Commentary

Should the Forest Service Have Money to Burn?

This article was published in FOX News Online, December 18, 2002.
On Dec. 12, the Bush administration proposed several new rules intended to speed up Forest Service initiatives to “thin” federal forests. According to proponents, removing deadwood, underbrush, and densely packed younger trees will prevent the large fires that engulfed parts of the West in 2000 and 2002.

The proposal follows Bush’s earlier “healthy forests initiative,” which calls for thinning 2.5 million acres of federal forests a year for 10 years while relaxing environmental standards that might slow the process.

Yet the very fires that motivated the new policies show that they will not protect the forests or the homes of people who live nearby. There is a better solution.

Bush announced his initiative last summer at the site of the Squires Peak fire near Medford, Ore. The government had previously thinned 400 acres in that area, but environmental delays forced them to leave 80 acres untreated. A fire entered those 80 acres and burned uncontrollably, eventually spreading to 2,800 acres and costing $2.2 million to suppress.

The lesson the administration learned from Squires Peak is that environmental delays are bad. That’s the wrong lesson. The real lesson is: Unless you thin every acre, you might as well not thin any at all.

The federal government reports that 70 million acres of federal lands need immediate thinning and another 140 million acres must be thinned soon. The president’s plan to thin 25 million acres in the next 10 years will cost as much as $4 billion yet leave nearly 90 percent of those acres untreated. That will leave forest homes almost as defenseless as they are today.

There is a better way. Forest Service researchers have shown that homes and other structures are safe from wildfire if their roofs are non-flammable and the landscaping within 150 feet of the buildings is made relatively fireproof. A recent Forest Service report estimates there are just 1.9 million high-risk acres with homes and other structures near federal lands. To defend homes and communities, we should treat those acres and fireproof the homes. That could be done in just one or two years at a tiny fraction of the cost of the president’s plan.

Once homes and communities are protected, the Forest Service and other federal agencies should leave most fires alone, as fire ecologists have long recommended. Fire crews should make sure blazes do not cross onto private lands but otherwise let nature take its course. That would save taxpayers billions of dollars, protect firefighters’ lives, and improve forest health.

But if the fire danger in federal forests can be addressed so easily, why isn’t the Forest Service already doing so? To answer that question, we need only look at the agency’s budget over the past several years. Prior to 2001, declining timber sales forced many national forests to cut staffing. But after the fires of 2000, Congress suddenly doubled fire budgets, which increased the overall Forest Service budget by a whopping 38 percent. The Forest Service sees fire as its budgetary savior, so it is promoting the most expensive solution.

The problem is not a shortage of funds, but too much money. Congress has given the Forest Service a blank check to put out fires and is now giving it a near-blank check to thin forests. When you have a blank check to do something, it becomes the only thing you want to do even if something else works better at a far lower cost.

The nation’s forests would be better protected if Congress were to decentralize management decisions to individual forest managers who are less susceptible to political pressure and more responsive to people who live near the forests. Instead of writing blank checks, Congress should require forest managers to fund their activities from revenues generated by timber sales, recreation and other user fees. A portion of those receipts could be dedicated to activities, such as endangered species habitat, that cannot generate user fees.

While well intentioned, Bush’s plan to thin millions of acres of federal land will not protect homes and communities from wildfire. His proposal to lift environmental safeguards without fixing the Forest Service’s perverse incentives will do more harm than good. Before writing more blank checks, Congress needs to look at alternatives that will save money, promote forest health and truly protect communities.

Randal O’Toole is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and author of “Reforming the Fire Service”.