WASHINGTON — Forest Service wildfire spending has exploded out of control. The expenditure on fire and hazardous fuel treatments has grown by 450 percent in the past 15 years. The scientific justification for such spending is weak, says Randal O’Toole, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, in a report that proposes bold reforms for the fire program.
In the policy analysis “The Perfect Firestorm: Bringing Forest Service Wildfire Costs under Control,” O’Toole indicts bad science and bureaucratic growth for sticking Americans with a burgeoning tax bill to fund the Forest Service. The Forest Service’s long history of manipulating research and public opinion to justify increased fire budgets began in 1908, when Congress took the extraordinary step of giving the agency a blank check for fire suppression. While Congress repealed that law in 1978, it continues to give the agency almost anything it requests for fire, and the Forest Service fire managers continue to operate as if there were no spending limits.
The result has been a massive shift in the priorities for national forest management, as some national forests are getting 60 percent or more of their funds from fire programs. Yet research shows that the Forest Service’s one‐size‐fits‐all solution to fire hazards can ecologically damage many forests even as it wastes taxpayers’ money.
“Changes should divorce the agency, or at least its fire program, from Congress’s blank check. They should also decentralize decision making so local decisions will respond to local economic and ecological conditions,” he states.
Different forests have different levels of susceptibility to severe fires, and some ecologists believe “more fires ought to be allowed to burn in the national forests.” Extremely volatile fires only pose a threat to approximately 15 percent of national forests.
While the Forest Service is presently attempting an exercise to contain its fire costs, O’Toole dismisses this strategy as “little more than another piece of red tape that is likely to increase, not reduce, firefighting costs.” O’Toole suggests several solutions in order to rein in the Forest Service’s costs while keeping American forests healthy: The agency could provide insurance incentives to homeowners who take effective measures to fireproof their property; it could allow the forest managements to buy insurance rather than providing unlimited public funds to recoup losses.
Finally, the Forest Service, ineffective and expensive as it is, could be abolished. Firefighting duties in America’s forests could become the province of the states or private industry, while taxpayers would no longer have to support a colossal and wasteful federal agency.