Wildfires are raging again as millions of acres across the American West succumb to a wave of devastating infernos. Our forests are literally dying for a solution. Many elected officials are looking in the wrong direction and have mistakenly tried to lay the blame for the fires at the feet of climate change, when the real solution lies in proper forest management.
There’s no doubt that decrying a “climate damn emergency” — as California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom recently called his state’s wildfire situation — will generate headlines. But getting the West’s wildfires under control takes more than hyperbolic headlines: It will require robust moves to implement active management throughout our nation’s forests. Doing this will improve forest health and make forests more resistant to damaging fires. Arizona has set an important example in this area that other states would be wise to follow.
A new report from the Goldwater Institute and Michigan’s Mackinac Center tells the story behind the extreme fires that are plaguing the American West and offers some policy solutions to the state’s wildfire challenge. Over the past several decades, well-intentioned but misguided policies have attempted to preserve federal forests and public lands by restricting access to almost all but the most primitive of uses, like backcountry hiking. Ironically, this lack of forest management has only served to make our forests less healthy.
In too many areas, we have effectively prohibited smart forest management techniques, like spacing, thinning, and prescribed fire. At the same time, we have immediately continued to suppress any wildfires. The result has been forests that have become over-mature and over-stocked with dead and dying trees. Rather than removing these and the heavy loads of other fuels — brush, shrubs, and grasses — we have watched as our nation’s forests and public lands became something of a ticking time bomb. Under such conditions, a wildfire that starts and escapes control measures is very likely to grow in size, threatening adjacent private and state lands. In addition to posing a threat to property, dense and unhealthy forests pose a significant risk to human health and the environment.
But as described in the new Goldwater-Mackinac Center report, collaborative forest management efforts — which bring together diverse groups of stakeholders including government agencies, private industry, community groups, nongovernmental organizations, Native groups, and others — can address our common goals of reducing wildfire risk, improving forest health, rebuilding our badly lagging forest industry, and increasing biodiversity.
Arizona has been a leader among states in this regard, illustrating the importance of collaborative efforts when it comes to proper forest management. The state’s Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, has spent the past decade working to restore hundreds of thousands of acres of ponderosa pine forests in Arizona’s northern federal forests. While it has suffered some setbacks, 4FRI has largely succeeded because of the wide variety of stakeholders involved in the initiative. By involving government, businesses, nonprofits, and many other groups, it has been possible to address the diversity of competing concerns. Doing that has also helped to build a stronger and wider foundation of public support for necessary forest management efforts.
Despite those efforts, the backlog of lands that still need to undergo management and restoration is leaving many areas of the state at risk of extreme wildfires. In Arizona, almost 580,000 acres had burned this year by October 1, including more than 313,000 acres of mixed grass, shrubs, and trees that burned in two separate fires in the Coronado and Tonto national forests. While Arizona has made great strides, there is still a great deal of work to do.
Arizona can be proud of the work it has done so far. But the next steps must expand the state’s support of active forest restoration programs like 4FRI to seriously address this national challenge. Only then can we be assured that we’re on the right path to caring for our forests in a truly responsible way.
Jason Hayes is director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He is the author of the new Goldwater Institute-Mackinac Center report: “Extinguishing the Wildfire Threat: Lessons from Arizona.”