Wildfires Exceed Record Year of 2000 by 50 Percent; Continue to Grow in Overfueled Forests

 

DATE: June 21, 2002

BACKGROUND: As of June 20, wildfires in the U.S. had devastated 1,857,500 acres, almost entirely on federal land. This is more than double the ten year average for wildfire destruction by this date and 50 percent greater than the "modern record" year of 2000, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth told the Washington Times that the problem is that our National Forests are simply too dense.

TEN SECOND RESPONSE: Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth is right: our forests are too dense. Our forests were neglected under the Clinton Administration. President Bush must act immediately to institute sound forest management policies to care for these national treasures.

THIRTY SECOND RESPONSE: The Clinton Administration scandalously neglected our National Forests at the urging of environmentalists who oppose thinning forests even to prevent unnaturally large, "monster" wildfires. We now are losing to fire millions of acres of forests, the habitat they provide, and the animals and birds to which these forests are home. The Bush Administration has so far been slow to remedy the situation. Now the President must act courageously and quickly to institute sound forest management policies to prevent future catastrophes.

DISCUSSION: "We have so many more trees out there than under natural conditions," Forest Service Chief Bosworth told the Washington Times, "There might have been 40 to 50 Ponderosa Pine [trees] per acre at one time. Now you've got several hundred per acre."

Logging on federal lands was virtually shut down during the Clinton Administration. This, in concert with years of modern-day fire-suppression policies, has led to unnaturally dense conditions in our forests. This provides greatly increased fuel to wildfires, making them simply too hot to fight.

Through sound forest management, which included logging, the U.S. reduced the number of acres lost annually to wildfires from nearly 50 million in the early 1930s to about 3 million in the seventies. By President Clinton's last year in office, the total had grown to over 8 million acres with this year on target to far surpass that.

Writing in The National Center's National Policy Analysis #418, "Monster Wildfires are Preventable," June 2002, Thomas Bonnicksen, Ph.D., Professor of Forest Science at Texas A&M University, says:

"Historically, fire was part of America's forests, but not the monster fires of today. Hot fires burned only a few types of forest, and then only infrequently. Most forests burned often and gently. The flames were low in a gentle fire, creeping through grass and pine needles, leaving most large trees unharmed, and only briefly flaring up in scattered log piles, brush, or thickets. These fires kept historic forests open, patchy, diverse, and safe from monster fires.

What went so terribly wrong? Everyone knows the simple answer: too much fuel. More than a century ago, we began protecting forests from fire. We did not know that lightning fires kept them thin. More recently, we adopted an anti-management philosophy that protects forests from people. This ignores 12,000 years of history in which Native Americans doubled the number of fires by using them as a tool to keep forests open and productive.

Now logs and branches clutter the ground and trees grow so thick that it is difficult to walk through many forests. It is not surprising that the gentle fires of the past have become the destructive monsters of the present."

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Historical as well as daily-updated wildfire information, including statistics providing year-to-year comparisons of fire damage levels and other detailed information, is available from The National Interagency Fire Center at http://www.nifc.gov.

For more on our national forest policy, including recommendations by National Center Science Advisor Dr. Thomas Bonnicksen, professor of Forest Science at Texas A&M University, please visit our Forest Policy Information Center at http://www.nationalcenter.org/Forest.html.

by Tom Randall, Director
John P. McGovern, MD Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs
The National Center for Public Policy Research

Contact the author at: 773-857-5086 or [email protected]
The National Center for Public Policy Research, Chicago office
3712 North Broadway - PMB 279
Chicago, IL 60613