With the number and severity of wildfires increasing dramatically, it’s time to rethink management policies for our national forest system.
A new study by the American Geophysical Union, for instance, found that serious wildfires in the American West have been increasing significantly over the last 30 years, with the total number of acres destroyed increasing an average of 90,000 per year from 1984 to 2011.
In 2013 alone, according to government estimates, 4.2 million acres of U.S. forest lands were destroyed by wildfires, an area seven times larger than New York City and Los Angeles combined. The fires claimed lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service in 37 states.
The American Geophysical Union attributes the dramatic increase in wildfires to several possible factors, including climate change, an increase in invasive species, and what one member describes as “past fire management practices.”
The greatest blame for faulty fire management practices lies squarely with the U.S. Forest Service, which has helped turn many national forests into literal tinderboxes.
The agency understands it has problems. In a 2002 report, the Forest Service lamented that it was operating “within a statutory, regulatory and administrative framework that has kept the agency from effectively addressing rapid declines in forest health.”
Desperate for improvement, Congress in 2009 enacted the ironically named Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME, requiring the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to develop a “National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.” The report was finalized April 9, 2014, nearly four years after its statutory deadline.
Like other past reform efforts, the new fire management strategy fails to come to terms with the statutory, regulatory and procedural quagmire that now exists.
Rather than trying to comprehensively fix all of the problems plaguing the Forest Service, whose 35,000 employees manage approximately 10 percent of all land in the United States, what’s needed is a new management model — the type public education reformers have been experimenting with. Like charter schools, we need “charter forests.”
The secret is local management autonomy: We need to apply that management model to the U.S. Forest Service.
A decentralized charter forest would operate under the control of a local board of directors, which might include local government officials, economists, environmentalists, and recreational and commercial users of forest resources. They would have wide freedom to hire and fire employees, bypassing usual civil service procedures.
Like charter schools, which receive public support based on the number of students enrolled, charter forests would receive federal funds to support their operations based on a forest’s size, ways in which it is used, past federal spending for the forest, and other appropriate criteria.
Charter forests would be exempt from current requirements for public land use planning and the writing of environmental impact statements. These requirements long ago ceased to perform their ostensible function of improving public land decision making and instead have become open invitations to litigation — effectively transferring much of the management control over our national forests to litigants and federal judges.
Charter forests would operate under federal oversight, including broad land use goals and performance standards relating to environmental quality. But they would have the flexibility to develop and implement innovative solutions to the growing health problems that threaten many national forests.
It’s time to give a new management model a try. If not, we may find the destructive pattern of the past 30 years continue for another 30.