NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Government Fiddles, Our Nation's Forests Burn

August 1, 2013

Year after year it seems the news is flooded with tragically horrific stories of wildfires during the spring and summer seasons that burn millions of acres, destroying property and costing lives, says H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Wildfires are an entirely natural phenomenon. However, the size, intensity and harm caused annually by the past two decades' forest fires have been greatly enhanced by human activities and inactivity -- federal mismanagement of our national forests is to blame. The simple fact is, when forests aren't allowed to burn periodically, fuel -- trees and brush -- builds up which results in more fires burning at hotter temperatures.

In fairness, fire suppression is not the sole cause for the current state of affairs.

  • Too many trees, too much brush, and bureaucratic regulations and lawsuits filed by environmental extremists also are to blame.
  • Since President Reagan, administration after administration has overseen a rapid decline of logging in the national forests along with thousands of miles of logging road closures (making it difficult to reach fires with equipment and enough manpower).
  • Over the past two decades, timber harvests in the 155 national forests have plunged 80 percent from 12 billion board feet per year in the 1980s to less than 2.4 billion board feet per year. The result is unnaturally dense underbrush and tree growth -- prime for fueling more intense wildfires at a rapid rate.
  • Historically, large ponderosa pines in the Western national forests grew in stands of 20 to 55 trees per acre; today they grow in densities of 300 to 900 trees per acre.
  • National forests in California have an estimated 10 to 20 times more trees than is "natural" -- making them dangerously overcrowded.

Twenty years ago, a wildfire exceeding 100,000 acres was deemed to be catastrophic. Today, such large-scale fires are the rule rather than the exception.

Overcrowding exacerbates the devastation by changing the nature of the fires themselves. Forests lacking active management, including logging, face more high-intensity/high temperature fires that destroy the trees, saplings, seeds and microbes in the soil itself. Overcrowded conditions are aggravated by years of drought, insect infestations and disease, adding to the severity of fires.

Our forests, those who live near them, those who fight the fires, and the public who use the forests and pay the bills, deserve a forest policy that places public safety, economic wellbeing and fiscal responsibility above the flawed ideal of "letting nature take its course."

Source: H. Sterling Burnett, "Government Fiddles, Our Nation's Forests Burn,", July 25, 2013.


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