Clearing the smoke: wildfire and public lands

Clearing the smoke: wildfire and public lands

04 July 2015

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USA– Summer is upon us, which along with barbeques and river trips means wildfire season in the West. Already in Montana, some parts of the state have an “above normal” wildfire outlook.

With this on so many minds, now’s a good time to take a step back and examine the relationship between wildfire and this year’s other major public lands story in Montana: attempts by some politicians to turn over national public lands to the state.

Seasonal wildfire is a natural part of healthy forests in the Northern Rockies. Despite more than a 100 years of aggressive fire suppression, we know now that even the most active management will not eradicate wildfire. Just as Louisianans aren’t going to eliminate hurricanes and Nebraskans will never be free from tornadoes, wildfire will always be a part of life in Montana.

And yet, promoters of “transferring” American public lands to the states are traveling the West and making claims that “the only solution big enough” to deal with our region’s wildfires is to turn over public lands to state and private ownership.

The leading salesman pitching a massive land giveaway is Ken Ivory, a Utah state representative and founder of the American Lands Council, a land transfer advocacy organization funded by county tax dollars and industry groups. Ivory has found a willing partner in State Sen. Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls), who claims that “active management” of forests by the states is the solution to all land management woes.

Smooth talkers preaching easy solutions have an undeniable appeal. But the land transfer idea — in addition to being economically tenuous and unpopular with western voters — is weighed down with billions of dollars in wildfire liabilities.

Montana, or any state taking over American public lands, would be agreeing to assume the costs of fighting wildfire. For its part, the federal government currently spends over $3 billion annually to prepare for and put out wildfire, including budget-draining fires like Montana’s 2012 Ash Creek and Dahl fires. These costs – currently shared by all American taxpayers – would be transferred from federal agencies and onto the state’s ledger.

But wholly absent from Ivory and Fielder’s pitch is how states like Montana could afford these costs without selling off public lands, raising taxes, or poaching from state coffers.

The hard reality — and a tough pill for many westerners to swallow — is that the federal government is America’s only institution big enough to fight forest fire.

An effective wildfire-fighting force that protects communities has major fixed costs: helicopters, bombers, training facilities, and the maintenance of a large, mobile firefighting crew. Some years America’s firefighting apparatus may be needed in the northern Rockies, other years it may travel to California.

Plus, thanks to a warming climate, worsening drought, longer fire seasons, and a century of mandated fire suppression, the West’s forests are a tinderbox.

Unworkable solutions to the very real problem of wildfire have become a distraction from solutions that work — prescribed burns, large-scale restoration, sufficient funding for wildfire suppression, and incentivizing homeowners in fire-prone areas to mitigate fire risks.

Montana voters have so far effectively rebutted this dangerous idea. But Montanans – and all westerners – need to continue putting pressure on our leaders. Instead of fighting against our public lands, leaders in state capitols and Washington, D.C., should be fighting to ensure we have the resources, funding, and tools to restore our forests, protect homes from wildfire, and prepare communities to live alongside natural wildfire.

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