Last summer, my family spent days smelling smoke and seeing thick plumes from the wildfires that surrounded our piece of Arizona. At night, flames licked above the rim of Sycamore Canyon from the Rafael fire, which ultimately burned 78,000 acres. The vulnerability of the bone-dry West to lightning strikes and jackasses with matches is a fact of life with which residents learn to live. But while we've made our peace with clearing brush and packing go-bags with necessities in case we need to run, we expect the U.S. Forest Service to care for its properties and do its best to minimize incendiary dangers. Unfortunately, as a recent report reveals, environmental rules and lawsuits slow efforts to mitigate wildfire dangers, dragging them out for years and threatening communities neighboring federal lands.
My area has enjoyed a breather so far in 2022 courtesy of a series of monsoon storms. But Flagstaff, surrounded by highly flammable ponderosa pine forest, suffered before the rains came. The Pipeline fire that threatened the city was reportedly started by a homeless man burning toilet paper.
Last week, the Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), which coordinates anti-fire efforts among federal agencies, announced that acreage burned so far this year is about 220 percent above the 10-year average. The NIFC predicted more to come, largely because "most of the West, Plains, and Texas remain in drought, with areas of extreme to exceptional drought across the southwestern US."
To a certain extent, this is inevitable. Fire is a normal part of the ecosystem of the West, and settling the area means accepting some risks. Suppressing fires can actually make things worse if fuel builds up, making fires more intense when they inevitably start.
"After severe fires, policymakers — driven by public pressure — funnel more funds into fire suppression for the next season," MIT researchers noted in 2013. "While this may put people temporarily at ease, this attention to fire suppression may undermine prevention efforts. The result, counterintuitively, is even worse fires the following season, due to the buildup of fire-prone materials such as dried tinder and dead trees."
Reducing danger requires thinning forests and allowing fuel to burn in controlled conditions. But while that's the accepted approach to managing risk, it raises political concerns of its own that delays progress by years.
"Regulatory processes that increase the time between identifying and implementing treatments exacerbate wildfire risk and limit the flexibility of managers to use new information to quickly address emerging risk," Eric Edwards and Sara Sutherland wrote in a report published last month by the Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). "In 2021, for example, several proposed treatment areas burned in large wildfires while facing delays from environmental review and litigation."
Under the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the public and activist groups are able to formally object to proposed actions, such as forest thinning, through a process that moves at the usual molasses-like speed of bureaucracy. Once the NEPA process has been exhausted, interested parties can move their objections to court by filing lawsuits.
"Although most projects are not litigated, the depth of analysis and time spent on the NEPA process is commonly based on the threat of litigation, as well as the level of public and political interest and defensibility in court," Edwards and Sutherland note.
That there's any delay at all in mitigating wildfire danger is frustrating to those of us whose homes and communities have been threatened by fire. But the extent of such delays is mind-boggling.
"Once the Forest Service initiates the environmental review process, it takes an average of 3.6 years to begin a mechanical treatment and 4.7 years to begin a prescribed burn," according to the PERC authors. "For projects that require environmental impact statements—the most rigorous form of review—the time from initiation to implementation averages 5.3 years for mechanical treatments and 7.2 years for prescribed burns."
Lawsuits drag things out further, extending the timeline on prescribed burns to as long as 9.4 years. That matters a lot when you remember the federal government owns 28 percent of the land in the United States and more than half of the acreage (80 percent of Nevada!) in some western states. "Of the 640 million acres of federal land in the United States, the Forest Service manages 193 million," the PERC report notes. And expectations for federal fire mitigation are enormous.
In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans for "the Forest Service to treat up to an additional 20 million acres on national forests and grasslands and support treatment of up to an additional 30 million acres of other federal, state, Tribal, private and family lands." The 10-year strategy comes with funding, but not with reforms for roadblocks that can push the timeframe for fire-mitigation efforts so far into the future that the areas to be treated go up in flames before they can be thinned.
There's another risk to hurdles posed by red tape and lawsuits; they can act as private-sector-repellent even as innovators are developing new and promising ways to make money from forest-thinning projects. "Litigation risk from opponents deters the Forest Service from embracing initiatives that might be held up in court, but it especially threatens private partners that can't afford long delays while disputes play out," I wrote in a piece published in the Summer 2022 issue of PERC Reports.
Fire-mitigation efforts are absolutely necessary to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, but they've historically sucked up resources. Converting flammable shrubs and small-diameter trees into construction materials, fuel, and soil amendments turns necessary land management into a profitable venture—but only if business plans aren't kneecapped by years of objections and lawsuits. Private firms will walk away if asked to wait five or 10 years in hopes of approval.
The PERC authors point to multiple unsuccessful efforts to reform the means by which fire treatment proposals are approved. "Changes in the process by which the Forest Service conducts environmental reviews and implements fuel treatments are likely needed, as a 10-year timetable is infeasible for [environmental impact statement] approvals under the current system," they add.
Opponents of fire-mitigation proposals often object that forest-thinning is a cover for logging schemes, no matter the evidence of real dangers posed by choked forests. If only we could clearcut the government regulations hampering efforts to effectively battle wildfires.