4 ways the right policies can help us confront wildfires

Policy has a history of making wildfires worse in the United States.

Prime example: In 1935, the U.S. Forest Service set a policy to suppress all fires. But that practice changed ecosystems, making forests more fire prone. Now we know it's better to let some fires burn.

Today – as climate change intensifies wildfires – getting the policies right is even more critical. These approaches can help.

1. Make the ‘fire funding fix’ count

The Forest Service spent:

  • 16% of its budget to suppress wildfires in 1995
  • 55% of its budget to suppress wildfires in 2017
  • $2.5 billion to suppress wildfires in 2017

Having to spend more to put out wildfires, the Forest Service has had less money for wildfire prevention.

In March 2018, a bipartisan effort promised some relief. The so-called “fire funding fix” created a fund just for wildfire suppression, beyond the $1.4 billion budgeted for fighting wildfires. It starts at $2.25 billion in 2020 and ends in 2027 at $2.95 billion.

To maximize this long-overdue shift, we recommend restoring the forests proactively, in part by removing dead trees and helping seedlings survive.

Unfortunately, most of our forests can't heal themselves anymore. So they need more constant and careful management.

2. Boost research to surface best options

Forests are diverse and complex. And more communities are being built around them, changing ecosystems.

The federal government is already funding studies that provide some insight. But we need an even more nuanced understanding about how to manage forests.

This additional research could study the best ways to predict high-risk areas for wildfire and to better understand how climate change is shifting how wildfires behave.

And it could lead to safeguards, such as alert systems that warn communities of encroaching fire.

3. Turn forest byproduct into new revenue

trees and branches

Vegetation cleared from forests to lessen the risk of wildfire, such as these branches, can yield renewable energy – a potential source of revenue to help prevent fires.

Bureau of Land Management

There’s a largely untapped economic opportunity in the forest.

Reducing the risk of fire often involves removing vegetation that can fuel fires. Those tree parts and plants can be turned into a renewable energy source and various products, such as paper and furniture.

Responsibly removing dead trees for sale could lead to millions of dollars in vital funding for restoration efforts, such as planting trees.

It’s a win-win that can create new revenue and jobs while improving ecological health.

4. Build on bedrock environmental laws

Bedrock policies like the Endangered Species Act provide critical backstops for ecosystems at risk, including forests.

With climate change on track to make wildfires worse, the need is greater than ever for more funding and flexibility to address urgent needs quickly and effectively.

With that kind of commitment, we can create forests that thrive.

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