POLICY LESSONS OF THE LOS ALAMOS FIRE
POLICY LESSONS OF THE LOS ALAMOS FIRE
FOR FEDERAL LAND MANAGEMENT
TESTIMONY OF ROBERT H. NELSON TO A JOINT HEARING OF THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON FORESTS AND FOREST HEALTH AND THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS AND PUBLIC LANDS, COMMITTEE ON RESOURCES, UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, JUNE 7, 2000, ON “FIRE MANAGEMENT ON FEDERAL LANDS”
My name is Robert H. Nelson. I am a Professor of Environmental Policy at the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 1975 to 1993, I worked in the Office of Policy Analysis in the U.S. Department of the Interior. This office is the principal policy office serving the Secretary of the Interior. I am the author of three books on public land management, The Making of Federal Coal Policy (Duke University Press, 1983), Public Lands and Private Rights: The Failure of Scientific Management (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995) and A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). I received a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University in 1971.
The Los Alamos forest fire began as a prescribed burn on Bandelier National Monument. Once it got out of control, it soon moved onto the Santa Fe National Forest, where it took a path leading to the city of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Fire fighters found that their efforts to control the fire on the Santa Fe National Forest were almost entirely ineffectual in high winds and on lands in such a severely fire-prone condition. The total area burned on Bandelier National Monument was 802 acres. More than 27,000 acres burned on Santa Fe National Forest including areas in close proximity to the city and laboratory. My testimony will address the issue of how to reduce the very high fire hazard that currently exists on many national forests and other federal lands in the West in order to reduce the likelihood of future disasters such as occurred at Los Alamos.
The principal conclusions of my testimony can be summarized as follows.
1. Leading forestry experts have been warning since the early 1990s that very dangerous fire conditions were building up on the forests of the interior West. These conditions are putting lives and property at severe risk.
2. The response of the federal government has been inadequate in addressing the growing magnitude of the problem, as various investigations including reports by the General Accounting Office to the Congress have previously found.
3. The failure to take effective federal policy action has reflected a wider state of gridlock within the federal land management agencies with respect to many aspects of federal policy making for the national forests and other public lands in the West.
4. The Los Alamos fire was not an isolated incident. The fact that such a large fire occurred near Los Alamos and the specific path of the blaze were of course chance events. However, it was likely that one or more such large fires would break out at some place in the West this year under the prevailing dry weather conditions.
5. Unless drastic corrective actions are taken, one can reliably predict that additional large and damaging fires will occur at other western locations in future periods characterized by similar forest and climatic conditions.
Fire Warnings and Government Responses: A Brief Chronology
It may help to review a brief chronology of official government and other reports warning of the growing fire hazard to the West.
November 1993 – A panel of leading American foresters meets in Sun Valley, Idaho, to discuss deteriorating forest conditions in the West. Its report states that the policy of suppressing forest fire, as has been followed in western forests for most of the twentieth century, has resulted in a large buildup of “excess fuels” that pose an increasingly severe hazard of large and potentially catastrophic forest fires:
“Wildfires in these ecosystems have gone from a high-frequency, low-intensity regime which sustained the system, to numerous high-intensity fires that require costly suppression attempts, which often prove futile in the face of overpowering fire intensity. High fuel loads resulting from the long-time absence of fire, and the abundance of dead and dying trees, result in fire intensities that cause enormous damage to soils, watersheds, fisheries, and other ecosystem components.”
1994 – The National Commission on Wildfire Disasters declares that “millions of acres of forest in the western United States pose an extreme fire hazard from the extensive build-up of dry, highly flammable forest fuels.”
May 1995 – The U.S. Forest Service publishes Course to the Future: Repositioning Fire and Aviation Management, declaring that under current policies “the potential for large, catastrophic wildfires continues to increase” and when they occur, as they inevitably will, “it will directly conflict with our ecosystem goals.”
December 1995 – The U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior jointly issue a report on Federal Wildland Fire Management, stating that “millions of acres of forests and rangelands [are] at extremely high risk for devastating forest fires to occur.” The Secretaries declare that many forested areas are “in need of immediate treatment” to reduce fire hazards. The methods can be “mechanical, chemical, biological, and manual methods, including the use of fire” under controlled conditions. Such controlled burns might either be set deliberately or be natural fires that are allowed to continue burning. The Secretaries pledge to initiate steps to reduce excess fuel accumulations on forested federal lands.
