The Biden Administration in January announced a 10-year, $50 billion strategy for addressing the nation’s wildfire crisis. Calling it a “paradigm shift” for forest management, the administration says their strategy will reduce wildfire risks on an additional 20 million acres of National Forests in targeted Western “firesheds.” Click here to read the plan.
Doubling treatments on fire-prone national forests is an ambitious and laudable goal. Can it be reached? By comparison the U.S. Forest Service currently “treats” about 3 million acres a year, a number driven in large part by the agency’s extensive use of prescribed fire on southern National Forests.
Many western National Forests are overstocked, unhealthy and need mechanical treatments before prescribed fire can be safely used. For healthy, resilient forests, we need to thin forests down to historic and sustainable tree densities- by as much as 80 percent according to one recent study. The Forest Service mechanically thins about 110,000 to 130,000 acres a year.
The strategy is only partially funded. And the Forest Service needs forest infrastructure- wood processing mills, forest workers, truckers and others- the “boots on the ground” to help public lands managers achieve their conservation objectives.
To that end, the strategy’s implementation plan identifies forest products as a “condition of success:”
The wood products industry has been and will remain an important partner for helping achieve restoration outcomes and reduce wildfire risk. New and innovative uses of wood, such as cross-laminated timber, can not only support restoration and risk reduction outcomes but also sequester large quantities of carbon.
However, due to the decline in federal timber harvests over the past 30 years, forest infrastructure has declined and even disappeared in some places. Ambitious, landscape-scale forest restoration efforts, such as Arizona’s Four Forest Restoration Initiative, have struggled to gain traction due to the lack of infrastructure.
Encouraging the private sector to reinvest in federal lands and forest infrastructure requires stable and reliable supplies of wood. This is something the Forest Service hasn’t been able to provide due to the bureaucratic red tape, anti-forestry obstruction and lawsuits that typically stymie forest projects throughout the west.
We’ve made progress in recent years. Thanks to your help, Congress has provided the Forest Service with new tools and funding to do more forest management. Yet lawsuits and obstruction continue to persist.
For example, in California’s southern Sierra Nevada, efforts to reduce wildfire risks in this fire-prone region could be halted due to litigation over Pacific Fisher “critical habitat.” Just days after the administration’s announcement, the Ninth Circuit found federal agencies didn’t complete enough paperwork and analyses to assess how the 2020 wildfires affected this species, even though the animal has likely lost significant habitat to recent fires. The federal government can’t conserve this species’ habitat and save large and iconic Sequoia Trees if it can’t thin overstocked stands in the Sequoia National Forest.
For the strategy to be successful, the federal government must reconcile forest management and the urgent needs of our forests with how it currently implements laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
As our forests bear the brunt of a warming climate and fast-changing conditions on the ground, federal agencies are still bound by laws and regulations that are now 50 years old.
Conserving the environment, protecting vulnerable wildlife species, reducing wildfire risks, and supporting our rural communities are not mutually exclusive goals. Successfully implementing this 10-year strategy requires bringing our federal environmental laws and regulations into the 21st Century, reflecting the latest science and modern forest practices. Doing so would also encourage the private sector to reinvest in federal lands, which will create jobs and help meet the nation’s need for wood.
The Biden Administration’s wildfire strategy shows that forest management is a bipartisan issue. While further reforms are needed, the strategy offers a roadmap and much-needed funding to our public lands managers. Now is the time for the Forest Service to start making a difference on the ground.