A new report vividly illustrates how bureaucracy and litigation slow down prescribed burns and mechanical treatments of wildfire-prone lands by the U.S. Forest Service, with one fire management category taking an average of more than seven years to actually start following project initiation.
Recent years have seen some of the biggest wildfires in the documented history of the western United States.
“This is a problem that has been getting worse every decade for the past century,” said Jonathan Wood, vice president of law and policy at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), in a June 21 interview with The Epoch Times.
“Despite the growing consequences and pretty much bipartisan support for solutions that everyone understands, [they’re] not happening at anything like the scale needed to address the problem.”
An analysis of Forest Service data by the Nature Conservancy concluded that the targeted treatment of 51 million high-risk acres across ten years would cost $5 to $6 billion.
The 50-million-acre target is particularly ambitious because the management of federal forests has not kept pace with those forests’ requirements.
“As of 2018, 80 million acres of national forest land needed restoration to reduce susceptibility to wildfire, disease, and insects, according to Forest Service officials, yet the agency has treated just 2 million acres annually in recent decades,” PERC’s report notes.
At the center of the debate is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law requiring federal agencies to evaluate the prospective environmental impact of their actions.
Projects that agencies expect to have no impact receive what is known as a categorical exclusion (CE) from formal environmental review. When potential impacts are unclear, projects undergo an environmental assessment (EA)—and when impacts are expected to be significant, projects must be more rigorously evaluated through an environmental impact statement (EIS).
Analyzing a Forest Service NEPA decision database alongside another dataset, PERC discovered that mechanical treatments using machinery and controlled burns take years to get underway, even under the best of circumstances.
The fastest kind of wildfire fuel treatment, mechanical treatment under CE, started an average of 2.9 years after project initiation.
At the other end of the spectrum, a fire management by prescribed burn requiring an EIS only began after an average of 7.2 years.
These realities raise questions about how realistic the Biden administration’s ten-year, 50-million-acre goal really is, at least without substantial NEPA reforms.
“Even with adequate appropriations, changes in the process by which the Forest Service conducts environmental reviews and implements fuel treatments are likely needed, as a 10-year timetable is infeasible for EIS approvals under the current system,” PERC’s report states.
Wood told The Epoch Times he was surprised to learn that prescribed burns take longer than mechanical treatments, given that the latter is more controversial than the former among some environmentalists.
PERC’s report also shows that litigation significantly delayed both mechanical and burn treatments, particularly in cases requiring an EIS. A total of 17.5 percent of EIS projects were litigated.
“Between 2001 and 2008, the Forest Service was litigated more than any other federal agency under NEPA,” the report notes.
“Most of the litigation opposition is not from the mainstream environmental groups,” Wood said.
He drew attention to the Cottonwood Environmental Law Group and its role in opposing wildfire treatment, often based on potential harms to endangered species.
Cottonwood won a crucial victory in a 2015 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision.
The court found the Forest Service must restart consultation on its management plans with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) when FWS designates new critical habitat for species protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Cottonwood’s webpage describes itself as “a bunch of radical environmentalists.”
“A wildfire is going to do much more damage to habitat for these species than the management activities of the Forest Service,” Wood said.
Malcolm North, a professor of forestry at the University of California, Davis, and a research ecologist with the Forest Service, told The Epoch Times he agrees with PERC’s assessment.
“Although some of the policy literature has suggested that NEPA is not a major hurdle to project implementation, that’s not been my experience in twenty-plus years working with forest managers. The timelines they find as averages to get projects done are consistent with what I’ve seen in California,” he said in a June 21 email.
“The fire and forest scientist community is pretty consistent that a major snafu is that NEPA is inverted. [Prescribed] burning and fuels reduction should be exempt, while fire suppression and failure to meet pace and scale should initiate a NEPA.”
“None of the agencies that are supposedly responsible for these kinds of burns and thinning are doing enough,” said Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, in a June 22 interview with The Epoch Times.
As an example, he cited a report issued by the Forest Service on June 21. It asserted that the recent Hermit’s Peak Fire in New Mexico, which began with a controlled burn, was substantially complicated by climate change.
“Fires are outpacing our models and, as the final report notes, we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground. We must learn from this event and ensure our decision-making processes, tools, and procedures reflect these changed conditions,” states Forest Service Chief Randy Moore in a foreword to that report.
Mass thinks this sort of explanation lets the Forest Service evade responsibility for its own mistakes.
“They did the prescribed burn under very poor conditions and when the winds were too strong, and it got carried away from them,” he said, adding that climate change is “an extraordinarily minor driver” of recent fires.
“We have suppressed fires for a hundred years, and now, most of the West is full of these potentially catastrophic large fire areas. We need massive efforts immediately.”
The Epoch Times has reached out to the National Association of State Foresters, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, and the Forest Service for comment.