Western Wildfires: Seeing the Forest Through Dense, Dead, and Diseased Trees

On Point No. 71


This year’s forest-fire season in the West may be the worst in 50 years.  An area larger than Maryland-6.5 million acres-has burned, and more will follow.  By the end of this fire season, over $1 billion will have been spent in fighting the fires.[1]  At least 1,000 homes have been destroyed thus far, as well as many other structures and personal property.


The devastation from this summer’s blazes should not have come as a great surprise.  Many forests in the West have been in a tinderbox condition for years; numerous government reports have previously predicted the eruption of large conflagrations.  The blazes of 2000 were a predictable result of federal land-management miscues.  Unless drastic corrective actions are taken, one can reliably predict that in the future many additional large and similarly damaging fires will occur.


While the federal land-management system has been reduced to a state of gridlock and the congressional legislative process remains stalemated, the West has been burning.  The West can no longer afford to wait until some elusive policy and value consensus emerges at the national level.  It needs relief in the near term from the wide dangers of catastrophic wildfire.  This will require significant shifts in policy, as well as forest interventions beyond the scope of the recent experiences of the Forest Service and other federal land-management agencies.


Federal Land Mismanagement.  The weather has indeed been dry this year, making forest fires more likely.  But the fires this year have been a disaster waiting to happen. They are occurring on Western lands that have been badly mismanaged.


The fire problem in the West has resulted from an unnaturally large buildup of dry, highly-flammable excess wood in the forests.  Before the government began to suppress forest fires in the early 20th century, frequent small fires cleaned out the underbrush.  Large ponderosa pines, for example, often grew in open stands with densities between 20 and 50 trees per acre.  Now, as a result of preventing forest fires, smaller, crowded, less healthy trees often grow in the same places with densities of 300 to 700 trees per acre.[2]


More than 40 million acres of the national forest system are rated “very unhealthy” and face an extremely high fire hazard because of past fire suppression.[3]  Over 60 percent of national forest and other federal resource lands are either “very unhealthy” or in “deteriorating health.”  In the southwestern region of the United States, where the Los Alamos fire burned, fully 85 percent of all national forest lands are considered in poor health and fire-prone.[4]


In these unhealthy, overstocked forests, when a forest fire breaks out, it burns much more intensely than the lighter fires that historically were a normal part of the natural ecological workings of many forests.  Fire suppression does not prevent forest fires; it defers them into the future and makes the situation all the worse when large fires do eventually break out.


How Did This Happen?  The poor ecological conditions and high fire risks on federal lands at present have multiple causes.  The Forest Service pursued fire suppression on its lands with particular zeal for many decades, often leaving the lands in worse condition.  Congress also made matters difficult.  In the 1970s, Congress adopted a new statutory framework for public land management.[5]  Echoing the conclusions of many nongovernmental studies,[6] the General Accounting Office informed Congress in 1997 testimony that “in summary…the Forest Service’s decision-making process is broken.”  The new laws had resulted in a state of management “gridlock.”[7]


Land-use planning and other new procedural steps required under the 1970s legislation have created wide policymaking confusion and in some cases the de facto transfer of control over public-land decisions outside the federal agencies themselves.  Often relying on language of the 1970s legislation, the courts increasingly have overridden executive decisions.  The cumbersome processes of land-use-planning appeals and many other opportunities for delay and protest have often given new de facto veto powers to outside groups with enough legal and lobbying skill and money.  Rather than establishing accountability, the current federal land-management regime is one in which no one is responsible.


Not Seeing the Forest.  The forests that were burning this summer were not alone in posing a large fire risk, nor were warnings of catastrophic fire risks news to government agencies and forestry experts.  Throughout the last decade warnings of catastrophic fire have been given in US Government reports and repeated in testimony to Congress:


·  1993 – A panel of leading American foresters issues a report, distributed to a wide audience, including government agencies, stating that the policy of suppressing forest fire, as has been followed in Western forests for most of the 20th century, has resulted in a large buildup of “excess fuels.”  “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.”[8]

·  1994 – The National Commission on Wildfire Disasters, created by Congress, declares, “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.”[9]

·  May 1995 – The US Forest Service declares 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.”[10]

·  December 1995 – The US Departments of Agriculture and Interior jointly issue a report stating “millions of acres of forests and rangelands [are] at extremely high risk for devastating forest fires to occur.”  The report declares that many forested areas are “in need of immediate treatment” to reduce fire hazards.  Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman sign off on the report.[11]

·  1997 – A panel of leading foresters testifies before, and submits a report to, Congress, stating 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.”[12]

·  1998 – Barry Hill, Associate Director for Energy, Resources, and Science Issues of the General Accounting Office, testifies to 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.”[13]

·  1999 – The General Accounting Office issues a report stating 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.”[14]


Despite abundant evidence accumulated over many years that the framework of federal land management is working poorly,[15] members of Congress have been unable to agree on any alternative approach.


