NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Poor Policies Fan Forest Flames

August 30, 2000

The Los Alamos, New Mexico, fires illustrate much of what is wrong with federal land management. Active forest management in the region, including the logging of dead trees, would have reduced the chances of an uncontrolled fire. Excessive forest litter creates a virtual tinder box. The hotter fires that result cause great ecological and economic damage.

An April 1999 General Accounting Office report, "Western National Forests: A Cohesive Strategy Is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire Threats," found a large build-up of dead wood and undergrowth in many western forests, creating what it called a tinder box. The GAO suggested mechanical removal of this wood, which requires access to forest lands.

Recently, President Clinton ordered the Forest Service to halt road construction on approximately 50 million acres of national forests. Forest roads act as fire breaks and provide access to dead and dying timber for mechanical removal. Thus it will be even more difficult to control future fires.

  • In the last decade, the government has reduced logging and road-building in the 192 million-acre National Forest system by 75 percent.
  • During this time, fire damage to homes and property increased sixfold to $3.2 billion by 1997, excluding the cost from wildfires and mismanaged controlled burns since 1997.
  • Wildfires destroying 1,000 acres or more increased from 25 in 1984 to 89 per year in 1996.
  • So far in 2000, more than 55,000 wildfires have blackened more than 4 million acres.
  • This spring alone, excluding Los Alamos, New Mexico has lost 200,000 acres to flames - four times more than in 1999. President Clinton's roadless area policy exacerbates the threat to forest health by making these areas more vulnerable to fire, disease and insect infestation.

    Source: Jeff Edgens (NCPA adjunct scholar), "Banning Roads, Burning Forests," Brief Analysis No. 336, August 30, 2000, National Center for Policy Analysis.

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