The Perfect Firestorm: Bringing Forest Service Wildfire Costs under Control

April 30, 2007 • Policy Analysis No. 591
Executive Summary

Blessed and cursed by a Congress that gives it a virtual if not literal blank check for fire protection, the Forest Service’s fire spending is out of control. Prodded by a centralized planning and budgeting process, the agency’s expensive, onesize‐ fits‐​all approach to wildfire does not fit the extremely diverse 193 million acres of national forests.

The Forest Service’s program—which consists of spending close to $300 million per year treating hazardous fuels and as much as $2 billion a year preparing for and suppressing fires—will not restore the national forests to health or end catastrophic fire in most of those forests. In many forests it may do more harm than good.

Forest Service plans are based on the notion that western national forests suffer from an unnatural accumulation of hazardous fuels. In fact, that is probably true for no more than about 15 percent of those forests. The appropriate treatments on the remaining 85 percent may be as diverse as the forests themselves.

Significant structural changes in the Forest Service are essential to control fire costs. Those changes should divorce the agency, or at least its fire program, from Congress’s blank check. They should also decentralize decisionmaking so local decisions will respond to local economic and ecological conditions.

This paper suggests several possible structural changes, including

  • Cost‐​containment programs (effectively the current direction);
  • Focusing efforts on the wildland‐​urban interface, which is mostly nonfederal land;
  • Relying on private insurance to fund (and control the costs of) emergency fire suppression;
  • Turning national forest fire control over to state and local fire protection districts;
  • Turning national forests into fiduciary trusts funded exclusively out of their own user fees; and
  • Abolishing the Forest Service and turning the lands over to the states.

Because the actual situation varies greatly from one region to another, it may be that no one of these solutions will work for all federal lands. To find the solution or solutions that work best, Congress should apply some or all of these alternatives to one or more national forests on an experimental basis. Such experiments will help point the way to future wildfire management.

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