In celebration of Earth Day last Friday, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at identifying and protecting old-growth forests. Old-growth forests sequester carbon, provide clean air and water and sustain wildlife populations. It’s certainly within human interest to promote the health of these forest ecosystems.
To have healthy forests requires forest managers to actively address the threat of wildfire. After all, what good does identifying a valuable old-growth forest do if that forest (and the environmental benefits it provides) goes up in flames the next fire season? President Biden is right to identify catastrophic wildfire as one of the primary threats to these forests in his executive order and directs federal agencies to coordinate on wildfire risk mitigation activities. Throwing more money at the problem, however, won’t solve it. What policymakers need to focus on instead is reducing regulatory barriers so that more forest restoration work can be done quickly.
In explaining the old-growth executive order, the White House recognizes the need to treat an additional 50 million acres of forests annually across federal and non-federal lands. Much of the description on how to reach that goal is rooted in billions of dollars of funding from the recent infrastructure bill, omnibus funding provisions, and additional appropriations requests of Congress. But these dollars are limited in their on-the-ground impacts to reduce wildfire risk if they are spent on extensive permitting, acrimonious litigation, and inefficient bureaucracy.
Though maybe well-intentioned, regulatory processes required before conducting forest restoration work can significantly delay mechanical treatments or prescribed burns needed to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk. In the Klamath National Forest, for example, the Forest Service worked for a decade on environmental reviews and other regulatory paperwork—often having to deal with objections from a handful of extreme environmental groups who claimed the project would destroy spotted owl habitat. While tied up in red tape and before any restoration work could be done, a fire burned through the forest and destroyed the owl habitat that the outside groups were claiming to protect.
Under the status quo, resources are not efficiently spent on the ground. Regulatory planning processes and permitting—most notably the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—can take years for a single forest restoration project. Litigation brought by outside groups opposed to active forest management sucks up public resources as projects are tangled up in court. In the Northern Forest Service Region alone, which includes Montana, northern Idaho and North Dakota, 54 projects were litigated between 2003 and 2019. Though the Forest Service usually wins these cases, the fear of legal challenges has led the agency to try to “litigation-proof” its NEPA documents, making an extensive process even more onerous.
While it’s encouraging to see federal policymakers recognize the importance of active management to protect forests, they also need to enact policies that make it easier to actually get that work done. Congress should expand categorical exclusions under NEPA—a route that frees forest project managers from extensive environmental analysis and significantly speeds up the process—for priority forest restoration projects, and the Forest Service should explore ways to more widely apply existing categorical exclusion permissions to projects. Additionally, Congress should require lawsuits challenging forest restoration projects to be filed soon after a project is approved and expedite cases concerning such projects so that issues can be quickly resolved and not be tied up in court for years.
Protecting old-growth forests from wildfire risks is a worthy cause, but simply spending more money on existing bureaucratic processes will not solve the problem. Ensuring that resources make it to the ground in a timely manner will require policy change. If our policymakers are able to address these issues, our old-growth forests can stand a chance against the wildfire crisis.