Opinion: Top wildfire solutions for states and state think tanks offered

State Policy Network offers an in-depth look at solutions for dealing with rampant wildfires

As our country deals with another year of rampant wildfires, people in the United States are looking for solutions that can protect homes and lands. Some look to DC, seeing this as a problem that is too big to be solved locally. But waiting for DC to find common ground is often an exercise in futility.

This file photo shows a smoke-filled sky from the recent Big Hollow Fire. Photo by Mike Schultz
This file photo shows a smoke-filled sky from the recent Big Hollow Fire. Photo by Mike Schultz

So, it’s time we look elsewhere for a way to solve this crisis. Fortunately, there are already solutions that can be implemented at the state level. We don’t need to wait for the federal government to solve the wildfire crisis; instead, the states can lead the way in healthy and sustainable forest restoration.

Top 4 wildfire solutions for states and state think tanks

Here are the top four ways states and state think tanks can encourage sustainable forest management:

  1. Educate policymakers, the media, and the public about the need for forest restoration
  2. Encourage collaboration
  3. Remove harmful regulations
  4. Promote fuel treatment policies

Educate the media, government officials, and the public on the importance of forest management — and the role of humans in the ecosystem.

  • There is a myth in the United States that the “natural” state of forests is one without humans. But forest management was part of humans’ role in the North American ecosystem for years, and is still integral to many Native tribes. Educating the public to overcome the “pristine wilderness” myth is the first step to overcoming wildfires.
  • When forests grow rampantly and are not maintained, they become more susceptible to massive wildfires, invasive species, and diseased plants. Without removing dead trees, and without thinning forests to limit competition for nutrients, there is not enough room for fire-resilient large trees to grow. Explaining these threats helps people see the danger of leaving the forests “untouched.”
  • The media plays a huge role in how people view the ecosystem. Local and national media need to be educated about the benefits of forest restoration and management, such as lower housing costs from greater timber access, higher air quality, and increased biodiversity. An educated media can help the public to understand the importance of funding and supporting forest restoration.

Collaborate with stakeholders so that forest restoration is sustainable, not occasional.

  • Everyone in the United States is a stakeholder in a healthy ecosystem. But, more specifically, there are numerous groups who have vested financial and safety interests in maintaining healthy forests. Communities living near forests, park services, private landowners, state governments, local governments, federal agencies, and businesses all want healthy forests. The best way states can promote responsible land management in any area is by bringing these stakeholders into the conversation when creating policies that affects forests.
  • States can encourage stakeholder participation in forest management by ensuring that policies are site-level and specific to the community in question, rather than pursuing one-size-fits-all policies for diverse and different forests.
  • States can also bring stakeholders into the process and encourage innovation by establishing restoration funds for long-term cost-share partnerships. A state can help promote healthy forests by investing directly in the most effective solutions. When states demonstrate their long-term commitment, stakeholders feel more comfortable making their own investments in forest restoration.

Remove regulations that make forest restoration less sustainable and discourage stakeholder participation.

  • Businesses, tribal groups, and other stakeholders often require exceptions to regulations to effectively restore certain areas of the forest. But, these exceptions can be difficult to attain, and too narrow-in-scope to allow the stakeholder to help. One of the best ways policymakers can help with forest restoration is to make categorical exclusions easier to apply for, and to expand acreage limits so stakeholders have enough room to help.
  • Another limit to stakeholder participation can be the length of contracts they’re granted. When a business is given only a short-term contract, they’re going to be less willing to invest in long-term forest restoration. By encouraging longer contract periods for businesses operating in forests, they can feel more confident making investments to sustain responsible forest management.
  • Finally, states can support forest restoration by making litigation less disruptive and more streamlined. By requiring lawsuits to be filed and handled quickly, states can ensure that forest projects don’t wait for years in the courtroom. Furthermore, states can limit injunctions by allowing the risk from fires to be factored into the court’s decision. If a project could demonstrably reduce the risk of fires, lawsuits should not be able to stop that project before the case has had a day in court.

Promote “fuel treatment” policies that remove the fuel for massive wildfires.

