Federal Agencies Need Resources, Not More Land, to Reduce Fire Risks

By Nick Smith

The following column originally appeared in the Medford Mail Tribune

Everyone has an opinion on how best to respond to the trend of catastrophic wildfires and smoke. In his Mail Tribune guest column, Derek Volkart floats the unusual idea of having American taxpayers purchase local private timberlands so federal agencies can manage them. While I credit Mr. Volkart for offering something new to the debate, the last thing the federal government needs in Oregon is more forest land. There are better ways to reduce the risks and restore the health of our forests.

With a budget deficit approaching $1 trillion, the federal government can’t afford to purchase private timberlands in the Rogue Basin, or virtually anywhere else. Washington, D.C. can’t even afford to manage the forests it already owns, as demonstrated by the U.S. Forest Service’s chronic budget shortfalls. Today, 56 percent of the agency’s budget is spent on wildfire suppression, with the largest and most severe fires driving up the costs.

Within the National Forest System, there is an estimated 80 million acres of forestland at immediate risk of catastrophic wildfire and in need of treatments. Yet the agency only treats a fraction of these at-risk lands because it lacks the money. Much of the national forests in the West are overstocked with more trees than the landscapes can support, and impacted by tree mortality, insect infestations and disease. With such conditions, it’s no surprise the Forest Service has become a de facto fire agency. During the 2018 wildfire season, over 80 percent of the acres burned in Oregon occurred on land under the agency’s jurisdiction.

Rather than acquiring more land, the federal government should take better care of the land it already owns. The combined deferred maintenance and repair backlog of all federal land agencies amounts to $18.62 billion. Federal land agencies are decreasing access to public lands, and are closing thousands of miles of forest roads because they can’t afford to maintain them. Fires on federally-owned forests near the Rogue Valley often grow out of control because the forests are no longer accessible by road, and firefighters can’t safely and inexpensively access the fires to suppress them.

Transferring private lands into federal ownership would also be a disaster for local governments as private lands are removed from property tax rolls. Most counties in Southwest Oregon still haven’t recovered from the decline in federal timber harvests and shared timber revenues. Transferring more forest land into federal ownership would only make more difficult for the counties to keep sheriff deputies on the roads, provide public and mental health care and other critical services.

As we witnessed from the Northern Spotted Owl crisis, the decreased economic activity on private timber lands would also result in decreased timber harvests, fewer jobs, less business activity and subsequently lower tax revenues.

The federal government already owns 60 percent of Oregon’s forested land base, and more forest under federal ownership would result in more and larger fires, not fewer. In my opinion, the best solution to reducing the risks of wildfire and smoke is to give federal land managers the tools and resources they need to take better care of the forests the government already owns.

This includes reducing the cost and time it takes federal agencies to develop and implement projects that reduce fuels and restore forest health. Currently it takes the Forest Service as much as four years, at a cost of $1 million to prepare a single Environmental Impact Statement to cut a single tree. Considering the need for landscape-scale treatments, our land agencies are burdened by a process that invites analysis paralysis and encourages obstruction and litigation. Streamlining the process for treating at-risk lands saves taxpayers dollars and would significantly increase the pace and scale of work that is needed on our federal forests.

A few weeks ago, the Mail Tribune Editorial Board questioned Gov. Kate Brown’s leadership in responding to the wildfires and smoke plaguing Southern Oregon. The State of Oregon, can make a difference in the management of federal lands by fully utilizing its “Good Neighbor Authority” agreement, which enables the Department of Forestry to partner with federal land agencies on forest projects and restoration work.

Blaming private timberland owners for catastrophic wildfires doesn’t make sense when an overwhelming majority of acres burning are on federal land. Reducing the risks of wildfire and smoke will require a partnership between governments at all levels and the private sector. Transferring private land into federal ownership simply isn’t the answer.

Federal Agencies Need Resources, Not More Land, to Reduce Fire Risks