President Bush recently announced his "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 down the process. The less excess biomass in the forests, the thinking goes, the less fuel for the sort of monster fires that have devastated the west over the past couple of years. Yet the very fires that have forced him to act prove that the plan won't work.
For instance, the president announced his initiative at the site of the Squires Peak fire near Medford, Oregon. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had thinned 400 acres of forest in the area, but environmental regulatory delays forced them to leave 80 acres untreated. A fire started in those 80 acres and burned uncontrollably, eventually covering 2,800 acres and costing $2.2 million to suppress.
The lesson the administration apparently learned from the Squires Peak fire 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 $4 billion yet leave nearly 90 percent of these acres untreated. Unfortunately, that will leave forest homes and communities as defenseless as they are today.
There is a better way to defend those communities. 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, nearly all of them private.
To defend homes and communities, we should treat those acres and fireproof the homes. This could be done in just one or two years at a tiny fraction of the cost of treating federal lands.
Once homes and communities are protected, the Forest Service and other federal agencies should simply leave the fires alone, which is what fire ecologists agree they should do. Fire crews should make sure fires do not cross onto private lands but otherwise let nature take its course. This would save taxpayers billions of dollars, protect firefighters lives, and improve the health of forest ecosystems.
To understand why this isn't being done, you only have to look at recent Forest Service budgets. Before 2001, declining timber sales forced many national forests to cut staffing. But after the fires of 2000, Congress suddenly doubled fire budgets.
The real problem with forest fire fighting is not a shortage of funds, but too much money. Congress has given the Forest Service a virtual blank check to put out fire and is now giving it a near-blank check to thin forestlands. When you have a blank check to do something, that becomes the only thing you want to do even if something else would work better at a far lower cost.
Similar perverse incentives can be found in the Forest Service timber program. Federal programs indirectly reward forest managers for losing money on timber sales while penalizing them for making money or doing good things for the environment. As long as these perverse incentives are in place, we can't trust the Forest Service to sell timber without the environmental safeguards that President Bush wants to remove.
No hard-and-fast rules can apply to all 600 million highly diverse acres of federal land. Commercial timber sales could improve forest health in some areas. Complete fire suppression may make sense in other areas. Yet the current incentives push the Forest Service to make the wrong decisions in most places.
The solution is to decentralize the national forests and other federal lands so that forest managers can make the right decisions free of political pressure or centralized control. The best way to do this is to stop the flow of budgetary appropriations to the Forest Service. Instead, require that forest managers fund their activities out of their own receipts - including timber, recreation, and other user fees. Congress could supplement those receipts to pay for activities, such as habitat protection, that cannot generate user fees.
While well intentioned, President 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 incentives will do more harm than good. Before giving the Forest Service more blank checks, Congress needs to look at alternatives that will save money, promote forest health, and truly protect communities.