Biden forestry effort marks dramatic shift in fire prevention
President Biden’s multibillion-dollar commitment to wildfire prevention — announced on Tuesday — marks a dramatic shift in the federal approach toward forests, but experts argue that this investment may only scratch the surface of what’s needed.
The administration’s 10-year proposal aims to cut the incidence of destructive wildfires by doubling the level of “fuel treatments” to overgrown, wildfire-prone forests. It targets a constellation of forests the approximate size of Kansas, with a particular focus on those communities on the ragged edge of the returning forests and brushlands.
“They’re doubling down on areas where there is the greatest risk to life and property,” Todd Gartner, a forestry expert at the World Resources Institute (WRI), told The Hill.
While The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the Biden administration was committing $50 billion to the wildfire prevention plan, a White House press release indicated that the proposal would start with an initial $3 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Less than 10 percent of fire-prone Western forests account for 80 percent of fire risk to communities, according to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) — much of them concentrated in areas fire ecologists call “the wildland-urban interface.”
That interface is where wildfires can become housefires, like when flames or embers from an adjacent forest spread into Paradise, Calif., and all but leveled the community during the 2018 Camp Fire. The suburban neighborhoods between Boulder and Denver, Colo., destroyed in early January in a one-day fire that was Colorado’s costliest on record are another example.
Rising fire damages have led some insurance companies to limit their liability by withdrawing or reducing their coverage of fire-prone areas, with AIG and Chubb withdrawing from thousands of high-end California properties early this year, according to The Wall Street Journal. Some experts warn that this could create an existential threat to some fire-prone communities.
“The negative impacts of today’s largest wildfires far outpace the scale of efforts to protect homes, communities and natural resources,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
With that gap only expected to widen, “working together toward common goals across boundaries and jurisdictions is essential to the future of these landscapes and the people who live there,” Vilsack added.
The USDA plan targets 20 million acres of federal forest and wildlands for logging and prescribed burns — and aims to support further treatments on 30 million acres of state, tribal and private land. The joint approach is “essential to mitigating catastrophic wildfires and their disastrous effects,” Christopher Martin, president of the National Association of State Foresters, said in a statement.
“The plan released by the Forest Service today represents a huge step forward toward safer, more fire-resilient forests and communities in every region of the United States. … All of the nation’s state foresters stand ready to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the Forest Service on implementing this national strategy,” Martin added.
Gartner hailed the proposal for including even more money for nonfederal lands than federal lands. He also noted the sheer size of the proposal, assuming the total cost of the 10-year plan is the full $50 billion, including the $3 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law.
If the plan is fully funded, he said it would represent an enormous investment in preventing wildfires. Yet Gartner suggested it still might not be enough
“But we need at least three times that amount to deal with the scale of the challenge,” he said. “And a big question is: where does that other $100 billion come from? What is the role of the private sector — of companies who are operating downstream of where these fires are likely to occur under a business-as-usual strategy?”
Business groups were involved in a joint proposal in October 2021, when WRI joined with the Forest Service and other groups to establish a $25 million forest bond — funded by climate-vulnerable corporations like CSAA Insurance Group and almond-processor Silk. The project helped fund projects to thin and restore forests around Yuba City, Calif.
A local water supply and hydroelectric utility, the Yuba Water Agency — which is at risk of everything from fires melting their piping to runaway post-fire erosion silting up their turbines and reducing the amount of electricity they can sell — was a partner in the project, Gartner said.
Duplicating those sorts of relationships is a part of the USDA plan, which at times seeks to provide economic development.
The Forest Service information sheet “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis” touts the 300,000 to 575,000 jobs it will produce, and there are other visions for mutual benefits that might lower costs.
For example, companies hired to thin forests might sell brush to local biomass power plants for heat and electricity, as Gartner proposed, and as is common in Finland.
Scientist Bodie Cabiyo has estimated that California could largely pay for the thinning and burning of brush and forests with state-sponsored markets in processed wood made from “small trees,”
This expansion of economic activity into the forests doesn’t make everyone happy.
The Forest Service isn’t good at “recreating natural ecosystems,” said Adam Riessen of Wild Earth Guardians, who suggested the language of “forest health” represents an “Orwellian” misunderstanding of both the natural role of fire in forests — and the institutional mandate of the Forest Service to provide the nation with timber.
“Our forests aren’t sick,” Riessen said, “and they don’t need any chainsaw medicine.”
Deep-wood thinnings and prescribed burns are largely unnecessary, since most fire risk is concentrated in the 100 to 200 feet around houses themselves, Riessen argued.
“If you take enough homes and buildings and create defensible space around the structure, you’ll reduce significantly the risk of those structures going down and those communities going up in smoke,” he said.
While climate is driving disturbances in America’s forests, “focusing myopically on one disturbance — wildfire — to the exclusion of everything else is a failed approach,” Riessen added.
Gartner conceded that logging and prescribed burns would cause immediate damage to water quality and wildlife. But he argued that refusing to do so threatened to put entire landscapes at risk.
Groups like Wild Earth Guardians, he said, “say we should not be cutting down old growth trees. But we may need to do thinnings in old growth forests to protect the trees in there.”
Forest thinning and controlled burning are “not a silver bullet,” Gartner added. “We will have to go into these forests and do forest health treatments at a massive scale. And if you do surgery on a broken part of the body, there are some short-term trade-offs. But if you don’t, the entire body is going to die.”
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