Federal Forest Policy Is Killing Forests, Destroying Lives

Flames flare up from a wildfire near Placenta Canyon Road in Santa Clarita, Calif., Sunday, July 24, 2016.(AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

By H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.

Another year, another costly wildfire season—and the federal government is mostly to blame.

Fortunately, this year’s wildfires have not proven as deadly as those in the recent past. The current spate of forest fires in California have yet to claim the lives of any residents or firefighters. Still, though not deadly, the forest fires currently raging throughout California have destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings, forced the evacuation of thousands of people, and permanently scarred and altered an untold number of lives.

Though the fires in California are getting all the attention, the National Interagency Fire Center reports there are 14 large active fires raging throughout Western states, including in Arizona (3), California (5), Colorado (2), Idaho (1), Washington State (1), and Wyoming (2).

Whether natural or started by people, federal mismanagement of national forests has greatly increased the number, size, and cost of wildfires.

Historically—prior to significant and burdensome federal regulations—the national forests were logged to provide lumber for commercial activities, to promote forest recreation, species protection and management, and to prevent wildfires. In recent decades, this has changed. Pressure and lawsuits from environmental lobbyists have prevented or delayed commercial and salvage logging, turning many of our national forests into tinderboxes. In addition, environmentalists have successfully lobbied for thousands of miles of forest roads to be ripped out, making it more difficult to fight wildfires before they grow to uncontainable sizes and endanger population centers.

Twenty years ago, a wildfire exceeding 100,000 acres was deemed to be catastrophic, a sign of an unusually severe fire season. Today, such large-scale fires are increasingly common—largely because timber harvests and road access have declined dramatically.

Timber harvests in the 155 national forests have plunged by more than 80 percent over the past two decades—from 12 billion board feet per year in the 1980s to less than 2 billion board feet per year today. The result? Historically, large ponderosa pines in the Western national forests grew in stands of 20–55 trees per acre; today, they grow in densities of 300–900 trees per acre. National forests in California have an estimated 10–20 times more trees than is “natural”—making them dangerously overcrowded.

Overcrowding contributes to both a decline in forests’ health and species diversity, and it increases the likelihood and severity of fires. If you think people are harmed by wildfires more often than they should, think of their effect on wildlife. Hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of animals are being killed or left homeless when fires destroy habitat or overrun or trap them.

According to Forest Service figures, 60 percent of national forest land is unhealthy, including more than 90 million acres that are rated at “high risk” for catastrophic fires.

This tremendous threat can be dealt with in four ways. First, the mechanical thinning of vegetation and logging should be used to reduce unhealthy forest land.

Second, “controlled” burns should be utilized as a preemptive strike, when needed. Critics of this strategy often point to the Los Alamos controlled burns of 2000, which got out of control and caused significant damage. If we’ve learned anything from that experience, however, it’s not that controlled burns should be avoided; it’s that controlled burns are inherently risky unless there has been some logging of the site before the fires are set.

The third option is the “Burn Baby Burn” option, which we are currently witnessing. This option is deadly, destructive, and unacceptable

A fourth response to the problem of forest mismanagement would be to end federal ownership and control over all but the most sensitive, environmentally unique public lands.

Our forests, those who live near them, those who fight forest fires, and the members of the public who use the forests and pay the bills deserve a forest policy that places public safety above the flawed ideal of “letting nature take its course.” Research shows states, private individuals, conservation organizations, and companies manage the forests they own better than the federal government—with better water quality, higher biodiversity, and fewer dead and dying trees.

Why not, as an experiment, have the federal government sell just some of the hundreds of millions of acres of federal land to see how decentralization fares? Western states, forest product companies, sportsmen’s clubs, and environmental groups have the incentives—and would have the flexibility, too, if given an opportunity—to manage their lands in ways that would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and to reforest their lands promptly when such fires occur.

Unhindered by bureaucratic federal rules, private individuals and groups would be better able to prevent wildfires, by treating insect infestations that kill forests, promptly removing dead and dying timber to prevent infestations from spreading, and keeping the number of trees per acre at an optimal level.

Giving federal forests to states or selling them to private parties would be a boon for wildlife and the economy, giving the public and forest firefighters a much-needed break from government-created fire disasters.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.