Finally, Congress Makes Progress on Fighting Wildfires

23 Mar

On Friday, Congress passed a $1.3-trillion spending measure to keep the federal government open through September, and it includes some major changes to how we fight, and pay to fight, wildfires. It’s about time.

In 2017, the government spent more than $2 billion on fire suppression through the Forest Service alone. The National Interagency Fire Center, the country’s wildfire planning headquarters, is predicting 2018 will be just as bad, if not worse. And with average wildfire size expected to grow six times larger by 2039, these blazes will get a lot more expensive. Here’s how the spending bill will help those efforts, as well as a couple ideas from experts on the next steps we need to take.

No More Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Since the Forest Fires Emergency Act of 1908, the Department of the Interior has been able to spend as much as it needs to fight fires during emergencies. That’s been helpful when the costs of wildfire season surpass the DOI’s $1.4-billion yearly fire-suppression allowance, but it’s meant dipping into Forest Service funds that should be spent on other important functions—such as maintaining trails, research, even forest-fire prevention.

“It’s a problem that’s causing a lot of people grief,” says Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, a group that advocates for smarter approaches to wildfire management. “If you’ve got a research project all set, or a recreation project for building trails, and all your funding is taken away at the last minute to pay for firefighting, that’s massively disruptive.”

The major fix inside the new bill allows the Forest Service to tap into disaster-relief funds, which are common for other huge destructive forces like hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, instead of using up the agency's own money. The bill also raises the fire suppression piggy bank to $2.25 billion starting in 2020, with $100-million increases each year so it reaches $2.95 billion by 2027.

So What Else Needs to Be Done? 

An ounce of prevention

With the summer still a long way off, it seems hard to justify the unglamorous Forest Service work that keeps forests healthy and prevents minor fires from expanding into catastrophes. But prevention and the funds to support it are exactly what we should be focusing on. “The Forest Service is bipolar on fire,” says Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist at the Geos Institute, a group of researchers studing how the country should prepare for climate change. “When fires aren’t burning, they talk about managing it for ecosystem benefits, and during the season, they’re throwing everything at it.”

Though wildfire prevention is a hard sell this time of year, public attitudes tend to shift rapidly in the next six months, when images of smoke and flames are broadcast over TV and Instagram. By August, authorities are often compelled to use expensive resources like air tankers and helicopters to show the public they’re on top of things.

“Americans are big hearted,” says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan budget watchdog based in Washington, D.C. “We see a disaster, and we want to assist. We want the government to assist. But that means we can’t afford to be softheaded in anticipation of that. You want to see the right priorities from the start, and to be sure that it’s not so rigid or static that the Forest Service can’t still meet their needs as smaller changes develop.”

Ellis and DellaSala hope to see new policies that would encourage the Forest Service to dedicate more resources to off-season mitigation. They’d also like to see the Forest Service take a fire’s size, momentum, and proximity to human structures into account more often when deciding what to do about it. This would mean allowing smaller or more remote fires to burn, or steering them toward places that could benefit from them. Low-intensity fires are part of a forest’s natural cycle and are essential to enriching the soil with nutrients, reducing competition between larger trees, providing necessary heat for seeds to germinate, and allowing smaller plants better access to sunlight.

Stop building homes in the woods

Congress could save taxpayers a fortune in the long run if it passed laws aimed at reducing development along the wildland urban interface, encouraging local and state zoning codes that reduce the damage wildfires can do. The government could also offer more incentive to get people to take precautions. According to one study, as many as 90 percent of residential structures survived a wildfire if they maintained at least ten yards of fuel-free area around the home. Rewarding local governments that encourage fire-smart living—for example, by offering property tax rebates to homeowners who maintain a fuel-free zone—could off-set millions in future costs.

Listen to Smokey

Humans accounted for nearly 90 percent of all wildfires from 1992 to 2017, according to an article last year from the National Academy of Sciences. As our cities and towns push into wilderness, and as we escape to public lands to get out of our cities, it’s essential we take our role in fires more seriously. 

The major takeaway is the same concept Smokey the Bear preached: prevention is the best way to fight fires.

Don’t Fall for the Resilient Federal Forests Act

19 Dec

If your house is engulfed in flames, you may have a pesky environmental group to blame.

This is the argument made by supporters of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, introduced by Republican Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas. The bill passed the House in November, and is now waiting to be discussed by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. 

With each fire this past summer and fall, the bill’s supporters renewed their calls for something to be done to end the devastation, and this bill has an interesting answer to why wildfires have become so large and so deadly in recent years. Essentially, it blames the problem on the conservationists who sue to keep loggers out of forests. As a remedy, the bill aims to scale back public input, reduce wildlife habitat protections, and weaken environmental standards. If passed, a timber company could log an area up to 30,000 acres (twice the size of Manhattan) with barely any environmental review. 

