Restoring Forest Health and Avoiding Catastrophic Fire 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 Department of the Interior.  This office is the principal policy office serving the Secretary of the Interior.  I served on assignment as the senior economist of the Commission on Fair Market Value Policy for Federal Coal Leasing (1983-1984), as research manager for the President’s Commission on Privatization (1988), and as economist of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs (1991).  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 principal conclusions of my testimony can be summarized as follows.


1. The forest fires of 2000 have shown the need to rethink basic assumptions of federal land management.


2. Actions are urgently needed to reduce excess fuel loads in order to restore the national forests and other western federal forests to a healthier and less fire-prone condition.


3. States and local communities should take the lead in developing plans for reducing fire hazards in their vicinity, including federal forests.  They should work in conjunction with the federal land agencies, environmental groups, the timber industry and other elements of “civil society.” 


4. The Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other parts of the federal government should serve primarily to facilitate discussion, to provide information and other technical assistance, and to handle administrative implementation of resulting fuels reduction plans on their own lands. 


5.  The Forest Service should be directed to publish full forest fire risk assessments for each community in close proximity to a federal forest, giving estimates of the likelihood of various forest fire outcomes within certain specified timeframes.


6. The costs of the fuels reduction program can be limited by taking steps to facilitate the sale of commercially marketable wood and other products resulting from fuels reduction efforts.  A program of thinning costing hundreds of millions of dollars at federal taxpayer expense is not needed.


7. A cost-sharing formula should be implemented whereby the federal government does share any public burdens of excess fuels reduction with participating state and local governments.


8.  Prompt action to reduce excess fuels on federal forests will require limits on the existing ability of many parties to national forest decision making to exercise a unilateral veto power over future management actions.


I will address each of these six points in turn.


Rethinking Federal Land Management


Almost a century of fire suppression on the national forests and other western forests has led to a build-up of large loads of trees and wood.  Suppressing fire paradoxically results in an increase in fuel loads in the future and increasing fire hazards.  Since the 1970s, the extent of wildland fires in the West has been growing and these fires have been less controllable; have burned at higher temperatures; have been more likely to be crown fires; and have often occurred outside the range of previous wildland fire experience.  The economic losses have included destruction of homes and other structures, soaring federal expenditures for fire fighting, loss of tourism, loss of potentially harvestable wood, and other costs.  Catastrophic wildfires have also caused sterilization of the soil, excess siltation and runoff into streams, destruction of remaining large trees, loss of biodiversity and other environmental damages.


These trends culminated in the fire season of 2000.   Thus far, more than 6.5 million acres (about equal to the land area of the State of Maryland) have burned, more than twice the normal amount for this time of year.  At least 1,000 homes have been destroyed.  Fire fighting costs to the federal government will very likely exceed $1 billion in 2000.  The State government of Montana was forced to limit recreational access to forests covering one quarter of the area of Montana.   The environmental costs are more difficult to quantify but they are large and will be visible in the years to come.


Forest fire is partly an accident of the weather and other circumstances; it is also subject to human influence.  A forest can be managed to be more or less susceptible to catastrophic fire.  The management decisions made over many decades of the 20th century left the national forests in a tinderbox condition.  Such a management failure – sustained over many decades, and including the 1990s when much too little was done to redress the dangers created by suppression in previous decades – call for a broad review of the federal forest management regime which created such unacceptable results over such a sustained period.


Early on, the general policy of fire suppression was initially resisted by many local communities but was forced on them by a Forest Service determined to implement a single vision of “correct” forest management.  This reflected the ethos of “scientific management” in which the Forest Service was conceived in 1905 and the normal expectation in science that there is a one “right answer.”  In the 1990s, following the more recent recognition that fuel loads had built up to very dangerous levels on the forests, there was again an attempt to formulate a single correct policy extending over the national forest system.  The Forest Service determined that prescribed burning was the superior method – more “natural” — of reducing fuel loads on the national forests.  The level of prescribed burns on the national forests rose by a factor of three or four from 1994 to 1999 (although still small relative to the overall acreage of fire prone forest).  Although many communities and expert groups outside the Forest Service strongly advocated the use of mechanical thinning of the national forests as well to reduce fuel loads, very little thinning took place.


The track record of the Forest Service shows that its “scientific” determinations are often influenced by intellectual fads, political pressures and other nonscientific elements.  Where the science is incomplete and the knowledge base weak, the agency has often sought to make stronger claims for scientific knowledge than were justifiable.   The experience and record of forest fire management illustrate that an approach of trial and error will have to play a larger role in the future than has been the traditional Forest Service understanding of “scientific management.” 


