The Forest Service’s Tinderbox


Forest fires in the United States devastated more than seven million acresin 2000, the worst fire season in the past 50 years. By the end of lastyear, the federal government had spent more than $1 billion in efforts tofight the blazes. Government officials blamed a number of natural causes –dry weather, high temperatures and strong winds — for the severity of thefires. But forest fires are not wholly unavoidable natural disasters.

In fact, over the last decade, it was more important to the Clintonadministration to promote “wilderness values” by creating roadless areas andtaking other actions to exclude a human presence. This aggravated lastsummer’s tinderbox forest conditions and continues to threaten public land.

The heightened danger to national forests is, ironically, the result oflongstanding federal efforts to suppress fires going back many decades.Those efforts have produced an enormous buildup of small trees, under-brush,and deadwood that provide “excess fuels” to feed flames. Before the policyof fire suppression, small fires in many forests cleared away excess fuelsand thinned competing plant life, leaving these forests less susceptible todevastating fires like the ones of 2000.

Since the advent of the Smokey Bear era in the 1940s, tree density in manyfederal forests has increased from 50 per acre to as much as 300 to 500 peracre. Federal forests are filled with dense stands of small, stressed treesand plants that combine with dry deadwood to provide virtual kindling woodfor forest fires. Those conditions will probably worsen in the coming yearsin the Pacific northwest as the spotted owl protection plan increasinglylimits management options.

Also, because of federal “reforms” launched in the 1970s there is widespreadconfusion today over land management procedures and purposes. Those reformshave transferred much public land decision‐​making to non‐​government groups –environmentalists, developers, timber companies — that have enough legalskill and money to use the courts to override executive decisions.

A management regime now exists in which no one is responsible or accountablefor land management. Government inattention through the 1990s to foresters’repeated warnings of the growing risk of catastrophic fires illustrates thisconfusion, lack of responsibility and gridlock.

Underlying the gridlock is a growing uncertainty about the mission of thenational forests. For many decades, government foresters managed the landsaccording to a “multiple use” philosophy that encouraged a variety of uses.This reflected a clear utilitarian goal of maximizing human benefits frompublic recreation, timber harvesting, water supplies, livestock grazing andother uses.

The enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and other legislationshifted the focus of management efforts away from human utility to promotingthe ecological condition of the forest for its own sake. Top governmentofficials in the 1990s embraced the philosophy of “ecosystem management“that puts a high premium on achieving forest outcomes that are “natural.”

The Forest Service now works to restore national forests to the ecologicalcondition they had prior to European westward expansion. As part of thiseffort, agency researchers perform historical and scientific studies todetermine the actual status of forests in the mid‐ to late‐​nineteenthcentury.

This philosophy implies a negative moral judgment on much of modernindustrial society. It converts national forests into theme parks of thepast instead of preserving them as valuable sources of wood, recreation andother outputs.

If the Forest Service and other agencies want to improve the health offederal forests and decrease the danger of massive fires, they must committo a policy of reducing fuel loads in these forests. As part of this effort,officials should promote controlled commercial harvesting of small diametertrees that can be used by such industries as oriented strand boardmanufacturing, paper production, and biomass electricity generation. Theseindustries could make efficient use of the wood and might also providesignificant revenue to the federal treasury from the tree sales — whilereducing fire risks substantially.

In the long run, the federal government should hand the management of mostof the national forests over to the states. The current federal ownership ofalmost 50 percent of the West’s total land area is an historical anomalypreserved by large outlays of federal funds to maintain these lands.

Unless new approaches to land management are adopted, the people of theAmerican West will continue to face a large risk of catastrophic forestfires. Perhaps they must accept some risk for the sake of other forestvalues, but these citizens — not federal administrators or Washingtonpoliticians — should be the ones to set policy and make life‐​and‐​deathdecisions about management of the forests.

Robert H. Nelson

Robert H. Nelson is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs and senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. A longer version of this article appears in the latest edition of the Cato Institute magazine Regulation.