By Nate Scherer, American Consumer Institute
Wildfires present a growing danger to communities across America, particularly on the west coast. As the earth’s climate continues to warm and the dry season grows longer, wildfires are wreaking havoc on the nation’s forests, sometimes spreading to nearby towns where they threaten people’s businesses, property, and lives.
In 2021 alone, the National Interagency Coordination Center estimates there were 58,985 wildfires in the U.S. that burned over seven million acres. Commercial weather forecasting giant AccuWeather estimated these fires cost the U.S. between $70 and $90 billion in damages. These wildfires also cost insurance companies between $7 and $13 billion annually, putting undue pressure on their financial viability and spilling over onto homeowners in the form of higher premiums.
This is an almost unconscionable amount of damage being done each year to our nation’s forests, and to thousands of Americans, and much of it is preventable. While a significant amount of time is already spent by legislators each year debating how best to combat climate change, far less time has been spent discussing how better forest management policies could greatly reduce the level of devastation wrought by wildfires.
Fortunately, a growing body of research suggests there are management practices the U.S. can adopt, including a combination of mechanical tree thinning, forest treatments like mastication, and controlled fires. In a recently released Wildfire Crisis Strategy plan called Confronting the Wildfire Crisis, the U.S. Forest Service convincingly argues that overgrown forests are unhealthy forests that, over time, build up significant amounts of debris and underbrush making them susceptible to large fires. The solution is proactive forest management.
The U.S. Forest Service plan details how historically western forests were far less dense than they are today with trees often growing in clusters of “two to 20, interspersed with several small gaps.” These forests thrived in a cooler climate where small fires frequently burned through the landscape, cutting down on excess shrubbery and forest debris, and eliminating the potential for the far more explosive wildfires that are common today. In addition, indigenous peoples regularly utilized controlled burns for both cultural and practical purposes rooted in the philosophy that “fire was medicine.” The controlled use of fire allowed for the growth of traditional foods, easier travel, and for the hunting of game. It also served as an early forest management technique.
Unfortunately, this all changed at the turn of the century when in 1911 the federal government put in place a policy that effectively banned fires as a forest management tool. Since that time, the U.S. has essentially taken a zero-tolerance approach to wildfires that have, over the last several decades, contributed to the overcrowding of forests and the buildup of flammable material.
More recently, the U.S. has greatly reduced trees harvests on federal lands. Since the early 1990s, a steady stream of litigation by environmental activists has prevented the federal government from carrying out forest treatment plans that utilize timber harvests. These activists increasingly see timber harvests of any kind as incompatible with forest ecology, and the protection of certain endangered species on the Endangered Species Act, like the northwest spotted owl. Therefore, they have gone to great lengths to end the practice.
Federal policymakers have responded to the increase in litigation by passing measures like the 1994 North West Forest Plan (NWFP) which prioritized wildlife conservation over timber production. The net result has been a significant decline in timber harvests and a paradigm shift among some policymakers who no longer see forest thinning as a valuable forest management technique.
That is why it is encouraging to see that the U.S. Forest Service has proposed a new 10-year plan that utilizes the latest science to expand forest treatments and combat the threat wildfires pose to communities. For instance, the plan cites work by researchers at the Pacific Southwest Research Station who in 2021 conducted a study on the effects of forest thinning on tree mortality in California during prolonged periods of draught. The study found that in forests selectively thinned between the years 2011 and 2013, the rate of tree mortality declined considerably compared to forests that did not receive such a treatment.
Numerous other studies have documented similar benefits to proactive forest management. For example, a recently published study in the journal Forest Ecology and Management found that “mechanical thinning without prescribed fire” use can have moderating effects on the behavior of wildfire. The study specifically looked at whether tree thinning can still help mitigate the effects of large forest fires in the absence of controlled burns. Since there are a number of regulatory and logistical barriers to using fire as a forest management technique, researchers wanted to know whether mechanical forest thinning alone was still a productive use of resources. What they found is that “fuel reduction and fire risk management objectives can be met with mechanical thinning alone for a number of years.”
In a separate study conducted in 2020 by the University of Washington and U.S. Forest Service, researchers found that “previous tree thinning and prescribed burns” protected forests during the large 2014 Carlton Complex Fire in north central Washington. Fuel treatments, which included the removal of small and medium sized trees, improved the overall health and resiliency of the forests during extreme weather events like draughts and forest fires.
The research is clear. While a warming climate certainly contributes to the severity and prevalence of wildfires, forest management plays an equally important role in mitigating the worst effects of these fires, which are a threat not only to our forests, but also to the property of some 4.5 million Americans.
Therefore, it is time for elected officials to begin focusing their attention on substantial reforms to forest management that integrate the best practices of the U.S. Forest Service and experts in their field of study. Mechanical tree thinning and controlled burns could do much to cut down on the level of destruction currently inflicted on U.S. forests and property each year due to things within our control. They would cost relatively little, boost timber revenue, and help return American forests to the healthy state that existed prior to the introduction of foreign and unsustainable forest management practices.
Nate Scherer is a Policy Analyst with the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit us on www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org.