NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 10, 2008

Historically, the national forests have been logged to provide lumber for commercial activities, to promote forest recreation, species protection and management, and to prevent wildfires.  In recent decades this has changed.  Pressure and lawsuits from environmental lobbyists have prevented or delayed both commercial and salvage logging, turning many of our national forests into tinderboxes, say Lani Cohan, a research assistant, and H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow, both with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

California alone boasts more than 16 million acres of national forests.  Between 1997 and 2007, wildfires in California burned more than 8,500 square miles -- an area larger than New Jersey.  On October 21, 2007, Southern California witnessed one of the worst fires in U.S. history.  Sixteen wildfires burned nearly 500,000 acres, destroyed 1,300 homes, required the evacuation of half a million people, injured 25 firefighters and civilians, and killed three people.  Unfortunately, such devastating fires are no longer unusual, say Cohan and Burnett:

  • Ten to 20 years ago, a wildfire exceeding 100,000 acres was deemed to be catastrophic and a sign of an unusually severe fire season.
  • Today, such large-scale fires are the rule rather than the exception. For instance, in 1998 there were 81,043 wildfires, burning 1,329,704 acres; but in 2007, 85,705 fires burned 9,328,045 acres.
  • Four of the nation's 10 largest wildfires over the last decade, each scorching more than 250,000 acres, occurred in 2007.
  • This year, from June 20 to July 25, fires burned 1,078,616 acres, with the number of simultaneous fires peaking at 2,095.


  • Halfway through the 2008 fire season, California had already spent more than $300 million fighting fires, compared to just $44 million per year a decade ago.
  • U.S. Forest Service spending on firefighting rose from $300 million in 1997 to $1.5 billion in 2006 and $1.4 billion in 2007.

Source: Lani Cohan and H. Sterling Burnett, "In Order to Extinguish Forest Fires, Don't Let Logging Burn Out," National Center for Policy Analysis, Brief Analysis No. 631, September 10, 2008.

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