Devastating Fires Show Forest Management Reforms Are Badly Needed

On August 19, a ferocious wildfire in Chelan, Washington, claimed the lives of three firefighters. That fire, now 50 percent “contained”, has burned about 90,000 acres. Meanwhile, in nearby Okanogan, Washington, five massive fires merged to create a 305,000 acre monster, the largest in the state’s history – and still only 25 percent contained (as of 8/30). Across the Northwest (Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana), currently active fires have burned over 1.4 million acres, destroying homes and businesses in their wake. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service alone is reportedly spending $100m per week on fire suppression. With conditions tinder dry and fire crews at their limit, worse may yet be to come. Today’s problems in large part stem from the misguided federal response to fires – especially management practices on the 63 percent of forests owned by the federal government. If worse problems are to be avoided in the future, management practices on those federally owned forests must change.

The challenge, then, is to identify practical and desirable reforms that are politically feasible. Here are a few ideas: remove the requirement that all fires be suppressed unless a fire plan is in place, cut Congressional appropriations for fire management, make other Forest Service actvities self-funding, scrap the “roadless” rule. A more radical approach would be to make the Forest Service entirely self-financing. A complementary approach would see federal agencies transfer some lands to the states.

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