Have major changes in forest-management practices over the past century had anything to do with the historic, devastating wildfires in Northern California?
Many successful methods of mitigating wildfires employed by U.S. Forest Service in the early 20th century were abandoned largely because of efforts by environmental activists, argued Rep. Tom Clintock on the House floor Oct. 3.
McClintock, the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal reported, contends 1970s laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act in particular have led to poor forest management.
The congressman said the laws “have resulted in endlessly time-consuming and cost-prohibitive restrictions and requirements that have made the scientific management of our forests virtually impossible.”
More than a dozen wildfires in Northern California’s wine country have burned hundreds of thousands of acres, killing dozens of people with hundreds more missing. In addition, thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed.
In a May congressional hearing, McClintock argued that 45 years ago, the U.S. began “imposing laws that have made the management of our forests all but impossible.”
Private landowners clearly have done a better job of managing forests, he insisted.
“Time and again, we see vivid boundaries between the young, healthy, growing forests managed by state, local, and private landholders, and the choked, dying, or burned federal forests,” McClintock said.
“The laws of the past 45 years have not only failed to protect the forest environment — they have done immeasurable harm to our forests.”
The Daily Signal pointed to a study by the Reason Foundation finding that in the past three decades, the area burned by wildfires in the U.S. each year has grown dramatically, while the number of fires has remained roughly constant, having peaked in the 1970s.
The study, concluding climatic factors alone cannot explain the pattern of fires observed over the past century, pointed out that the practice of small, prescribed burns — imitating what Native Americans had done —gave way to fire suppression, eventually leading to large-scale fires.
The editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper agreed that the Forest Service should end “attempts to try to snuff out every wildfire.”
“Small blazes that aren’t a threat to public safety are healthy for the wilderness ecology,” the paper said. “Suppressing them all makes mega-fires more likely because there is more underbrush and debris to burn.”
The editorial board also called for “revising laws to limit lawsuits — filed by environmentalists who loathe logging — that make it difficult to thin forests on federal land.”
“The evidence is strong that private forests that are thinned are less vulnerable to wildfires, which is why The Nature Conservancy is using the tactic in Washington state,” the paper said.
Randal O’Toole, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, found that the Forest Service’s work became more costly and less effective as it increasingly “rewarded forest managers for losing money on environmentally questionable practices.”
He noted fire expenditures have grown from less than 15 percent of the Forest Service budget in the early 1990s to about 50 percent today.
The Daily Signal reported Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is calling for a more aggressive approach to reduce the excess vegetation that has made the fires worse.
In Congress, members of the Western Caucus have proposed legislation designed to give power back to local authorities and allow for more aggressive forest thinning.
The Daily Signal said one idea, borrowed from the playbook of the school choice movement, is to created charter forests that are publicly owned but privately managed.
The move would decentralize forest management, professor Robert H. Nelson wrote for The Wall Street Journal, exempting certain forests from current requirements for public land-use planning and the writing of environmental impact statements.
“These requirements long ago ceased to perform their ostensible function of improving public land decision making,” he wrote.