Recent theorists of “adaptive management” have called for much greater flexibility in natural resource management.   It will be difficult or impossible to apply forms of adaptive management to address forest fire concerns without significant decentralization of authority and other basic changes in the institutional arrangements for Forest Service management of the national forests.


Excess Fuel Loads Must Be Reduced


Since at least the early 1990s, as shown in Figure 1, various expert groups have been warning that excess fuel levels were building up on western forests, posing the risk of widespread  catastrophic fire.  Such warnings have been issued by the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters (1994); the Forest Service itself (1995); the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior (in a joint 1995 report); and the General Accounting Office (1998 and 1999).  There was little response of the federal forest agencies in comparison with the magnitude of the problem.  The predictions of impending catastrophic fire have been realized in the 2000 fire season —  and in 1994 and 1996 devastating fires had already raged across large areas of the West.


In February 2000 the Forest Service published the first reliable data on the extent of the forest health problems and the excess fuels buildup on the national forests.  As shown below,  28 percent of the forested lands in the national forest system are rated as very unhealthy and fire prone – characterized by large numbers of smaller trees outside the historic range of variability, and representing a large fuel load buildup.  In total the national forests include 169 million acres of forested land.   The total area of national forest land posing the largest fire risk thus equals 47 million acres.  Lands in deteriorating condition where excess fuel loads and fire risks are currently building up and pose an abnormal fire hazard cover another 60 million acres. 


Not all of these fire prone lands will require fuels reduction treatment.  Some are in remote areas where fire poses little danger to human habitation, the costs of forest treatments would be large and the environmental damages from forest fire would not


Table 1 – State of Forest Health, Forested Lands in National Forest System,

by U.S. Forest Service Region


FS Region


Deteriorating Health

   Very Unhealthy

  Region 1




  Region 2




  Region 3




  Region 4




  Region 5




  Region 6




  Region 8




  Region 9




      All  FS Lands





Source:  USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, Historical Fire Regimes by Current Condition Classes  (Missoula, Montana: February 15, 2000). 

Note: “Healthy,” “Deteriorating Health,” and “Very Unhealthy” correspond to the Forest Service categories of “Class 1,” “Class 2,” and “Class 3” lands, respectively.



be too great (or fire might be beneficial).  Mechanical thinning to reduce fire risks would be illegal in formally designated wilderness areas.    It would be difficult to undertake

thinning in roadless areas (according to Forest Service figures, more than half of the 43 million acres recently placed under a road building moratorium are unhealthy and fire prone).  Prescribed burning is limited in its applicability because of the many hurdles it faces, including the risk the fire will get out of control; air pollution concerns; administrative costs; and the necessity for the right weather conditions.   Prescribed burning is not feasible at all in many national forest areas because the fuel loads are already so great that any fire would soon become a large conflagration that might well spread rapidly to other forests.


There are three options for national forest lands where excessive fuel loads pose a large forest fire risk: prescribed burning, mechanical thinning, or do nothing (and simply take the chance that no fire will break out).  There is not likely to be any one answer that is universally applicable across the national forest system.


Decentralize Decision Making


Basic social value choices will be involved in resolving the best management strategy to deal with existing unhealthy forests and excess fuels loads.   Prescribed burning will require that nearby residents and  property owners put up with smoke (and possibly attendant health hazards) and take the risk that the fire might get out of control and damage their properties or even threaten their lives.  Mechanical thinning will require a willingness to cut trees on national forest lands – contrary to the positions of many vocal environmental groups in recent years.  Doing nothing may involve the fewest immediate costs but will pose the risk that the whole forest might burn in a catastrophic fire.


The science of forest treatments to reduce fuel loads and fire risks is still on an early part of the learning curve.  Various studies and experiments have been conducted but there are many large technical and ecological uncertainties that remain.  The scientific difficulties are compounded by the site-specific character of the problem.  The same forest treatment methods in one place may yield a much different forest outcome at another location.  The science of ecology at present lacks the ability to make precise predictions.


For many years the track record of the Forest Service has been to overstate the degree of scientific knowledge and then to seek to impose common answers from the national level in the service of a fictitious scientific consensus.   It is time for a new approach and a new era.  This will mean more decentralization of authority and less unilateral assertion of federal authority.


