The Answer is Simple for U.S. Forest Service: Better Management Necessary, Not More Money

The U.S. Forest Service is begging for more money from the American taxpayer to help fund the rising costs of fire suppression. This might sound like a good idea, right? More money for fire suppression equals more safety for the public, right? Wrong. History shows that mismanagement of public lands is directly responsible for the rising cost associated with firefighting.

For over 100 years the management strategy for U.S. national forests has been to suppress the ecologically critical process of fire on its land holdings while simultaneously selecting for trees of highest timber value. Meanwhile, a terrorizing campaign of propaganda has created an uphill battle for scientists trying to convince the public that fire belongs in the forests and grasslands.

Following are three of the U.S. Forest Service’s failed policies which should be immediately reversed to turn around the health of the forests and save taxpayer money in the long run.

It’s Time to Fire Smokey Bear

Yep. Give Smokey the boot! And everyone responsible for advertising at the Forest Service over the last 75 years, for that matter. The oversimplified demonization of all fire is far more harmful than helpful. It has negatively shaped public opinion, and contradicts current scientific research on the usefulness of the process of fire on forest ecology. Not to mention it’s downright awkward.

Early Forest Service ad campaigns

The mythology perpetuated by the Forest Service, is no fire is good fire. They have been using fear-based rhetoric longer than the anthropomorphic bear has been around, but Smokey is by far their most successful media campaign.

“Only you can prevent forest fires,” Smokey Bear’s famous slogan is recognized by millions of people in the United States. According to the Ad Council, “Smokey is an icon: 96 percent of U.S. adults recognize him, and 70 percent are able to recall his message without prompting.”

Although the Forest Service has recently begun to change its tune on the use of prescribed fire to sustain healthy forest ecosystems, their message remains garbled as they promote suppression and utilization at the same time. This confusing P.R. strategy in combination with the years of propaganda makes policy progress slow and difficult.

The time is ripe for the Forest Service to immediately cease using fire suppression ad campaigns and begin a re-education of the public about the benefits of fire on the landscape.

Follow the Money

It has been said that the past is a pretty good indicator of the future. So how has the Forest Service used its previous allocations? According to an internal review conducted by the Forest Service, in the last 20 years allocated resources have been increasingly taken away from programmatic elements that would add to ecological health, promote increased understanding of forest ecology, and decrease opportunity for catastrophic fire on the landscape.

Proportion of budget that is used for fire suppression efforts (USDA 2015)
Employees, fire and non (USDA 2015)

In 2015 fire suppression costs surpassed 50% of the Forest Service’s budget compared to 16% in 1995. It is estimated that by 2025 fire suppression will use two-thirds of Congress’ budget allotted to the Forest Service. The staffing alone is representative of where the agency’s values lie. While fire staffing has more than doubled in the time period from 1998 to 2015, land management staff has seen a 39% decrease.

Though the Forest Service may argue that this increase of funds put toward suppressing fire is necessary because of the impacts of climate change, or bark beetles, or mega-droughts, the truth is a flawed worldview by top levels of forestlands management has created unhealthy fuel-laden forests.

Fire is going to be on the landscape. No amount of suppression can remove the process of fire, so firefighting agencies must learn to utilize fire as a preventative tool. The Forest Service should immediately begin an aggressive fuels reduction campaign utilizing staff resources to implement good fire of low to moderate intensity.

Land of Many Uses: Manage for Health

Unlike historical accounts of the magnificently productive park-like forests of years gone by (see: Tending the Wild), today’s forests have far too many trees. For years National Forest land has been managed to produce maximum harvestable timber, not for healthy ecosystems. Big trees are more valuable to our economic markets cut down and logged out, while the weakest, least marketable trees are left on the landscape. Additionally, plantations of just one species are planted in place of the diverse stands that were originally present.

When finally all the big trees were logged, clearcutting became the common practice within the forest leaving a patchwork mosaic of blocks of trees all the same age. This management practice along with the removal of fire creates the dense stands of trees that are difficult to even walk through.

Aerial images of clear cut patterns

Overcrowding decreases overall stem size and there is just too much competition. Pests like the fungus that creates Sudden Oak Death and bark beetles are reaching epidemic proportions. Could it be that seeing the forest as an agricultural commodity rather than a diverse interconnected system is finally catching up with forest managers? Forest lands need to be actively managed for total ecosystem health.

See the Forest for the Trees

The Forest Service argues that large-scale fires are natural disasters cut from the same cloth as hurricanes, earthquakes and flood events and should be granted special funding accordingly. While the magnitude of these disasters may be similar, catastrophic forest fires are the only event that can be prevented from happening through proper management.

By ending a fallacious advertising campaign, redirecting current funds toward better land management, and changing their mindset to promote full ecosystem health, the Forest Service can more competently steward the lands entrusted to them by the American people.

Until these changes are made the cycle of misappropriation of taxpayer funds will continue. The mindset of the U.S. Forest Service must change to one of fire utilization as opposed to fire suppression, and until it does, Congress should not allocate increased funding for the outdated practice of wildland fire fighting.

— Ryan Edwards is a land steward at an ecological reserve where good fire is used to heal the land of previous mismanagement.