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Are environmental policies affecting wildfires?

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A wall of fire burns down a ridge close to Bannock Highway near Pocatello, Idaho.

A wall of fire burns down a ridge close to Bannock Highway near Pocatello, Idaho.

Associated Press

Yes: Obama administration rules are endangering forests and lives

By Michael E. Kraft

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Wildfires in the West this year were unusually numerous, large and damaging. They were sparked by long-lasting heat waves and drought that created what experts called "epic dryness," in combination with lightning strikes and high winds. The resulting fires raged throughout the Southwest and many other areas in the West.

The 2012 fire season was one of the worst in decades. More than 8 million acres of forests burned, hundreds of homes were lost — more than 600 in Colorado alone, thousands of people had their lives disrupted, and at least six were killed, including a 20-year old firefighter in Idaho.

The massive economic and human toll prompts two questions: Why are we seeing more devastation today, and what might be done to reduce severe wildfires in the future?

There are no easy answers to either question. Nonetheless, there is abundant evidence that both the frequency of big wildfires and the length of the fire season have increased in recent years. What is behind this pattern?

Some put the blame on federal environmental policies that have reduced logging on U.S. forest lands. Logging has indeed declined substantially over the past several decades. Still, it is not at all clear that reduced harvesting of trees is responsible for the wildfires. We need to look elsewhere for the major causes of increased fire risk.

One is surely a slowly changing climate that is bringing higher temperatures, reduced rainfall and drier conditions throughout the West. This makes the forests more vulnerable to fires initiated by lightning strikes or human activities.

Another reason is the changing nature of land use and home construction near national forests. People have moved closer to the forests, bringing with them power lines and machinery, such as construction equipment, that can spark forest fires. These settlement patterns also increase the risk of fires caused by careless human behavior, such as smoking or use of motorized vehicles in vulnerable areas.

Many forest professionals point as well to the suppression of natural fires that historically have cleared out underbrush and prevented the growth of dense forests. Without the benefit of small, natural fires, we now have larger fires that are more difficult to control and more damaging.

What might be done to reduce the risk of forest fires? We could do more to reduce release of greenhouses gases through a variety of actions, such as improving energy efficiency and relying more on non-carbon energy sources. With further technical progress, they can be developed with minimal cost and inconvenience.

We also could better manage national forests through carefully designed thinning of trees and brush and use of prescribed burning that could reduce the incidence of catastrophic fires without excessively harming forest ecosystems.

Spending more money on training of Forest Service personnel would help as well. While such actions might not be cheap, the cost is less than the economic toll of severe wildfires of the kind we have seen this year.

In addition, we could do more to encourage sensible development of land close to national forests. Public education, greater use of community wildfire protection plans and adoption of improved zoning laws and building codes could limit home development in locations where it increases fire risk.

Meeting such needs could better protect those homes that are built in fire-prone areas. For example, metal roofs on homes would lower the risk of ignition from wildfires and adequate standards for fire protection water supplies and access roads would facilitate the work of fire-fighting crews.

In today's polarized political climate, some will blame environmental laws for severe wildfires. However, more convincing explanations can be found elsewhere. If we truly seek to limit wildfires and their harsh consequences, we need to understand those other causes and design multifaceted and realistic solutions.

Michael E. Kraft is the Herbert Fisk Johnson professor emeritus of public and environmental affairs and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

No: Home construction, climate change near forests are causes

By David A. Ridenour

WASHINGTON — If President Barack Obama was serious about saving and creating jobs, he would have done something to save the jobs at Aero Union.

He didn't lift a finger. In fact, he pulled the trigger, killing the air tanker firm and making Colorado's Waldo Canyon fire worse in the process.

More than 18,000 acres of forest were destroyed; 350 homes were raised; septuagenarians William and Barbara Everett were killed; and area streams were polluted by fire-related ash, debris and soil run-off

Last year, the U.S. Forest Service abruptly cancelled its contract for six of Aero Union's air tankers. This left the Forest Service short of tankers just as last year's fire season was getting under way. Only a few weeks later, fires swept through Texas burning 100,000 acres and leaving four dead.

The administration apparently learned nothing from the tragedy. In the intervening year, it did little to address its tanker shortage, and Colorado paid the price for it. The administration says it cancelled the contract due to aircraft safety concerns. That doesn't explain why it dithered in replacing the aircraft. But something else may: President Obama's allegiance to his green allies.

Environmentalists have long opposed the use of slurry, the fire retardant dropped from air tankers, due to its potential for polluting streams.

Following an accidental drop of slurry into Oregon's Fall River in 2002 and a subsequent environmentalist lawsuit, the Forest Service issued new rules barring drops of retardants within 300 feet of waterways except when fire threatens human life and property.

Make no mistake: The rule inhibits firefighters' ability to control blazes. Think about a football defensive line that isn't allowed to do anything until the opposing team reaches the five-yard line and you get the idea.

Now the agency is implementing even more stringent regulations prohibiting drops within 600 feet of waterways. Little wonder it was in no hurry to line up replacement tankers.

Hampering fire control efforts is only one way federal policy driven by greens contributes to wildfires.

One of the main culprits for the Colorado fires is believed to be pine beetles. The beetles carry a blue stain fungus that pulls moisture from trees. In sufficient numbers, these insects can cause whole forests to die of dehydration, creating a tinderbox.

What forests are most susceptible to beetle infestations? According to the Forest Service, they are forests with "large-diameter trees and dense stands." Environmentalists have blocked logging operations that could thin these stands at every turn.

In 2003, the General Accounting Office estimated that 190 million acres of federal land were at high risk of wildfire due to "excess fuels buildup in forests."

Environmentalists claim that our federal fire suppression efforts are responsible for much of the fuel buildup and they aren't entirely wrong.

Thanks partly to effective suppression methods, the average number of acres burned annually dropped from 38 million acres in the 1930s to about 3 million acres in the 1980s. By the 1990s, wildfires started to increase again and in the last decade claimed an average of 6.9 million acres annually.

The answer to this problem isn't to stop suppressing fires, as some environmentalists suggest. Even if we were willing to risk lives and property by taking the "let it burn" approach — and rational people are not — the fuel load today is so great that this would produce catastrophic fires, fires so intense that they would cook the soil and destroy whole ecosystems.

The answer is to reduce the fuel load through thinning of trees followed by forest management using prescribed burns, logging and other measures that could restore forests to their historic states.

This wouldn't just save and create jobs, as President Obama says he wants to do. It would also save and create healthy forests.

David A. Ridenour is president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank.