Private Forest Management Can Help Prevent Wildfires

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When California Governor Gavin Newsom took office in 2019 he vowed to commit a stronger strategy to combat the wildfires ravaging California, declaring their approach must “fundamentally change.” A year later, he showcased projects that minimized fuel loads by clearing out dead trees and excess vegetation—a conventional tactic that hardly represents fundamental change—and claimed to have “collectively treated 90,000 acres.” Yet, that wasn’t exactly true. An investigation from CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom identified that the state’s own data showed less than 12,000 acres had been treated. While California wildfires lessened in 2019—largely due to the increase in precipitation that year—it drastically rose again in 2020, burning a record 4.3 million acres, over 4 percent of all California’s 100 million acres.

Newsom had emphasized that combating the effects of climate change was the best response to the wildfires. However, his populist rhetoric contradicted his actual approach, which consisted of 35 projects and $2 billion in proposed spending toward not climate change policy, but clearing out concentrated fuel loads for wildfire prevention, as well as expanding the state’s firefighting resources.

While there has been some evidence to suggest that climate change is a contributing factor to these wildfires, Climate Envoy John Kerry has admitted that the effects of climate change cannot be changed in the short-term. Shawn Regan of the the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) noted that a recent scientific study found fuel loads were by far the greatest determinant of wildfire severity, accounting for 53 percent while only 14 percent for climate.

While clearing concentrated fuel loads is effective at reducing wildfires, Newsom’s initiatives are unlikely to have much of an impact, as the state controls only 3 percent of California forests; the federal government owns over 19 million acres of California forests, accounting for 58 percent of forest land. The reason that measures to combat wildfires have had an insignificant effect isn’t because the approach is ineffective, but that it hasn’t been properly implemented. To prevent wildfires we do not need to “fundamentally change” our approach, but merely to start executing it. 

The U.S. Forest Service’s budget request for 2022 is about $9.2 billion, a 9.4 percent increase over its 2021 budget, with nearly half going toward fire-related programs. Yet, most of that fire-related spending is appropriated for preparedness and suppression, not prevention. In fact, only 7.6 percent of 2022 proposed fire-related spending would go toward clearing out hazardous fuels. Over the last couple of years, the U.S. Forest Service has shifted funds away from clearing hazardous fuels and other preventative programs and instead invested it in firefighting resources to help combat wildfires. As a result, the appropriations for clearing hazardous fuel loads have been cut by 38.6 percent since 2020, to make up a meager 3.5 percent of the entire Forest Service 2022 budget.

As the Forest Service continues to shift focus toward firefighting and away from fire prevention, forest management has allowed the buildup of dangerous fuel loads responsible for most of the devastating California wildfires. Long-time critics of the Forest Service have argued that the private sector is substantially better equipped for forest management. But then the argument was who can better manage our forests. Now, the question is who will manage our forests? The first case for private forest management is the simplest: It will allow for our forests to be properly managed in a form that minimizes the dangerous fuel loads responsible for the destructive wildfires.

Nearly 13 million acres of California forest are currently privately owned. Private ownership of these forests are divided into profit and nonprofit organizations, both of which benefit local communities, customers, and the environment. Nonprofit forest management organizations, such as the Forest Landowners Association (FLA), help conserve and maintain forests by supplying educational and recreational activities in nature, providing havens for wildlife habitats, and protecting clean air and water.

The FLA notes that private forest management makes up 25 percent of the country’s purified water and is a refuge to 60 percent of endangered wildlife. The primary reason that nonprofit organizations are more efficient than sprawling government agencies is that they are decentralized. Local people are often involved in nature nonprofits not only because private organizations, unlike government agencies, are accountable to surrounding communities, but also because locals are able to contribute more to the decision-making process. In fact, locals often make up a significant portion of nonprofit nature organizations, whereas government agencies mostly consist of bureaucrats, especially in decision-making roles.

Despite the well-circulated fallacy that capitalism and its inherent greed endlessly consumes resources leaving a desolate wasteland, it is hardly ever evidenced with material examples. If this notion were true, then it is hard to see how agricultural societies ever triumphed over hunter-and-gatherer ones. Sustainability was agriculture’s defining feature. Sustainable profits are obviously sought by every well-run business, and the root of sustainability relies on the long-term conservation of resources that foster profit. There is a natural incentive for private enterprises—especially those in the timber market—to enter forest management.

However, the U.S. timber market is currently operating at a fractional capacity. The foremost problem is that the Forest Service has drastically decreased timber harvesting over the last few decades, dropping from 12 billion board feet harvested in 1994 to 2 billion in 2008, and is currently back up at around 2.5 billion. As there is about 18 billion grown each year, the forests continue to get denser and higher in concentration, contributing to the growing amount of hazardous fuel loads.

Many environmentalist pressure groups voice their opposition to timber harvesting, but it can be extremely beneficial to the environment when operated sustainably. The hazardous fuel loads that are the cause of many wildfires develop from the buildup of dead logs, sticks, and brush that result from a high concentration of trees. Allowing private enterprises to declutter forests and remove fuel loads, would provide the profit incentive to companies while drastically decreasing the risk of wildfires. As Holly Fretwell and Jonathan Wood of PERC note, one notable roadblock to this fruition is a decades-old federal restriction on exporting unprocessed logs from the West overseas. The repeal of this restriction would open up the timber market and increase the competition in forest management.

Another problem with the forests managed by the federal government is that it subjugates local woodlands to national issues. The focus on D.C. politics and scrutiny of each administration can often skew the issue at large. The most prominent example of this is the emphasis on climate change when talking about wildfires. While the issue of wildfires certainly isn’t independent from the issue of climate change, because of the national focus on the latter the two have become inseparable. When President Biden or Governor Newsom discuss the issue of wildfires, it often becomes a speech on addressing climate change. From a campaign perspective it makes sense: “fight climate change” is a more effective rallying cry than “fight the build-up of dead trees.”

The wildfire issue deserves to be treated as more than just a political pawn. While national concern over these wildfires is large, surprisingly little is being done to reverse its effects. Allowing local communities and private enterprises to help prevent these wildfires by doing a job that the Forest Service is no longer equipped to serve would have tremendous effects in a state that desperately needs them.