Terry Anderson: America’s Forest Fire Problem

Note: This article first appeared on the Hoover Institution web site

This past summer, wildfires scorched nearly eight million acres across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Most of the fires, which cost taxpayers $2 billion to fight, were on national forest land. Increased fuel loads over the last century—resulting from trees that are diseased, insect infested, and dead—are a major cause of these massive wildfires. Before the Forest Service got into the fire suppression business in the early 1900s, natural succession of forests created a mosaic of new and old growth timber that minimized fuel loads. Since then, the Forest Service has done all it can to stop fires before they become conflagrations. In 1944, all citizens were recruited into this campaign by the now famous Smokey the Bear and his motto, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

Though everyone agrees that fuel loads are a major part of the problem, not everyone agrees on how to manage them. The Forest Service wants to use scientific management techniques—including logging, prescribed burns, and thinning—to treat forest fuel loads, but it is continuously thwarted by environmental activists who want to let nature take her course.

Environmentalists use administrative procedures and litigation to stop projects that would reduce fuel loads, claiming that those projects are no substitute for natural processes and that they destroy habitat for endangered species. According to a 2015 studycommissioned by the Forest Service and done by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, between June 2012 and June 2013 administrative appeals and litigation encumbered 74 out of 125 of the proposed treatment projects in Northern Region 1—the region where many of this year’s fires burned.

Litigating is made easier by the fact that environmental groups are reimbursed for their attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act when they prevail in their suits against the federal government. Such litigation cost the Forest Service nearly $10 million in 2013. Even when the Forest Service prevails, treatment projects are delayed for months or years, during which time the acreage is subject to greater fire risk.

Now that the smoke has cleared from the 2017 summer fires, Washington politicians and bureaucrats realize the need to untie the Gordian knot created by this litigation. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke told his agency to use its “full authority” to prevent wildfires, and the House Committee on Natural Resources is holding hearings on proposed legislation that would give agencies more power to use scientific management to restore forest health.

But it will take more than congressional hearings and directives from cabinet secretaries to remove barriers to sound land management. It will take rewriting laws such as the Endangered Species Act (1973), used by environmental groups to stop treatment projects on the grounds that logging, brush clearing, and prescribed burns would further threaten endangered species.

A case in point is the spotted owl controversy of the 1990s. The northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species under the ESA in 1990 throughout its range in northern California, Oregon, and Washington—and a court order in 1991 halted logging on national forests in those states on the grounds that those forests were prime spotted owl habitats. As a result, logging has all but stopped on western forests as this graph shows. The precipitous decline of logging after 1990 is especially telling. It points to the rising influence of environmentalists and their use of endangered species as a pawn in the land management debates.

Listing an animal as an endangered species has more to do with environmental activism than with the status of a species. This explains why a representative of the Sierra Club said, “If the spotted owl hadn’t existed, they would have had to invent it.” In other words, the debate was not about survival of the owl; it was about land management. It’s unclear just how endangered the spotted owl was, yet getting it listed achieved the environmentalists’ end—less logging on national forests.

With the spotted owl out of the limelight, environmentalists have turned to different endangered species in their quest to stop logging and other treatment techniques. The grizzly bear is one of their favorites. In June of this year, Zinke announced that the grizzly bear would be delisted from the endangered species list. In his announcement, he noted, “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of the state, tribal, federal and private partners.”

No sooner had Secretary Zinke made his announcement, however, than did opponents of delisting start their counter-attack. Opposition came from groups ranging from WildEarth Guardians to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe to the Union of Concerned Scientists. They continue to claim that grizzly bears are in jeopardy of losing their habitats and protection.

When put into historical context, however, the opposition to delisting further illustrates that it is not about bears, but about stopping sound timber management. In 1965, my father took me on a fishing trip to West Yellowstone, Montana. A highlight was watching 27 grizzly bears feeding at one time. The scene was not exactly natural, however, as they were feeding at the town dump. I later learned that there were open dumps all throughout Yellowstone National Park, which served as bear lunch counters where tourists had been watching bears for eight decades. The last of those lunch counters closed in 1970 when the Park Service decided the bears needed to eat “natural” food. At the time, bear biologists Frank and John Craighead from the University of Montana argued that bears would have a hard time adjusting to the abrupt change and that it would lead to increased conflict with humans. The Craigheads’ predictions proved true. As bears turned to campgrounds and houses for food, 150 grizzlies were euthanized between 1968 and 1971.

This led to listing the grizzly bear as a threatened species in 1975, with only 137 bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. Since then, the population has grown steadily to more than 700 bears today. To put this number in perspective, compare it to estimates based on the journals of Lewis and Clark. As the Corps of Discovery crossed the plains of North Dakota and Montana en route to the west coast in 1805, members reported seeing grizzly bears 37 times. According to the renowned ecologist Daniel Botkin, that amounts to a density of 3.7 bears per 100 square miles. A 1985 Audubon Wildlife Report estimated that there were between 600 and 900 bears in the “present verified range,” which amounts to about 3 or 4 bears per 100 square miles—or roughly the same estimated density as when the Corps of Discovery passed through the region in the early 1800s. Today, with over 700 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the density is more than twice what it was along the Corps of Discovery’s path. In other words, if the goal is to recover grizzly densities in Yellowstone to their “natural” state, the bear has more than recovered.

Botkin also notes, from his study of the Lewis and Clark journals, that the expedition only saw one grizzly bear during the remainder of its outward-bound journey after it left the Three Forks of the Missouri. In other words, the Corps saw no grizzlies traveling through an area where many groups want grizzlies “reintroduced.” But if the grizzly was not there in 1805, what is the point of putting it there now?

The answer is: to stop hands-on forest management. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council halted a 2012 project in the Bozeman, Montana, watershed, arguing that it would destroy critical habitat for grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and other old-growth dependent species. The project would have authorized 3,000 acres of logging and 1,575 acres for prescribed burning. The trees selected for removal have been marked with orange spray paint for 10 years and are likely to remain so until they go up in flames. The same two environmentalist groups were behind an injunction in May 2017 to stop logging on 2,113 acres and prescribed burning on 2,755 acres in Montana’s Lewis and Clark National Forest. Again, they argued that the area is prime Canada lynx habitat. In August, a wildfire burned 30,000 acres near the thwarted treatment project.

If policymakers are serious about managing fuel loads in our national forests in order to reduce wildfires, they must also get serious about changing iconic laws such as the Endangered Species Act. Otherwise, environmental groups and the endangered species list will remain hurdles for achieving sound forest management. Without legislative reform to fix a land management system that is broken, any effort by federal agencies to use their “full authority” to manage federal forests will be challenged in court. As Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) recently put it, “either we manage the forests, or the forests are going to manage us.”Let’s hope that change comes before the next fire season.

Terry L. Anderson is the John and Jean DeNault Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Terry Anderson: America’s Forest Fire Problem