The Perfect Firestorm: Bringing Forest Service Wildfire Costs under Control

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Executive Summary

Blessed and cursed by a Congress that gives ita virtual if not literal blank check for fire protection,the Forest Service's fire spending is out ofcontrol. Prodded by a centralized planning andbudgeting process, the agency's expensive, onesize-fits-all approach to wildfire does not fit theextremely diverse 193 million acres of nationalforests.

The Forest Service's program—which consistsof spending close to $300 million per year treatinghazardous fuels and as much as $2 billion ayear preparing for and suppressing fires—will notrestore the national forests to health or end catastrophicfire in most of those forests. In manyforests it may do more harm than good.

Forest Service plans are based on the notionthat western national forests suffer from an unnaturalaccumulation of hazardous fuels. In fact, thatis probably true for no more than about 15 percentof those forests. The appropriate treatments on theremaining 85 percent may be as diverse as theforests themselves.

Significant structural changes in the ForestService are essential to control fire costs. Thosechanges should divorce the agency, or at least itsfire program, from Congress's blank check. Theyshould also decentralize decisionmaking so localdecisions will respond to local economic and ecologicalconditions.

This paper suggests several possible structuralchanges, including

  • Cost-containment programs (effectively thecurrent direction);
  • Focusing efforts on the wildland-urbaninterface, which is mostly nonfederal land;
  • Relying on private insurance to fund (and controlthe costs of) emergency fire suppression;
  • Turning national forest fire control over tostate and local fire protection districts;
  • Turning national forests into fiduciarytrusts funded exclusively out of their ownuser fees; and
  • Abolishing the Forest Service and turningthe lands over to the states.

Because the actual situation varies greatly fromone region to another, it may be that no one ofthese solutions will work for all federal lands. Tofind the solution or solutions that work best,Congress should apply some or all of these alternativesto one or more national forests on anexperimental basis. Such experiments will helppoint the way to future wildfire management.

Randal O’Toole

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