  • One of the most actively harmful regulations in many states is a requirement that all fires be suppressed immediately. Low-intensity natural fires keep grass, small trees, and shrub species from overgrowing. Without the thinning from natural fires, small trees grow so numerous they can create a “fire ladder” that allows the flames of wildfires to reach the top of the forest canopy, creating the massive fires that threaten our nation today. Removing immediate fire suppression requirements can go a long way in preventing uncontrollable wildfires.
  • Unfortunately, natural fires are not enough right now. In addition to not immediately suppressing the small brush fires that prevent forests from accumulating too much fuel, humans can play an important role by using “prescribed burning.” This is when we intentionally burn up the dead wood, small trees, and shrubs that would provide fuel for larger fires. In some places, a permit for a prescribed burn can take up to 18 months to receive, so even just easing this permitting process can go a long way in preventing wildfires. Another tactic is to thin the forest by removing some of the smaller trees. This can allow more room and nutrients for the remaining trees to grow larger and more fire resistant. It can also open space for more biodiversity to exist in a forest.

Bonus: Top 2 wildfire solutions for the federal government

While the states and the communities closest to the problem are best suited to sustainably manage forests, there are policies that the federal government could change to remove barriers to responsible forest restoration.

Here are two ways the federal government could help the states save our forests:

  1. Remove harmful regulations
  2. Encourage collaboration

End bad regulations that limit collaboration and punish responsible forest management.

  • The federal government bans exports on timber and imposes harmful fees on many forest products. Because many forest products are sold at thin margins, this can be the difference between a profitable and unprofitable business venture. Furthermore, many of these byproducts come from sound forest management. Thinning of trees not only limits wildfires, it can result in lumber. When this is profitable, businesses become a key stakeholder in forest restoration. By ending bans on timber exports and removing these harmful fees, the federal government can encourage powerful and invested stakeholders to keep our forests healthy.
  • Another way the federal government can get out of the way of forest restoration is by ensuring that laws and regulations aren’t applied too broadly. For instance, they could limit the scope of the Endangered Species Act to projects with on-the-ground impacts to endangered species. This law, and others like it, should be used to protect biodiversity from truly dangerous projects, not from any and all forest management initiatives.
  • Finally, the federal government should exclude prescribed burns from state emission standards. A state working to prevent a massive wildfire shouldn’t be punished for the emissions from smaller fires, especially considering how much more a large fire emits.

Encourage collaboration by empowering federal agencies to serve as a good faith partner in forest restoration.

  • Patchwork land ownership and the mix of federal, state, local, and tribal governments can create a massive headache for anyone trying to help their forests. Fortunately, bipartisan and bicameral legislation is already in the works, designed to create a commission that will bridge gaps between these groups and ensure that all stakeholders have access to the resources and information they need. This could help the federal government to ensure their rules help rather than hinder responsible forest restoration.
  • Like with the states, longer contracts can ensure that private stakeholders feel more comfortable with long-term investment in forest restoration. The Forest Service could better serve as a partner to states, tribes, and local government by being empowered to enter longer-term contracts.

State think tanks leading forest management coalitions

Collaboration between all the stakeholders is key to responsible forest management. Here are a few examples of collaborative forest restoration in action in the states:

Michigan: Overcoming patchwork ownership of the land

Michigan has a higher percentage of land owned by the federal government than any other state in the Midwest. While not to the same degree as some western states, this combination of federal, state, and local ownership can make forest management a collective goods problem—everyone owns some of it, nobody takes care of any of it. So, the Mackinac Center and the Property and Environment Research Center worked together to untangle the web of federal regulations. They’ve then used this knowledge to work with a diverse set of stakeholders to build coalitions that can overcome this collective goods problem, by pursuing common-ground and agreeable solutions to forest management that fit within the existing regulations.

Arizona: Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI)

In Arizona, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) has worked to bring together a diverse coalition of government agencies, private industry, community groups, non-governmental organizations, Native groups, and more. This coalition has “been able to move beyond the misperception that active forest management or other treatments are necessarily damaging to the natural environment.” Instead of falling prey to myths, they’ve been able to find common ground and ways in which the logging industry and environmental groups can work together to ensure that logging efforts are sustainable and contribute to reducing the risk of wildfires. By building a diverse coalition, they are helping people realize the true “value of forest restoration efforts […] as a means of reducing disease, insect infestation, and wildfire risk, as well as improving overall forest health.”

Washington: Supporting the confederated tribes of the Colville Reservation

Native groups in North America have long believed in and engaged in active forest management. From seasonal controlled burns to eco-friendly timber harvesting, they understand that humans play a vital role in our ecosystem. Washington Policy Center has worked with leaders like Cody Desautel, the Natural Resource Director for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, to understand native land management techniques. They in turn offer support in building coalitions with communities, and help with understanding government regulations, to ensure that these efforts are successful in ensuring healthy forests and healthy communities.

The column was first published by the State Policy Network and is published here with full attribution to the State Policy Network.

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