What Should We Do Now?  Contrary to a widespread impression, the total volumes of wood on the national forests have been increasing steadily for many years¾the result of fire suppression acting to build up wood loads at the same time that levels of timber harvests have been below net growth of wood each year.  The composition of the national forests, however, has shifted radically.  As many larger and older trees were harvested as part of the traditional timber program, and with fire suppression, Western forests have increasingly been stocked by stands of small-diameter trees.  It is these new conditions of densely-packed stands of small-diameter trees¾virtual kindling wood for fires¾that create the much greater fire hazard currently being faced.


At present, the small-diameter trees have a limited commercial market.  This can be a short-term situation, however.  The demand for wood and paper in the United States continues to grow unabated.  The national forests now contain large supplies of wood fibers that can be used to meet these needs.  At the same time, large reductions in the excess fuel loads of small-diameter trees in the national forests are needed to reduce fire risks and improve forest health.   It can be a win-win situation economically and environmentally.  With appropriate government policies, forest health can be improved, fire risks reduced, and large supplies of wood provided for home building and other purposes.  Rural communities in the West¾some depressed economically¾can also receive a significant income and employment boost.


Much increased utilization of small-diameter trees can also bring in substantial revenue to the federal government.  There are various suggestions being made at present for large new commitments of federal funds for a program of thinning overstocked Western forests.  This large expenditure of public money is unnecessary and undesirable.  There is no need to create a new large drain on federal revenue sources and national taxpayers¾and a large accompanying bureaucratic apparatus¾when small-diameter trees themselves have a large commercial potential.  A recent study published in August, 2000, in the Journal of Forestry found that in southwest Colorado, for example, “forest restoration projects can achieve ecological objectives and pay for themselves even with low value material.”[16]


The potential uses of small-diameter trees are numerous.  Various wood products¾ including oriented strand board, house logs, laminated lumber, studs, excelsior products, waferboard, posts and poles, and firewood¾are possible.  Oriented strand board was minimally produced until the early 1980s but now supplies 11.2 billion board feet of sheet and other wood products per year, equal to 63 percent of the volume of total U.S. plywood production.  The timber industry in the United States has generally been shifting in many areas towards the use of chips and particles from lower quality trees and wood¾for example, making increasing use of hardwoods as a wood-fiber source.  Better glues and other technology make it possible to create newly-strong and attractive wood products from such lower quality sources.   In 1950, the total wood outputs represented 70 percent by weight of the wood inputs going into the production process.  Today, because of increased utilization of all parts of trees, this figure has increased to 95 percent. 


Small-diameter trees can also supply pulp for paper production.  Still another important and potentially profitable use of small-diameter trees is as a source of biomass to generate electricity.   


As with any new product area, it will take time to develop the technology of utilization of small-diameter trees and to find the most suitable and profitable uses.  The development of new wood-processing technology has been most rapid in areas such as hardwoods, where much of the wood supply is on private land.  In the case of the western United States, the supply uncertainties and other problems of doing business with the federal government on federal forests have inhibited a similar pace of technological and industrial infrastructure development.   If every computer manufacturer had had to depend on a federal “chip” supplier with the same bureaucracy and reliability as the US Forest Service supplying wood “chips,” the US personal-computer industry would likely still be back somewhere in its infancy.


Small-diameter trees also are limited in their marketability in the West at present because there are few contractors with the best harvesting equipment for these trees and few local mills with the capacity to handle them.  The small-diameter trees thus are often harvested inefficiently and then sent to distant markets where the transportation costs can be half or more of the total costs. 


The Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, is working with the Watershed Research and Training Center in Hayfork, California to test the commercial potential of small-diameter trees.[17]  Experience to date has shown that removal of these trees costs $208 per thousand board feet for sale as green raw logs, and that these logs can earn $200 in revenue per thousand board feet-thus involving a small loss but much lower net costs than simply paying for removal of the logs with no subsequent commercial sale.  Use of the trees for processing and sale as flooring increases the costs to $800 per thousand board feet; the revenues, however, rise to $1,200 per thousand board feet, yielding a substantial profit in this form of utilization of small-diameter trees.


It will require new legislation to achieve the full potential for utilization of small-diameter trees.   The legislation will need to authorize both planning for forest thinning over a longer time-frame, and government commitments to make sufficient wood volumes available to justify new local mills designed for processing small-diameter trees.  The supply commitment might have to cover a five- to ten-year period in order to allow for a sufficient period to pay off an investment in a mill and other facilities.  Similar considerations have dictated long-term contracts of up to ten years with concessionaires in the National Park System.  Transfer of the park-concession model to fuels-reduction programs on the national forests might prove appropriate in other respects¾for example, a specific large area for tree thinning could be designated (perhaps as a result of a local collaborative process) in an area surrounding a community, and then a long-term contract might be awarded to a “concessionaire/tree harvester” to do the job, including the building of a new mill to process the small-diameter trees.


Conclusion.  Federal land-management agencies’ inaction during the 1990s¾while informed of dire warnings of looming catastrophic wildfire in the West¾illustrates the need for radical changes in the framework of federal land management.  Unless Congress acts decisively to adopt some form of new approach, the cities and the property owners of the West are likely to continue to face large and unacceptable forest-fire risks.


Robert H. Nelson is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland.  He received his Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University in 1971 and worked in the Office of Policy Analysis in the US Department of the Interior from 1975 to 1993.  He is 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).




1 Julie R. Hirschfeld, “Forest Fires in Western States Ignite Partisan Debate on Hill,” CQ Weekly, September 2, 2000, pp. 2025-2027.

2 R. Neil Sampson, et al., Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health in the Inland West, report of a workshop at Sun Valley, Idaho, November 14-19, 1993 (Washington, DC: Forest Policy Center, American Forests, 1995), p. 7.

3 My use of Healthy, Deteriorating Health, and Unhealthy corresponds to the Forest Service categories of Class1, Class 2, and Class 3 lands, respectively.

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

5 See, for example, Forest and Rangelands Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974, the National Forest Management Act of 1976, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

6 Roger Sedjo, Forest Service Vision: or, Does the Forest Service Have a Future? Resources for the Future Discussion Paper 99-03 (Washington, DC: October 1998).

7 Robert H. Nelson, “The Religion of Forestry-Scientific Management,” Journal of Forestry (November 1999); see also response to this article in the same issue by Jack Ward Thomas and James Burchfield.

8 Sampson, Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health in the Inland West.

9 Report of the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters (Washington, DC: 1994).

10 US Forest Service, Course to the Future: Repositioning Fire and Aviation Management (Washington, DC: May 1995).

11 US Department of the Interior and US Department of Agriculture, Federal Wildland Fire Management: Policy and Program Review (Washington, DC: December 18, 1995).

12 Forest Health Science Panel, Report on Forest Health of the United States, panel chartered by Charles Taylor,  member, United States Congress, 11th District, North Carolina (Washington, DC: April 4, 1997).

13 General Accounting Office, Western National Forests: Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources and Communities, Testimony by Associate Director Barry T. Hill before the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, Committee on Resources, US House of Representatives (Washington, DC: September 28, 1998).

14 General Accounting Office, Western National Forests-A Cohesive Strategy is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire Threats (Washington, DC: April 1999). 

15 See Committee of Scientists, Sustaining the People’s Lands: Recommendations for Stewardship of the National Forests and Grasslands into the Next Century, a report to the Secretary of Agriculture and the Chief of the Forest Service (Washington, DC: Department of Agriculture, March 15, 1999),  pp. 64, 76.

16 Dennis L. Lynch, William H. Romme, and M. Lisa Floyd, “Forest Restoration in Southwestern Ponderosa Pine,” Journal of Forestry (August 2000).

17 See USDA, US Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory, Forest Products Laboratory Research Program on Small-Diameter Material (Madison, Wisconsin: October 1998); also Henry Spelter, Rong Wang, and Peter Ince, Economic Feasibility of Products from Inland West Small-Diameter Timber (Madison, Wisconsin: Forest Products Laboratory, US Forest Service, May 1996).