Ending The Forest Fire Gridlock: Making Fire Fighting In The West A State And Local Responsibility

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For the past five years, spending by the federal government for forest fire prevention and suppression has averaged almost $900 million per year. This amount is almost half of the total direct federal spending for land management for all other purposes. The high levels of federal spending reflect an increased danger of devastating forest fires in Western states, and the widespread fires that occurred in the hot and dry fire seasons in the summers of 1994 and 1996.

The increased risk of forest fire is a result of failed federal policies. Because the federal government has long – suppressed forest fires, many Western forests today possess an abundance of flammable materials, built up over many years. If a fire does erupt and get out of control, these forests are in a tinder box condition. The resulting forest fires burn with greater intensity than the more frequent fires of the past, often burning up the entire forest and doing major damage to the soil as well.

The U.S. Forest Service and other federal land management agencies now admit the error of their past ways. They propose to remove flammable materials from the forest by controlled burning, thus preventing future accumulations of wood that would sustain larger fires. They also propose limited timber harvesting with the purpose to reduce fire risks. However, owing to public opposition and other obstacles, the federal agencies are not likely to be successful in either of these plans.

The Forest Service has lost the confidence of the American public. The management of the National Forests is in a state of seemingly permanent gridlock. The only way to make the difficult decisions required by the current fire conditions in the National Forests is to decentralize forest fire management. State and local groups will have to work out among themselves the fire management regime appropriate to their varying local circumstances. State and local processes of decisionmaking can provide the social legitimacy that the centralized scientific management of the Forest Service now lacks.

The main responsibility for protection against forest fire in the West thus should be shifted to state and local governments. By the Forest Service’s own estimates, 60 to 70 percent of its expenditures for forest fire fighting have a main purpose to protect human life and property in the urban/forest “interface.” State and local governments are the ones with zoning and other regulatory authority to require land and property owners to take appropriate actions to minimize fire risks in such areas.

The existing spending of the federal government for fighting forest fires should be converted to a block grant and given on a transitional basis to the states. Over time, this grant would decline eventually to zero. The extensive firefighting apparatus of the federal government should be privatized. States would contract with the new private firefighting organization, in part using the funds from their block grants, to provide necessary fire protection services.