Are there sensible policies that could be put in place so that the past year’s wildfire crisis in the Northwest, West, and Southwest doesn’t repeat itself in the near future? We think so, and the solutions we propose for discussion have bearing on what the relationship of government assistance should be to other types of natural disasters — hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, etc.
We believe that the most important “take home” from this past year’s wildfires out West is that forest management should be handled primarily at the local forest level, not centrally in Washington, DC.
Why? Because forests differ in their past history of management practices, the trees growing in each forest, local climate conditions, etc. Nicole Strong, a forester with the Oregon State University Extension Service, explains:
“[I]t all depends on the forest you’re looking at….Ponderosa pine forest is going to behave in a very different way than our high elevation hemlock forest. And then south-facing slopes will behave much differently than a cool north-facing slope.”
Dry forests, she says, “like those found in eastern Oregon and in parts of southwest Oregon, historically burned more frequently but less intensely than the moister forests in the Cascade and Coast ranges. So what makes sense for one may not make sense for the other.”
Norm Johnson, professor emeritus at the OSU College of Forestry, adds [same source] that “there’s a strong argument to be made for removing woody fuels in naturally dry forests as a way to reduce fire intensity and restore ecological balance. But as for fires in moist forests like the Cascades …
“That’s just nature at work…And the fires historically were severe. [T]he notion that we ought to go in there and reduce fuels to restore natural processes is wrongheaded.”
Local managers will also know the best local mix of business vs recreational uses of their forest and what fees are appropriate for each type of user to cover the annual management costs. The role of state or federal owners of the forest should be to ensure that the best professionals are appointed to each forest and supply fire-fighting services when appropriate. Where possible, all expenses including firefighting should be covered by local user fees.
Are environmentalists responsible for the wildfires?
Some conservative sources have claimed that environmentalists are to blame for this year’s devastating fires in the West — by preventing commercial logging and forest-floor brush cleanup. As we’ve seen above, such policies may not be appropriate in all cases. But the conservative critics have a point that environmentalist lawsuits have often delayed or blocked management programs from being carried out in a timely fashion or not at all:
“As a Reason Foundation study noted, the U.S. Forest Service, which is tasked with managing public wildland, once had success in minimizing widespread fires in the early 20th century. But many of these successful methods were abandoned in large part because of efforts by environmental activists. The Forest Service becam