April 1997 – A panel of leading foresters, convened by Representative Charles Taylor of North Carolina, presents its findings to Congress, reiterating previous warnings about the interior West and further declaring that “fires in the Pacific Northwest occur less frequently than in the inland West, but can be even more catastrophic because of the high fuel volumes (dead trees). The limited road system and infrastructure make federal lands in this region increasingly susceptible to catastrophic fires. The trend is toward increasing fires in [both] the Inland West and the Pacific Coast.”
September 1998 – Barry Hill, Associate Director for Energy, Resources, and Science issues of the General Accounting Office, testifies to the Congress that as a result of past policies of fire suppression in the interior West, “vegetation accumulated, creating high levels of fuels for catastrophic wildfires and transforming much of the region into a tinderbox.” Urgent measures are required because “these fires not only compromise the forest’s ability to provide timber, outdoor recreation, clean water and other resources but they also pose increasingly grave risks to human health, safety and property, especially along the boundaries of forests where population has grown rapidly in recent years.”
April 1999 – The General Accounting Office issues a report on Western National Forests – A Cohesive Strategy is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire Threats. The report finds that the Forest Service “has not yet developed a cohesive strategy for addressing several factors that present significant barriers to improving the health of the national forests by reducing fuels. As a result, many acres of national forests in the interior West may [still] remain at high risk of uncontrollable wildfire at the end of fiscal year 2015.”
February 2000 – The U.S. Forest Service publishes the first reliable estimates of total forest acres facing excess fuels problems and ecological degradation. The new numbers show that the problem is more widespread than previously believed. Fully 60 percent of all Forest Service lands nationwide, involving 118 million acres, are well outside the normal historical scope of fuels stocking densities, before fire suppression began to increase wood and other vegetation levels. In Forest Service Region 3, the region where the City of Los Alamos and the Santa Fe National Forest are located, 85 percent of the forested lands of the national forest system at present are showing adverse ecological effects and increased fire hazards.
April 2000 – Responding to GAO criticisms, the Forest Service publishes its newest plan to address the problem of forest deterioration and excess fuels, Protecting People and Sustaining Resources in Fire Adapted Ecosystems, A Cohesive Strategy. Full implementation of the plan will require an increase in spending for forest health treatments and fire prevention from around $100 million per year at present to $800 million per year. Even at these levels, it is projected that the excess fuels problem will be far from fully resolved in 2015.
April 2000 – A citizens group convenes in Los Alamos, New Mexico to discuss warnings of the continuing danger of forest fire in the area. Diana Webb, the chair of the Los Alamos Ecology group, informs the meeting that “It’s not a matter of if but when wildfire will again strike the Lab, Los Alamos, and surrounding areas. We can’t stress this enough.” In December 1999 the Los Alamos National Laboratory had issued a press release in which wildfire was identified “as the greatest threat to Los Alamos operations.”
May 2000 – A prescribed burn set May 4 in Bandelier National Monument accidentally gets out of control, spreads to the tinderbox forests of the Santa Fe National Forest, and in adverse weather condition with high winds moves through the national forest to the city of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory where it requires that 25,000 people be evacuated and causes around $1 billion in damage.
Fire Policy Gridlock
Removal of excess fuels is generally accomplished by the use of prescribed burning, mechanical thinning and harvesting of excess fuels, or some combination of the two. The Forest Service has encountered significant obstacles, however, to both.
Prescribed burning – The ability to use prescribed burning is limited by a variety of formidable hurdles:
1. High cost – The costs can range from $50 to $500 per acre, including necessary precautions against the fire getting out of control. Assuming an average of $250 per acre, prescribed burning of 50 million acres in the West would require cumulative spending of $12.5 billion.
2. Risk to Human Lives and Property – There will always be a risk – if normally small — that a prescribed fire will get out of control. No system is foolproof. At almost the same time as the Los Alamos fire, another prescribed fire was burning out of control over a large area in Grand Canyon National Park, postponing the opening of the North Rim.
3. The expansion of the forest/urban “interface” — In recent years, as suburban development has spread further into forested areas, and private homes and cabins have been built on private lands often interspersed with federal forested lands in the West, the extent of the areas in which prescribed fire can be employed has been further constricted.
4. Risk to Forest Health and Ecological Sustainability — In many areas of the West, the buildup of excess fuels has reached a point that any fire will burn at high temperatures much above historic norms and is likely to become a crown fire, doing major ecological damage to soils and other desired vegetation (such as large old trees) – even within the site of the planned burn. Further negative impacts may be felt on water quantity and quality.
