Fix America’s Forests
Reduce the hurdles and increase the opportunities for restoration efforts to enhance resilience on national forest lands.
Though rich in commodities, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and recreation opportunity, America’s national forests are becoming a liability. A century of management practices have disrupted natural fire cycles and forest health. Add to that warm temperatures and dry weather, and the result is overgrown timber stands that are at increased risk of insect infestation and catastrophic wildfire.
Wildfires in the western United States are expanding both in acreage burned and the length of time alight. What the U.S. Forest Service historically termed the “fire season” is now called the “fire year,” which is 70 days longer than a generation ago. Likewise, money spent fighting fires has surged as well.. In 2017, fire suppression expenses by the Forest Service hit a record that exceeded $2 billion. These suppression costs consumed 56 percent of the agency’s appropriations, an increase from 16 percent in 1995. This growing portion of the budget spent on suppression means fewer dollars are left for restoration efforts that can help reduce wildfire risks.
Agency costs, though large, are only a small portion of total wildfire expenses. While the Forest Service and other federal and state agencies pick up the greatest portion of the fire suppression tab, up to 91 percent of the overall cost per fire is borne by local communities in the years that follow a fire. These costs include lost homes and lives, destroyed property, and expenditures to repair watersheds and restore ecosystems. And the potential for catastrophic fires is growing as more and more people build homes and live on the forest’s edge.
Under existing management protocol, wildfire risk and impacts will only get worse. According to the Forest Service, timber mortality on national forests exceeded growth in 2016, and timber harvest accounted for only 11 percent of mortality.
The number of trees dying in national forests is rising as a result of insect infestations, drought, and disease caused by overly dense forests. The agency is concerned that around 80 million acres, about 42 percent of the land under its purview, are at increased risk of catastrophic fire, abnormal diseases, and insect impacts. While more forests are seeing increased timber mortality, there is little timber removal to reduce forest density and remove the fuel loads that continue to build up on forest floors. The agency’s ability to act is hamstrung by overlapping regulations, multiple-use mandates, and limited appropriations.
Private innovators are finding ways to help reduce the risk of mega fires and their impact on communities and watersheds. Private investment tools, like Forest Resilience Bonds and other public-private partnerships, are testing models that can fund forest restoration projects that the Forest Service is not equipped to pay for.
To increase the pace and scale of these projects, we must reduce existing regulatory hurdles in addition to finding more creative funding approaches.
WHAT PERC BELIEVES
PERC’s approach to conservation relies on voluntary exchange that results in positive environmental outcomes for both private and public resources.
PERC believes that given the opportunity, stakeholders are willing to work to increase the resilience of forests adjacent to their communities and watersheds. Groups like Blue Forest Conservation, the Nature Conservancy, and Quantified Ventures are working with agency specialists and local interests to design forest projects that allow private and other public agencies to lend a hand in the forest restoration process.
Efforts to increase the pace and scale of restoration on national forest lands will require judicial, administrative, and legislative reforms to reduce the hurdles for active forest management. Contracts must provide acceptable certainty to motivate investment. Reducing the hurdles and risk for private investment and public-private partnerships while maintaining the parameters of the agencies’ multiple-use mandate will help encourage the creation of markets that can make forest restoration pay the way to increased forest health and resilience.
WHAT PERC IS DOING
PERC is doing extensive research and convening groups of experts to evaluate the judicial, administrative, and regulatory hurdles at the federal, state, and local levels that hamstring forest restoration efforts. We are partnering with policy experts and practitioners to ensure that any recommended reforms also respect ecological and multiple-use values in the forest.
PERC researchers are examining the conditions that enable private conservation funding to help seed restoration projects. Working together with conservation investment funds and industry representatives, we will create a funding model that can provide a return from removed fuel material and from ecosystem services such as clean water, carbon sequestration, and reduced fire risk. The fundamental challenge is to find market innovations that can pay for restoration efforts that enhance forest resilience and balance the multiple-use demands on national forest lands.
Research on This Topic
Charter Forests: A New Management Approach for National Forests: A PERC Policy Series on an alternative approach to national forest management based on freedom with accountability.
Fighting Fire With Finance: An article in PERC Reports magazine on how private investment can restore forests and reduce wildfire risk.
Investing in Wildfire Risk Reduction: An article on how a forest restoration project in Tahoe National Forest is bringing in private finance for forest management.
Solving the Wildfire Crisis Requires Free-Market Solutions: An op-ed in The Hill on how free-market solutions can reduce conflict, promote healthy forests, and protect our communities from catastrophic wildfires.