The National Interagency Fire Center reports 80 fires are now raging across the country.
The Caldor Fire currently engulfing Lake Tahoe in California has tragically scorched over 140,000 acres and displaced many people from their homes.
It’s unacceptable to tolerate this scale of destruction year after year. Nevertheless, preservationist environmental policies — namely a century of fire suppression — are responsible for our fire mitigation woes.
As these fires expand and grow more intense, Congress and the White House must prioritize proactive forest management. It’s not enough to organize two working groups on the issue. For forest management to be realized, policymakers must identify the root causes of high-intensity fires instead of solely assigning blame to climate change.
A recent IOP Science study of key drivers behind fires determined that live fuel contributes the most to fires (53%) — followed by weather (23%) and climate change (14%). Even in California, top forest scientists point to massive accumulation of wood fuel, not climate change, as the underlying factor behind intense events.
According to the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), the U.S. Forest Service maintains a backlog of 80 million acres requiring restoration and noted 63 million acres susceptible to “high or very high risk of wildfire.”
But instead of listening to the scientists and properly caring for these forests, policymakers have created ideals like “pristine wilderness.” Encouraging “pristine wilderness” is counterproductive because it demands forests to be left untouched — save for a few outdoor recreational activities.
And what has resulted from this? Our national forest public lands have become unmanageable due to being overgrown and overmature. The absence of active management leads forests to experience threats to “forest biodiversity, watersheds, and wildlife populations.” Thus, leading to them becoming fire-prone. Talk about a disaster in the making.
Proactive forest management is a viable alternative. It takes many forms but is perhaps best realized through prescribed burns — one such remedy available.
These burns are critical because, according to a 2017 Advancing Earth and Space Science report, wildfire smoke pollutes three times as much as smoke emanating from prescribed burns.
Why does the Southeast have fewer fire issues compared to the Western U.S.? Seventy percent of controlled burns occur in the former, which is largely private land. One state, Florida, has revolutionized this practice so well that even California is taking a page from them.
Unfortunately, the Clean Air Act deems wildfire smoke as “natural” — while smoke from prescribed burns is “anthropogenic” requiring regulation as a pollutant. This leads to fewer controlled burns. Controlled burns are necessary, however, because they “reduce smoke impacts, consuming accumulated fuels that could otherwise be conducive to wildfires, thus reducing wildfire hazards.” How can environmentalists oppose this remedy on air quality grounds given this information? They shouldn’t.
Another solution is thinning forests. Denser, unmanaged forests are more susceptible to high-intensity fires. The U.S. Forest Service recommends “mechanical thinning” to ameliorate fire risk in national forests. This process focuses on “tree density, tree species distribution, tree age distribution and natural gaps in the canopy.” By thinning dense stands of trees, they can better withstand wildland fires. Reluctance to thin forests leads to “greater tree mortality” and greater susceptibility to infestation and disease from invasive species like the bark beetle. That’s neither good for biodiversity nor the forests.
Sadly, these reforms will be further hindered by impenetrable regulatory red tape. Despite knowing the solutions to the wildfire issues, politicians would rather blame climate change instead of allowing funding and support for the state and federal forestry agencies to take proper action. But there has been some progress in recent years.
The Trump administration proposed Prescribed Fire Guidance to encourage active management. They also touted National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reforms to narrow the definition of “major federation action” to better manage forests and expand on “categorical exclusions” to discourage redundant efforts. The Biden administration should use this as a framework. Failing to take real action would suggest that they’re not serious about tackling the problem.
To conserve forests, human action is necessary. Native Americans viewed prescribed burns as “medicine” to create critical animal habitats, enhance resources, and prevent larger-scale fires. Active forest management policies enable forests to become more resilient and allow for low-intensity, regular fire cycles. Lawmakers would be well-served to incorporate this, among other policy prescriptions, in their rulemaking decisions.
For too long, destructive preservationist policies have guided policymaking in Washington, D.C., to the detriment of both nature and people. The federal government must follow the science and finally get serious about sustainably managing our nation’s forests.