It’s already wildfire season in America.
South Dakota has declared a state of emergency with hundreds forced to evacuate the flames, Minnesota saw its largest wildfire in nearly a decade in March, and California is preparing for the season by hiring nearly 1,400 additional firefighters. It’s a sign of the times: Large and destructive wildfires are becoming more common, with new records set almost every year.
The Biden administration and Congress are actively searching for solutions to keep more of our forests from going up in flames through public comment requests, new caucuses, and legislative proposals. While improving forest health and mitigating wildfire risk will require long-term policy changes, policymakers should prioritize timely forest restoration projects that can address the 63 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land already at high risk of wildfires.
A new report published by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) explores eight reforms to unleash markets and promote partnerships that can bolster forest ecosystems and reduce wildfire risk in the short term:
- Streamline environmental reviews for much-needed forest restoration projects. The federal NEPA review process brings uncertainties that make it difficult for states, tribes, conservation groups, and other stakeholders to partner with the Forest Service on forest management projects. Increasing acreage limits on categorical exclusions for forest restoration projects and making them easier to apply by clarifying vague standards will promote collaboration.
- Avoid analysis paralysis by limiting Endangered Species Act consultations to projects that impact protected species. The Ninth Circuit’s Cottonwood decision and other precedents subject the Forest Service and its partners to continually changing rules. Congress could instead adopt an approach where consultation is not required for a forest plan nor for similar decisions with no immediate on-the-ground impacts to imperiled wildlife.
- Make litigation less disruptive by requiring lawsuits to be filed quickly and clarifying how fire risks and forest health should affect injunction decisions. Litigation can add expenses, delays, and uncertainty for the Forest Service and its private partners. Congress should require lawsuits challenging forest restoration projects to be filed soon after a project is approved to ensure legal concerns can be addressed in a timely and efficient manner.
- Allow prescribed burns to be excluded from state emissions calculations. The EPA and states recognize that prescribed burns are an important forest restoration tool that cuts overall air pollution by avoiding future wildfires. Smoke from prescribed burns, however, counts against a state’s Clean Air Act compliance. Prescribed burns should be excluded from such calculations, effectively crediting states for avoiding worse air pollution from future fires.
- Scale up public-private partnerships by empowering the Forest Service to enter longer-term contracts and cooperative agreements. Current authority allows the Forest Service to enter into 10-year stewardship contracts with outside entities to conduct forest restoration projects. Ten years, however, often isn’t enough time to conduct restoration at a large enough scale to improve forest ecosystem health. This authority should be updated to allow for longer contracts or simpler extension of existing contracts.
- Allow the Forest Service to be a “Good Neighbor” through longer, more flexible partnerships with states, tribes, and counties. Good Neighbor Authority has helped the Forest Service partner with states, tribes, and counties to restore forests as part of a broader, landscape-level approach to restoration. This tool should be used more often and updated to enhance flexibility when working with partners.
- Promote innovative wood markets by establishing a Forest Service restoration fund for long-term cost-share partnerships. The Forest Service often cannot obligate funds more than a few years in advance, which makes it difficult to partner with private actors on long-term projects. Congress and the Forest Service should work with the National Forest Foundation to create a flexible endowment fund that could be used for long-term cost-share agreements for forest restoration.
- Open timber markets for export. Longstanding legislation restricts timber exports from federal land across the West in an effort to promote local mills. But federal timber harvests have fallen drastically over recent decades, and many areas lack mill capacity to remove the vegetation needed to reduce today’s fire risks. Removing export and substitution restrictions would open western timber markets to more buyers, increasing the potential for forest restoration.
By reducing regulation and increasing market and partnership opportunities, policymakers have the opportunity to promote restoration for healthy forests that provide public conservation benefits while reducing the risk of megafires. It’s time we take meaningful action to fix America’s forests.