NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Harvesting Trees Will Prevent Fires

July 13, 2012

The wildfires in Colorado and throughout the West are pushing the country's firefighters to the brink and threaten unprecedented environmental damage. Experts suggest that gradual global warming will increase the frequency of such events, further necessitating the search for solutions and preventative measures, says H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Burnett emphasizes the government's complicit role in inadvertently worsening the effects of these fires. Specifically, public lands and national forests have been subject to "letting nature take its course" policies that leave them vulnerable to fires and exacerbate the effects of such events.

  • The U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than 190 million acres of public land are at risk of catastrophic fires, including 60 percent of our national forests.
  • This is partially a function of the rapid growth in forest density, both among trees and brush vegetation, which legally cannot be checked by human intervention.
  • Timber harvests, for example, have plunged more than 75 percent from a peak of 12 billion board feet per year to less than 4 billion board feet per year.
  • This results in increasing compactness of trees: large ponderosa pines, which grew in stands of 20 to 55 trees per acre, now grow in densities of 300 to 900 trees per acre.

Burnett argues that the negative impacts of these policies, which largely prohibit preventative measures, can be seen in the damage reports of the most recent fires.

  • Twenty years ago, a wildfire exceeding 100,000 acres was deemed to be catastrophic, but today, such large-scale fires are the rule rather than the exception.
  • In 1998, for instance, there were 81,043 wildfires, burning 1,329,704 acres.
  • Recent years have seen a comparable number of fires result in dramatically greater losses: in 2011, 74,126 fires left 8,711,367 acres in cinders.

This significant increase in acres lost per fire could be addressed if preventative measures were permitted.

  • Burnett advocates allowance for intentional and direct mechanical thinning of vegetation and logging to reduce forest density.
  • He would also make provision for "controlled" burns as an additional measure for reducing the incidence of wild forest fires.

Source: H. Sterling Burnett, "Harvesting Trees Will Prevent Fires," New York Times, July 11, 2012.

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