For decades, wildfires have been treated as the enemy of the U.S. Forest Service. Firefighters “battle” them, and “only you” can prevent them.
But a group of researchers – including a Forest Service ecologist – say the public needs to pressure the agency and other land managers to accept and embrace smaller-scale wildfires to prevent the worst of them.
As California endures another destructive fire season, the ecologist, five academics and one wilderness advocate authored an opinion piece in this month’s edition of the journal Science. The authors describe a problem they say is painfully obvious to those who study the nation’s forests: Following decades of aggressive suppression of all manner of fire, too many forests have grown unnaturally dense. The fires that aren’t immediately extinguished in these unnatural conditions rage out of control with furious intensity, torching nearly every last tree and menacing rural communities.
Their solution: Set more controlled fires under the right conditions and allow the less-intense fires that occur naturally in the deep woods to burn. They note that, under current practice, 98 percent of wildfires are suppressed before they reach 300 acres. In addition, they call for selective logging and thinning that they say could make the woods better suited to contain fires and create safety buffers for rural towns “to facilitate greater fire re-introduction.”
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The authors describe “entrenched disincentives” they say have prevented land managers from restoring the nation’s woods to a more natural state. Congressional budgets for the Forest Service, which incurs 70 percent of national firefighting costs, focus too much on suppression, the researchers argue. The explosion in firefighting costs, in turn, has forced federal land managers to shift money that should be spent on restoration.
The paper notes other hurdles as well. Air-quality officials are wary of smoke and reluctant to approve controlled burns. Rural residents worry about intentionally set fires jumping containment lines. Because firefighters have become effective at putting out most fires, fire-prone regions are zoned for development.
Malcolm North, a Davis-based ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, was the lead author. His bosses weren’t exactly thrilled. The Forest Service, like many federal agencies, has a policy forbidding its scientists from giving opinions or making public their policy recommendations.
The agency asked the journal’s editors to scrub North’s name and his agency affiliation, according to those involved. Instead, the editors added a disclaimer saying the report doesn’t “necessarily represent the official views” of the Forest Service.
North declined an interview, saying his bosses did not want him talking with the media.
Sherri Eng, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station headquartered in Albany, said the agency encourages its scientists to share their work but that North crossed a line with his advocacy.
“Our role is to conduct and publish research, not to evaluate land-management policy,” Eng said. She declined comment on the recommendations made in the Science article.
North’s co-author Scott Stephens, chair of UC Berkeley’s Division of Ecosystem Science, said the blowback from the Forest Service was surprising. “In essence,” Stephens said, “what the piece kind of says is really what the Forest Service is trying to achieve today, even in its own policies and in Washington.”
The authors note that the agency signed off on a comprehensive national fire management strategy that includes forest thinning and controlled burns as critical components. Over the next decade, the administrators of most of the nation’s 155 national forests will revise their operational plans and host public forums. The paper says it is an opportunity for reform but that the public needs to put pressure on the agency to follow through.
The government’s approach to forest management has been a point of division as Congress debates funding for the Forest Service. To keep the agency from tapping into funding for forest restoration, some in Congress, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., are calling for budget revisions that would result in firefighting costs being paid through a separate disaster account when they exceed certain thresholds.
“Unfortunately, the way we pay for firefighting activities worsens the situation,” Feinstein said this month in a written statement. “The Forest Service this year will borrow $700 million to fight current fires – money that was intended to prevent future wildfires by removing brush and dead trees. This approach means California and other Western states will be even more vulnerable to devastating wildfires next year as vital prevention programs are delayed, sometimes indefinitely.”