Commentary

U.S. Forest Service Has Money to Burn

The Forest Service has changed from an agency that manages recreation, wildlife, watershed and other resources to one that focuses mainly on fire

A few weeks ago, the secretary of Agriculture gave the U.S. Forest Service a special award for “exemplary leadership and accomplishment in reducing the risk of catastrophic fire.” At that time, wildfires in 2007 had already burned nearly 1,900 homes and other structures along with nearly twice as many acres as the average burned in any decade prior to 2003. The fires that have roared through Southern California this month have only made this award more ironic.

The firestorms will lead some to propose bigger budgets for the Forest Service and other fire-suppression agencies. That is exactly the wrong solution. If anything, the Forest Service has too much money. Its fire budgets have quintupled in the past 15 years.

This mountain of money creates bad incentives both within the Forest Service and for homeowners near federal lands. With a blank check for fire suppression, the Forest Service has changed from an agency that manages recreation, wildlife, watershed and other resources to one that focuses mainly on fire.

To keep the money flowing, the Forest Service implicitly promises to save homes from fire. “While wildland fire is an element of natural ecosystem processes,” the agency recently told Congress, “catastrophic wildland fire is not.” In other words, give the Forest Service enough money, and it will stop catastrophic fire.

The Forest Service is wrong. Most Western forests are ecologically adapted to catastrophic fires. In forests of Northwest Douglas fir, such fires occur every 500 years or so. In Southern California chaparral forests, they take place every 30 to 100 years. Such fires can be prevented only by drastic changes that would threaten with extinction hundreds of species of plants and animals.

Instead of spending billions on the forests, we need to focus on the homes in forested landscapes. The best way to protect such homes is to follow some simple principles. Most important: Roofs should be nonflammable, and vegetation around the homes should be planned and managed so that the radiant heat from wildfires does not set buildings on fire. Such homes are called “firewise,” and the detailed requirements are described at www.firewise.org.

Some neighborhoods in San Diego County are so thoroughly firewise that residents are advised that they can “shelter in place” during a fire. In fact, it may be safer for residents to stay inside such homes than to evacuate. The recent fires reached some of these neighborhoods, yet did not manage to burn a single home.

All homes near public forests and other wildlands could be designed this way. One reason they are not comes back to the money: As long as the Forest Service has a blank check to protect homes, homeowners feel little need to replace their pretty cedar-shake roofs and control their yard vegetation. Although some insurance companies are starting to change, most rely on the Forest Service and other fire agencies to protect the properties they cover.

It might seem more efficient to spend some of the money now being spent on suppression by helping homeowners make their homes firewise. But why should taxpayers pay to protect the homes of people who build in fire-prone landscapes — especially when most of those people tend to be wealthier than the average taxpayer? It would be better to quickly phase out the Forest Service’s fire program, giving homeowners and insurers notice that they will need to make their properties firewise or expect their homes to burn in catastrophic fires that are going to occur no matter what we do.

That doesn’t mean we should simply let the federal forests burn. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution for managing fire on federal lands. Some need more fire, some need more fire suppression.

The best way to fix the Forest Service is to fund the national forests out of user fees rather than tax dollars. This will give forest managers the incentives to find the best solutions for their particular forest ecosystems. Since recreation is likely to be the most important source of such fees, it will also give managers an incentive to protect the scenic beauty, clean water, wildlife, and other things that are valued by recreationists. And that will benefit everyone.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a forest economist with 30 years of experience studying national forest issues.