Would the West burn less if states owned all the forests?

No. Despite misleading rhetoric from politicians, public lands managed by U.S. agencies are no more prone to wildfires

Willow Fire in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest | U.S. Forest Service

Wildfire is an ever-present reality for many communities in the Western United States. As the West’s fires burn longer and hotter, some politicians have taken to scapegoating the region’s public lands, alleging that wildfire is worse on U.S. public lands than state-owned lands. Their claim, according to a new analysis of wildfire risk in the West, is entirely untrue. It’s time for public officials to abandon their baseless rhetoric and engage in pragmatic conversations and policy development to protect Western communities from wildfire risks.

To that end, the Center for Western Priorities has released a first-of-its-kind analysis of wildfire data comparing the risk of wildfire on U.S. public lands versus state-owned lands. Data show that the percent of U.S. public lands and state-owned lands at a high risk of wildfire are approximately the same, a finding in keeping with consensus among forestry experts that Western wildfires are driven primarily by natural factors and exacerbated by a warming climate.

Despite scientific agreement on the primary drivers of wildfire, some elected officials have used the presence of wildfire on Western lands to smear U.S. public lands managers and the agencies charged with safeguarding the more than 600 million acres of American-owned lands. In a legislative hearing just this week, Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT) — a well-known conservation opponent — said that state-owned forests are “much healthier” than federally-managed forests. In the same vein, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) has argued that, “Extreme fire behavior has become the new normal, due in no small part, to the mismanagement or lack of management of our public lands.”

According to the Center for Western Priorities’ analysis, approximately 23 percent of U.S. public lands in the West are at high risk of wildfire, while 22 percent of state-owned lands are at high risk of wildfire. There is a higher proportion of state-owned lands at high risk of wildfire in seven of the eleven states studied — California, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Wyoming — than U.S. public lands within the same state.

The analysis relies on the West Wide Wildfire Risk Assessment model, a key benchmark from the Council of Western State Foresters and the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition, which evaluates wildfire risk on an acre-by-acre scale using key factors, including historical fire data, topography, vegetation, tree cover, local climate, and more.

In Utah, for example, 31 percent of state-owned land is at a high risk of wildfire — that’s nearly 9 percent higher than the risk for U.S. public lands in the state. In Montana, 26 percent of state-owned lands are at a high risk of wildfire, and in Idaho, 45 percent of state-owned lands have a high wildfire risk.

None of this is to assert that state land managers are doing a poor job. Wildfire risk in the West is a complicated mix of natural ecology, development in fire-prone areas, a changing climate, and historic land management practices.

It’s time for elected officials to move beyond petty arguments and blame games and get to work creating policies to protect communities from wildfire and restore America’s forests. There will no doubt be strong disagreements, but there is also common ground to be found. The American public expects as much.

You can read the full report, and learn more about the next steps for policymakers, here.