If You Love Forests, Let Them Burn

[This post was co-authored by Brian Isom.]

Today marks 49 years since Earth Day was first established by Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI). Since then, the United States has made great strides towards improving the nation’s collective impact on the environment. Air pollution has fallen drastically. Efforts to clean up Superfund sites have removed toxic contaminants from hundreds of lands and rivers.

One place where we are failing, however, is healthy management of our forests. Nearly a century of anti-wildfire sentiments has damaged forest ecosystems and driven up the cost of preventing and controlling wildfires. It’s time to embrace fire as a natural part of the American landscape and a crucial means of preventing devastating blazes.

Following the Great Fire of 1910, which devastated large swathes of timberland in Northern Idaho and Western Montana, fire management policy began to focus largely on fire prevention and suppression. The US Forest Service (USFS), the main public agency charged with managing wildfires, established a policy to put out all fires before they consumed 10 acres.

About a decade later, USFS updated that policy to have all fires out by 10 am the morning following the discovery of a new blaze. That policy endured for decades before its repeal in 1978, when fire managers began to realize that not all forest fires needed to be doused immediately. That recognition was progress in the right direction, but a suppression-heavy focus on fire management has continued to drive policy even today.

Fire suppression, however, is an expensive answer to stopping wildfires and it has taken a major toll on the budgets of US fire management agencies like the USFS. Twenty years ago, in 1998, US spending on wildfire suppression totaled a little more than $400 million. By 2008, those costs had risen to nearly $1.6 billion. Just last year, fire managers spent a combined $3.1 billion on suppression efforts. That spending also failed to stop states like California from suffering the most destructive wildfire season in recent history.

Suppression efforts not only increase the cost of fighting fires, but they deprive ecosystems that have adapted to the considerable benefits of wildfires. Fire confers a number of important positive ecological advantages on forests, like clearing out dead brush, preventing overgrowth, and eliminating disease and invasive pests.

Fast forward to today and it is easy to see the negative effects of the fire-suppression mindset. Side-by-side comparisons of forests from a century ago and today show that forests have become much denser since we began to aggressively suppress fires. In some parts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, more than 90 percent of the trees are dead. The lack of fire as a cleansing mechanism has turned many western forests into veritable tinderboxes ready to go up in flames at the first spark.

So how do we fix a century of bad forest management? We get back to what worked. We let forests burn.

That isn’t to say we need to start letting fires burn out of control. Tens of millions of Americans currently live in at-risk fire areas, and ways must be found to protect those communities. But one of our best options for doing so—from an ecological and economic standpoint—lies in preventative, controlled burning.

Controlled burning is a method of preventative management by which managers actually set up, start, and actively monitor fires to reduce dead brush buildup and overgrowth in forests. This method of prevention provides two key benefits over suppression—it reintroduces fire to fire-adapted landscapes, and it reduces wildfire risk at a fraction of the cost of suppression. Controlled burning, after all, is how Native Americans managed western lands for centuries

Public perceptions of wildfire danger and environmental regulation, however, have created barriers to implementing controlled burns in western landscapes. The Clean Air Act, for example, regulates emissions from controlled burns but does nothing to regulate emissions from wildfires, even though wildfire smoke contains three times as much particulate matter as smoke from controlled burns.

Policymakers need to re-evaluate the effectiveness of controlled burning for managing future forest fires. Removing barriers to managed burns in western forests not only will reduce the cost and scope of wildfire disasters, but will restore an ecologically important practice to western landscapes.

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Brian Isom is a research manager at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University and a policy fellow at the Independent Institute.

William F. Shughart II is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice.
Posts by William F. Shughart II | Full Biography and Publications
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