Wildfire: Forest Service Mismanagement Puts Millions of Acres of Forests at Risk

Published August 1, 1999

Forest Service reductions in timber sales and its practice of extinguishing small brush fires have put millions of acres of western forests and numerous towns at risk of being devoured by catastrophic wildfires. That is the conclusion of a General Accounting Office study commissioned by Representative Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho).

“The number of large wildfires, and acres burned by them,” GAO noted, ” has increased over the last decade, as have the cost of putting them out. These fires not only compromise the forests’ ability to provide timber, outdoor recreation, clean water, and other resources, but they also pose increasingly grave risks to human health, safety, property and infrastructure.”

More Fuel = Hotter, Bigger Fires

The problem, according to GAO, is an over-accumulation of fuel due to an increase in forest density and undergrowth that has been allowed to occur in the dry interior forests of the western United States. Of the 191 million acres managed by the Forest Service, 70 percent fall into this category and of that area, the Forest Service has admitted, “39 million acres are at an abnormally high risk of catastrophic fire.”

GAO noted that for 75 years the average number of acres burned by wildfires steadily decreased. That trend has been reversed over the last decade, nearly quadrupling to three-quarters of a million acres.

The problem has occurred because the two primary tools for reducing the density of fuel in forests–controlled burning and disciplined logging–have been increasingly restricted by the Forest Service.

Controlled burning of moderate stands of undergrowth–fires that would not be hot enough to harm larger trees–is no longer possible in many areas of the west, because the forest density is so great that foresters fear such fires could not be kept under control. Disciplined logging, which preserves forest health in privately owned forest lands, has been dramatically cut back in National Forests because of protests by a small but vocal group of anti-growth, anti-logging organizations with little or no expertise in forest management. (See “Ecoterrorism surges,” page 1).

Response: Too Little, Too Late

“A cohesive strategy is needed to address catastrophic wildfire threats,” according to the GAO. But no such strategy exists in the Forest Service.

As Chenoweth, chairman of the House Subcommittee of Forests and Forest Health observed, “Forest Chief Dombeck has stated he has adopted a proposal to increase the total number of acres treated by the Forest Service for hazardous fuels reduction to 3 million acres annually. Yet, the agency continues to treat only about one million acres annually.”

Even if the Forest Service did treat 3 million acres annually, it would leave 10 million acres still untreated by the year 2015. Adding to the problem, as Chenoweth said, “The primary vehicle for mechanical fuels removal is timber sales, yet the agency proposes to reduce its budget for timber sales by $30 million.”

“There’s a major disconnect,” according to Chenoweth, “between the Forest Service’s rhetoric and its actions. Sadly, what’s at stake are the lives of local residents and fire fighters, the environmental health of our national forests, the protection of adjacent state and private forests and property, and the economic well-being of local communities.”

Environment News has learned that the Forest Service has refused to increase its budget for forest maintenance in the next fiscal year. As a result, with inflation, even fewer acres will be treated.

Danger Grows

GAO agrees with Chenoweth. Its report concluded, “Outside experts and Forest Service officials generally agree that increased fire suppression efforts will not be successful because such inevitable, large, intense wildfires are generally impossible for firefighters to stop.” It also said that such intense fires could cause irreparable ecological damage.

More importantly, GAO added, “In recent years, the number of people living along the boundaries of the national forests has grown significantly. As a result, the increasing number of larger, more intense fires poses grave hazards to human health, safety, property and infrastructure in these areas, which are referred to as ‘wildland/urban interface’ areas.”