed to a natural phenomenon due to very extreme heat and the dry spell with reeds and grasses among the easily combustible materials.

The other cause of fire is human-induced through sheer negligence like the burning candle left by devotees after the prayer ritual conducted near the site.

He said the search team already apprehended five of the 11 devotees, who slipped through the restricted areas and were placed under interrogation at the village station here after descending from the mountain.

“As Holy Week nears with the influx of pilgrims and devotees to the prayer sites, we have to wait for the outcome of the investigation within the next two weeks to impose more restrictions and enforce full restrictions on entry of the public to the protected areas if we cannot control the violators on the moratorium,” he said.

Juan also sought support and cooperation from local government units (LGUs) and agencies to control the entry and maintain the current PAMB resolution to restrict the movement and visit to the protected landscape.

He urged mountain visitors that there is an allowed area they can access in Sitio Kinabuhayan in Dolores, but beyond the perimeter fence, the area is restricted to the public.

“We still have a few forest rangers but they have aged since and we wait for the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) approval to fill in the vacant positions,” Juan said, noting the ratio of a forest ranger guarding the 500 hectare scope in the Mt. Banahaw.

Juan said they expect a month or two for the approval and fill in the positions with younger contractual employees as extension officers because Mt. Banahaw’s 11,000 hectare expanse is currently guarded by only three forest rangers.

“We have developed a strategy to make up for this discrepancy for now by hiring 'bantay gubat' or forest guards and the overwhelming support of the civilian volunteers. But we hope the situation on the lack of manpower would be given due attention and perhaps our legislators also consider increasing our budget for forest protection,” Juan said.

He also dispelled misconception on the status of the volcano which has been declared inactive through historic times and described Mt. Banahaw’s round crater at the peak with drainage towards the down slope.

Mt. Banahaw noted three volcanic eruptions in 1730, 1743 and 1843. (PNA)

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