NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Scorched Earth Policies

November 4, 2003

Decades of fire suppression and mismanagement by the U.S. Forest Service have turned much of California's forestland and other areas into a tinderbox, according to the General Accounting Office. In fact, 2000 was the worst fire season in 50 years, when fires burned 8.4 million acres nationwide. In 2002, taxpayers shelled out a record $1.7 billion for firefighting on another 6.9 million acres.

Other sources have contributed to the problem as well:

  • The Forest Service has been hamstrung by federal regulations since the 1970s that have increased costs and delayed commonsense decision-making.
  • Environmental organizations are also to blame for blocking road building, timber harvesting and other forest management activities through lawsuits; they maintain that government alone must foot the bill for fire treatment and are reluctant to allow any logging for profit.
  • President Clinton's designation of 58 million acres of "roadless" forest preserves may hinder the efforts of firefighters in the future.

During the 1990s, a Forest Service chief under the Clinton Administration warned Congress that the Forest Service's mission was undermined by confusing statutes and various judicial interpretations of these statutes, and that future catastrophic fires were inevitable. However, Congress did nothing to act on the warnings, and politics ruled over science.

According to Robert Nelson of the University of Maryland, the Forest Service should be abolished, and forest management should be decentralized and given to local officials who can better assess the needs of local forests.

Source: Robert H. Nelson, "Scorched-Earth Policies," Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2003.

For text (WSJ subscription required),,SB10678196322347900-search,00.html


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