The Fires Next Time

Friday, January 25, 2013

Now that the wildfires that burned millions of acres in the West last season have given way to winter snows, environmentalists undoubtedly will blame climate change. They might look in the mirror instead.

Environmental laws since the 1970s require public input into federal land-use decisions including logging on national forests. This has led to lawsuits challenging efforts by the U.S. Forest Service to prevent forest fires by thinning out trees (most of which are dead or diseased) and brush by machines and carefully controlled burns. This dead wood is the fuel that feeds catastrophic wildfires.

Removing the fuel reduces the likelihood of fires, and if fires do break out, makes them easier to fight. Meanwhile, the suppression of fires costs the federal government nearly $2.5 billion annually.

A fuels-management project to log and thin 4,800 acres in the Bozeman, Montana, watershed exemplifies the problem. This project has been held up since 2010 on grounds that the environmental-impact assessment did not adequately protect the habitat of the Canadian lynx and the grizzly bear, both listed as threatened species.

Last year a wildfire threatened that watershed, burning over 10,000 acres and costing more than $2 million to fight. As one firefighter put it, “fire is the environmentalist’s way of thinning the forests.”

Jack Ward Thomas, who was President Clinton’s Forest Service chief, noted a few years ago that court battles have tied the agency in a “Gordian knot” creating a “vicious cycle of increasing costs, time delays, and inability to carry out management actions.” As a result, most national forests are a tinderbox of old-growth trees ravaged by disease and insects.

Making matters worse, dense conifer canopies intercept rain and snow, with 30 percent lost to evaporation instead of soaking into the ground or flowing into rivers. When a little rain fell on the Bozeman fire on August 31, the Forest Service reported that it was caught in the treetops and quickly evaporated. An estimate by Wesleyan University’s Helen Poulos and James Workman for the Sierra Nevada in California puts the annual water loss due to evaporation at more than five trillion gallons. That is enough to supply Los Angeles for twenty-six years.

Forest fires also contribute significantly to atmospheric carbon. A 2007 study by the federally funded National Center for Atmospheric Research found that “large wildfires in the Western National United States can pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in just a few weeks as cars do in those areas in an entire year.” Scientists at Stanford University and the National Snow and Ice Data Center believe that carbon soot from wildfires is adding to the greenhouse effect and contributed to last summer’s unusual thaw in the Arctic and Greenland.

Cutting the Gordian knot is necessary if the Forest Service is to properly manage national forest assets and reduce wildfires. A start would be to require environmental groups to post a sizable bond when they file lawsuits. If the area burns while the suit is in the courts, the bond would be forfeited to defray firefighting costs.

This would allow public involvement through judicial review but hold opponents accountable. This might lead to a more responsible form of environmentalism.