Fire policy: Expert panel examines fire management in wake of severe fire seasons
The Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) hosted an expert panel to discuss in depth policy and regulations leading to unprecedented wildfires scorching western lands.
The panel features MSLF Communications Director Sean Page, MSLF Attorney David McDonald, Retired Forest Service Employee and Former Assistant Director of Forest Products Joe Reddan, Former Department of Interior Deputy Solicitor for Wildlife and Parks and Wyoming Attorney Karen Budd-Falen and Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment Director Myron Ebell.
Page and Reddan began the conversation by noting fire season and forest management is a large and complex topic, dating back many decades.
“When the Forest Service was getting started, fires were always prevalent,” Reddan shares. “As time went on, the Forest Service started to cut more timber and build more roads into the forest.”
He continues, “With cooperative fire suppression, fires started to ameliorate. In the 1930s, the U.S. was burning roughly 36 million acres annually, and today we are burning six million acres.”
As federal agencies grew, Reddan says the actual management of resources has declined.
“We see the changes in fire because we don’t do enough forestry in the forest, especially in federal forests,” he explains, noting the reduction of timber programs and introduction of habitat designations through several administrations has impacted management decisions.
“We are not cutting enough trees in federal timber in most of the 11 western states – our forests now are right for fires, and we would still have fires, but they would burn differently if we had more active forest management.”
According to Reddan, forests grow at geometric rates and fuels need to be removed to maintain healthy forests.
“To reestablish the forestry heritage in the U.S., we need to actively remove trees under logging scenarios rather than service contracts – and make sure there is a market for it – reduce the live tree density, then start managed burns in the winter,” Reddan concludes.
Regulation impacts management
During the Trump era, the administration looked into federal regulations to examine how they were impacting businesses as well as the environment, according to Budd-Falen.
“The Endangered Species Act (ESA), for example, is an act mandating species listed to be protected, and while this is a requirement from Congress, what really is happening is once species are listed, there are habitat designations,” she explains. “Congress was very specific in saying critical habitat designations are not for recovery, and we don’t have to designate a critical habitat so long as the species in question does not go extinct.”
Due to misinterpretations of ESA, Budd-Falen shares the Obama administration created a scenario where critical habitat didn’t have to include all features – breeding, feeding and sheltering – but, it could develop in the future, though regulation of the habitat would start immediately.
“Another issue of misinterpretation is the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA),” Budd-Falen says. “This act does not require the environment to be considered at all costs, and according to the Supreme Court, NEPA is a procedural set which directs federal land managers to consider environmental impacts, make informed decisions and to notify the public of environmental impacts.”
McDonald shares, “Under ideal situations, land management projects are looking at two years minimum to complete.”
“Many of these acts in Congress started out with good intentions, though the courts accept the interpretation of the agency without looking at Congressional records and understanding the actual intention,” Budd-Falen says. “I think we need to examine these statutes and understand what Congress intended.”
“This crisis of having thickets instead of forests, leading to catastrophic fires is completely due to policies promoted by a majority of Congress since the 1980s,” Ebell says. “The legal thicket is now as thick as the forest thicket, and policies are a disaster in the rural West where there are federal lands.”
According to Ebell, the Forest Service was designed to protect and improve forests, protect watersheds and provide timber.
“The Forest Service doesn’t do any of this anymore – more than half of the budget is firefighting,” he says. “What we have with the current Congress and administration is, ‘There’s nothing we can do because it’s climate,’ but even if it is climate, this is more reason for intensive management, and the forests need more logging, thinning, prescribed burns and quicker responses on fires.”
Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.