USA — The Forest Service has changed from an agency that manages recreation,wildlife, watershed and other resources to one that focuses mainly on fire
A few weeks ago, the secretary of Agriculture gave the U.S. Forest Service aspecial award for “exemplary leadership and accomplishment in reducing therisk of catastrophic fire.” At that time, wildfires in 2007 had alreadyburned nearly 1,900 homes and other structures along with nearly twice as manyacres as the average burned in any decade prior to 2003. The fires that haveroared through Southern California this month have only made this award moreironic.
The firestorms will lead some to propose bigger budgets for the ForestService and other fire-suppression agencies. That is exactly the wrong solution.If anything, the Forest Service has too much money. Its fire budgets havequintupled in the past 15 years.
This mountain of money creates bad incentives both within the Forest Serviceand for homeowners near federal lands. With a blank check for fire suppression,the Forest Service has changed from an agency that manages recreation, wildlife,watershed and other resources to one that focuses mainly on fire.
To keep the money flowing, the Forest Service implicitly promises to savehomes from fire. “While wildland fire is an element of natural ecosystemprocesses,” the agency recently told Congress, “catastrophic wildlandfire is not.” In other words, give the Forest Service enough money, and itwill stop catastrophic fire.
The Forest Service is wrong. Most Western forests are ecologically adapted tocatastrophic fires. In forests of Northwest Douglas fir, such fires occur every500 years or so. In Southern California chaparral forests, they take place every30 to 100 years. Such fires can be prevented only by drastic changes that wouldthreaten with extinction hundreds of species of plants and animals.
Instead of spending billions on the forests, we need to focus on the homes inforested landscapes. The best way to protect such homes is to follow some simpleprinciples. Most important: Roofs should be nonflammable, and vegetation aroundthe homes should be planned and managed so that the radiant heat from wildfiresdoes not set buildings on fire. Such homes are called “firewise,” andthe detailed requirements are described at www.firewise.org.
Some neighborhoods in San Diego County are so thoroughly firewise thatresidents are advised that they can “shelter in place” during a fire.In fact, it may be safer for residents to stay inside such homes than toevacuate. The recent fires reached some of these neighborhoods, yet did notmanage to burn a single home.
All homes near public forests and other wildlands could be designed this way.One reason they are not comes back to the money: As long as the Forest Servicehas a blank check to protect homes, homeowners feel little need to replace theirpretty cedar-shake roofs and control their yard vegetation. Although someinsurance companies are starting to change, most rely on the Forest Service andother fire agencies to protect the properties they cover.
It might seem more efficient to spend some of the money now being spent onsuppression by helping homeowners make their homes firewise. But why shouldtaxpayers pay to protect the homes of people who build in fire-prone landscapes especially when most of those people tend to be wealthier than the averagetaxpayer? It would be better to quickly phase out the Forest Service’s fireprogram, giving homeowners and insurers notice that they will need to make theirproperties firewise or expect their homes to burn in catastrophic fires that aregoing to occur no matter what we do.
That doesn’t mean we should simply let the federal forests burn. But there isno one-size-fits-all solution for managing fire on federal lands. Some need morefire, some need more fire suppression.
The best way to fix the Forest Service is to fund the national forests out ofuser fees rather than tax dollars. This will give forest managers the incentivesto find the best solutions for their particular forest ecosystems. Sincerecreation is likely to be the most important source of such fees, it will alsogive managers an incentive to protect the scenic beauty, clean water, wildlife,and other things that are valued by recreationists. And that will benefiteveryone.
Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a foresteconomist with 30 years of experience studying national forest issues.