5. Weather – Prescribed fire can only be employed in appropriate weather conditions. The forest cannot be too wet or the fire will not burn; it can not be too dry or the risk of escape will be too great; the winds cannot be too high. All this makes it difficult to plan precisely for the use of prescribed fire in advance.
6. Smoke – Wildland fires generate large amounts of smoke, sometimes remaining in the air for long periods, often violating air quality standards and potentially creating other problems such as the recent death and vehicle damage in Florida due to smoke from wildfires blanketing an interstate highway.
7. Public Perceptions – For decades the Forest Service with its Smokey the Bear and other public relations efforts taught the American public to fear forest fire and to regard it as a virtual “evil” that must be eliminated like smallpox. The powerful legacy of those past efforts still remains strong in the minds of many people.
Mechanical Thinning and Harvesting — The second option is to cut unwanted trees and other undesired vegetation and to physically remove it. Here as well there are large obstacles.
1. High Cost – In many forest areas the excess vegetation is not worth anything commercially. The Forest Service or other federal land agency will have to pay in order to have the forest thinned and the unwanted trees and shrubs removed.
2. Environmental Impacts – Mechanical removal of excess fuels may require the use of heavy equipment and may require a road system to get cutting and disposal equipment to the forest sites necessary and to remove the vegetation. The process of cutting the trees and removing them could disturb the immediate sites, cause sediment to be released into water systems, or other negative environmental impacts.
3. Wilderness Values – Mechanical thinning and harvesting of the forest will be precluded in legally designated wilderness areas – now including 35 million acres of national forest system land, or 18 percent of the total national forest system. Yet, the occurrence of large, high intensity and historically unnatural fires that may start in (or move into) current wilderness areas may not only do widespread ecological damage to the wilderness areas themselves but could also then spread to other non-wilderness areas including private lands.
4. Visual Unattractiveness – In lands in the forest/urban interface, home owners and other residents and visitors often object to the visual appearance of forested lands after they have been subject to timber harvesting and other mechanical removal of excess fuels.
5. Legal hurdles – The existing legal and regulatory framework for tree cutting on public lands is still designed in some respects to serve the purposes of the old timber harvesting program. This framework needs further revision to provide for more effective excess fuels removal. For example, the GAO reported in April 1999 that the Forest Service did not have legal authority to allow a contractor to sell the excess commercially valuable wood removed in a sale that overall had a negative value and thus required a net government payment to the contractor.
6. Supply Uncertainty – The costs of mechanical removal of excess fuels might be substantially reduced by the development of a biomass industry or other economic innovations to utilize excess fuels in the West in new commercial ways. However, any new long -term private investment in biomass or other facilities – or in private research into these possibilities — is inhibited by the current uncertainty with respect to the future availability of wood supplies from federal forest lands.
7. Public Perceptions – As a result of past conflicts over the practice of clearcutting, the preservation of old growth timber, and other fiercely contested environmental issues, part of the American public has come to regard any harvesting of timber on the national forests and other federal lands as intrinsically undesirable – and this attitude is often extended to any mechanical removal of excess fuels. The Sierra Club officially advocates a ban on all timber harvesting on national forest lands, which would appear to preclude the use of any future mechanical treatment of excess fuels on these lands.
The Forest Service in recent years has shown a preference for prescribed burning over mechanical treatment. Since fire historically has been a natural event, prescribed burning is commonly seen as a more “natural” forest policy intervention. The current policy of “ecosystem management” puts a high premium on practices that are “natural” and that will ultimately work to restore the forest conditions and ecological dynamics to those preceding the arrival of modern industrial civilization and its impacts on the forests of the West.
The clear preference for prescribed burning has created several problems. There are some areas where prescribed fire cannot be used but there is still a reluctance to employ mechanical removal of excess fuels. It is often the lower-elevation parts of the national forests in the interior West where frequent low-intensity fires were part of the normal ecology prior to western settlement. Following the fire suppression of the twentieth century, these areas are now likely to have some of the highest and most dangerous buildups of excess fuels. These are also the areas likely to have the heaviest recreational use and to be in closest proximity to private lands and cities. The use of prescribed burns in such areas is particularly problematic.
Hence, the use of prescribed burning is often most feasible in the areas of the national forest system that are not the most severely affected by forest health problems and where the risks to lives and property is less.