It will be a continuation of existing trends already seen in the 1990s.  The “watershed movement” already represents an important existing effort to decentralize management in the West.  In some cases it has been driven by the intermingling of state and private lands with lands of the Forest Service and other federal agencies.   No one land owner is in a position to plan and manage for the interconnections among such diverse properties, requiring the development of new collaborative mechanisms.  A 1996 report by the University of Colorado Law School documented the existence of 76 watershed groups that had formed to seek solutions to common problems at the local level.  The Western Water Policy Review Commission in 1998 recommended the development of new governance “mechanisms that help integrate the management of river basins and watersheds across agencies, political jurisdictions, functional programs and time.”


In Southwest Colorado, the Ponderosa Pine Forest Partnership was formed in the mid 1990s to plan actions to restore forests in the area to a healthier condition and to reduce fire hazards on the national forests and adjacent state and private lands.  The predominant method selected was mechanical thinning of the forests, to be followed by prescribed burning.  The participants in the effort included local government, the San Juan National Forest, Fort Lewis College, the Colorado timber industry and the Colorado State Forest Service.  Because of the broad participation and range of local support achieved, a mechanical thinning program was carried out on a test basis, an outcome that would probably have been impossible at the initiative of the U.S. Forest Service alone.


The effort was initiated and much of the leadership came from the Montezuma County Commission and its Federal Lands Program.  Commission leaders were confronted with finding new management approaches over 250,000 acres in mixed federal and nonfederal ownership that had been harvested for timber early in the 20th century.  In the absence of fire over the course of the 20th century, these lands had now evolved into fire prone forests of small diameter, stagnated, second growth ponderosa pine.  The county government decided it would be necessary to involve various other groups as well in fact finding, technical education, and discussions of fuel reduction options and the formulation of plans. 


A New Federal Role: Facilitation and Administrative Assistance


The many mistakes of past federal forest management require a new federal modesty of aims and prescriptions.  Instead of the controlling force (who may listen to others but in the end acts alone), a new federal role is required in which the federal government becomes merely one participant in a larger group process of decision making.  Federal officials may bring certain special capacities to the table.  These may include the money to fund research and other studies, knowledge of various technical forestry subjects, and the administrative instruments and capabilities to implement elements of group decisions and plans on their own lands.  


Traditionally, the federal government also held the final decision making authority for national forests and other federal lands.  However, in a new role the federal government will be constrained from acting in the absence of wider agreement.   When many individual lives and property are at stake, and the economic and environmental future of the surrounding area depend so much on land management decisions, federal land managers should not presume to possess unique decision making capabilities.  This is especially the case when the existing state of forestry and ecological science at any given time may be capable of justifying a wide range of possible options.


New instruments of cooperation and governance will be necessary for the management of federal forests.  Here as well, there is no single answer. The Second Century report, the result of a collaborative study effort involving the timber industry, environmentalists and other parties, recommended in 1999 that five models be considered in reorganizing the basic framework for national forest management and decision making.  All involved significant decentralization.  One model involved the creation of what would amount to a public board of directors to oversee the management of individual national forests.  Another model would put less emphasis on participative decision making and achieve local accountability by requiring individual national forests to charge fees and otherwise raise revenues to cover their costs.  The discipline of the market would act to insure that national forest managers do in fact serve public demands.  Excess fuel loads would be reduced, for example, because this action would increase long run revenues – in terms of future timber sales, recreational fee collections, hunting and fishing access charges,  etc.


Community Risk Assessments


In the role of facilitator, a first key step will be for the Forest Service to provide communities throughout the West with more complete information on forest conditions and fire risks in their vicinity.  A full “risk assessment” should be prepared and widely distributed for each community, giving the probability of different types of fires and damages over different time frames.  This risk assessment should also relate risk projections to possible future changes in forest conditions that might result from management actions. 


At Los Alamos, New Mexico, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in December 1999 identified “wildfire as the greatest threat to Los Alamos operations.”  In mid April 2000, Diana Webb, the chair of the Los Alamos Ecology Group, told a small meeting of concerned citizens that “It’s not a matter of if but when wildfire will again threaten the Lab, Los Alamos and surrounding areas. We can’t stress this enough.”  Yet, this risk information was not available in a quantitative form and not widely enough disseminated to the Los Alamos community.  If more citizens had known more precisely and earlier of the real large risks to their community, they might have demanded earlier and more effective action to reduce fire risks in nearby forests.   The Los Alamos fire broke out on May 4, 2000, destroying 400 homes and doing other large damage.

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