President Bush has proposed a "healthy forests initiative" that calls for treating fuels on 2.5 million acres of federal lands for ten years and for expediting the fuels treatment process by exempting it from environmental oversight. While well intentioned, this plan treats the wrong acres and fails to correct the real problems with federal land management.
The Forest Service estimates that 70 million acres of federal land need immediate treatment and 140 million acres will soon need treatment. At the rate of 2.5 million acres a year, which federal agencies have yet to accomplish, it will take more than 80 years to treat all areas. The total cost of treating all these acres could exceed $100 billion.
The administration's "Healthy Forests Policy Book" uses the Squires Peak Fire in Oregon to show that leaving just a few acres untreated can lead to uncontrollable wildfires. Thus, a ten-year program of treating 2.5 million acres a year will fall 88 percent short of protecting communities.
Forest Service fire researcher Jack Cohen has found that homes and other structures will be safe from fire if their roof and landscaping within 150 feet of the structures are fireproofed. Forest Service General Technical Report RMRS-87 says there are 1.9 million high-risk acres in the wildland-urban interface, of which 1.5 million are private. Treating these acres, not the 210 million federal acres, will protect homes. Fire breaks along federal land boundaries, not treatments of lands within those boundaries, will protect other private property.
Once private lands are protected, the Forest Service can let most fires on federal lands burn. Fire ecologists agree that letting fires burn is the best and most efficient method of restoring forest health. But under current policies, the Forest Service is suppressing 99.7 percent of all fires.
The Forest Service budgetary process rewards forest managers for losing money on environmentally destructive timber sales and penalizes them for making money or doing environmentally beneficial activities. Until those incentives are changed, giving the Forest Service more power to sell or thin trees without environmental oversight will only create more problems than it solves.
There are two reasons for the size and extent of fires this year. First, the West in 2002 is experiencing one of the worst droughts in history. Second, the Forest Service is now attacking fires primarily through indirect means -- backfires -- rather than direct means. This greatly increases the size of the burned areas. Neither of these reasons has anything to do with fuels.
For example, a quarter to a third of the acres burned in the Biscuit Fire, which President Bush viewed today, were backfires lit by the Forest Service. By blaming fires on fuels, the Forest Service has deceived the president into giving it more money and power.
Decades of fire data and individual fire reports offer no evidence
that excess fuels are causing fires to be worse today than in
* The average number of acres burned in the last five years is no more than the average in the first five years of the 1960s.
* The average number of firefighters killed by fire has declined since the 1950s.
* From 1970 through 1999, fire suppression costs grew no faster than the rate of inflation.
There is no doubt that Forest Service fire suppression has had pronounced environmental impacts on ecosystems. Forests have replaced grasslands, forests dominated by one species of tree have replaced forests dominated by another species. In most of the West, however, these effects do not necessarily translate to excess fuels problems. Reports on individual fires agree that drought, not excess fuels, is the major fire problem facing fire managers.
Congress has effectively given the Forest Service a blank check to put out fires, and this greatly distorts the incentives facing the agency. The blank check has led to too much fire suppression and too much money spent on suppression. These problems will not be solved by extending the blank check to other areas such as fuels treatments.