There’s no doubt that the country’s system for managing fires is inadequate. Forest fires are about four times as expensive to fight today as they were 20 years ago, and in many parts of the country, fire season could soon last 300 days. In regions affected by pests or disease, selective logging can do a great deal to stop those ailments from spreading. When old or dying trees are taken out of the picture, competition for sunlight and other resources is less intense, giving younger shoots and smaller flora an opportunity to grow. But when this fuel is allowed to accumulate and crowd, it can turn what would have been a small fire into the type of untamable disasters California has experienced. 

“We saw millions of acres go up in smoke this year, dozens of lives lost, and thousands of homes destroyed, because of unmanaged, unhealthy forest,” says David Saylor, a spokesperson for Westerman. “And that has to change. This isn’t about logging. This is about maintaining a healthy forest.”

The question is, what defines smart tree harvesting, and how is it best regulated? Westerman is a former forester, and he now receives more campaign contributions from the timber and paper industries than any member of Congress save house speaker Paul Ryan. His bill would do away with many of the environment regulations a logging company must satisfy before a sale takes place. It seems to say that the best approach to tree harvesting is to allow logging companies unfettered access and focuses almost exclusively on regulations, ignoring problems like lack of funding, a recent surge of pine beetles in the West, climate change, or the slightly nutty and hubristic tendency to treat every wildfire as an innate catastrophe that must be controlled and contained.

“Thousands of lawsuits have been filed by these groups to prevent the Forest Service from pursuing routine thinning and restoration projects,” wrote Utah representative Rob Bishop, a co-sponsor of the bill, in an op-ed for The Hill. “As more and more time and money are consumed by regulatory analysis and court battles, scarce agency resources are expended and fewer acres of high-risk forest lands are treated.”

Bishop may have a point, if an overstated one. Of the 1,100 land-management lawsuits brought against the Forest Service between 1989 to 2008, the majority were brought on environmental grounds. The Forest Service is also required to foot the legal bill. That cost, however, takes up a tiny sliver of the Forest Service’s overall budget—less than one-tenth of one percent. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said as much at an April 2013 hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The fees, he testified, “did not have an appreciable effect on program funding.”

Both Bishop and Westerman are critics of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the government to conduct impact studies before developing or extracting resources on federal land. Bishop has called the policy one of the “greatest burdens” to industry, and accused environmental groups of abusing the act with “an unholy combination of activist litigation designed to manipulate policy.” Among other things, Westerman’s bill would drastically scale back NEPA’s protections, allowing companies to log in forests without first reviewing the impacts on water quality, the habitat, or wildlife. It would allow the Forest Service to bypass consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when an animal protected by the Endangered Species Act is impacted by logging. If a company did damage the environment, Westerman’s bill would bar people from suing or otherwise holding the government accountable.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act seems to focus almost entirely on addressing complaints from the logging industry—and not on the problem of worsening wildfires. Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, the ranking Democrat for the House Natural Resources Committee, has criticized the bill as “not about forest health. It’s about increasing the numbers of trees removed from the forest.” 

The crazy thing is, the logging industry doesn’t always seem all that eager to gain access to Forest Service land, even in some of the most valuable old-growth forests. Jim Furnish, a former deputy chief of the Forest Service, says the Big Thorne timber auction in Tongass National Forest is a prime example. In 2014, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Alaska Wilderness League, and the Sierra Club filed a joint suit against the Forest Service to stop the deal, saying the Forest Service had underestimated the impact on the local wolf population, and overestimated the industry’s appetite. The Forest Service estimated the 150 million board feet of timber up for auction would fetch $2.6 million. But it spent $15.7 million building logging roads, conducting surveys, and all the other things that go into prepping a forest to be cut. In all of Tongass, the Forest Service reported a $108.7 million loss on timber contracts from 2008 to 2012.  The Forest Service won the suit, and last May the deal went through—albeit at a much smaller volume than expected. Citing “market forces,” the ranger’s office reported a sale of only 97.7 million board feet.

“If nobody buys them, nobody buys them,” Furnish says of huge amount of timber leases that go unsold each year.

There’s one benefit Furnish can point to in the Resilient Federal Forests Act: it would allow the Forest Service to more easily tap federal emergency funds during fire season. But on the whole, he says, the bill is “totally unnecessary.” In fact a lot of the bureaucracy that slowed thinning and forest management has already been addressed by the 2014 Farm Bill, which made it easier for the Forest Service to authorize local projects and expedited approval for thinning diseased, insect-infested, or fire-damaged forests. 

So why did Westerman introduce the bill? 

It’s hard to understand how bypassing the environmental review process before a harvest—or reducing the public comment period—will help this country fight fires. As written, the bill seems much less focused on the efficiency of fighting fires than it is on the efficiency of logging. It won’t generate more cash to fight fires, but it will be a great help to anyone trying to log forests with as little interference as possible. And if that’s the bill's goal, then wildfires provide a compelling, urgent, and dramatic excuse.