How Environmental Activists and Reviews Can Worsen Wildfires

Firefighters battle the oak tree fire on July 23 in Midpines, California.


Peter da Silva/Shutterstock

With more than three million acres already burned or burning, 2022 is shaping up to be another devastating year for wildfires in the United States. America’s forests need to be managed more actively, a task the Biden administration took on earlier this year when it adopted an annual strategy to reduce excess fire fuels, like fallen trees and brushwood, on up to 20 million acres of national forest and 30 million acres of other land. That plan is a step in the right direction, but it’s unlikely to materialize unless the administration first addresses two key obstacles to forest restoration: environmental bureaucracy and litigation.

Fuel disposal projects are often subject to significant delays. New research from the think tank where I work, the Property and Environment Research Center, found that it takes an average of 3.6 years to clear felled, unhealthy and overgrown trees to go from the required environmental assessment to soil work. For mandatory burns, the delay is even longer, at 4.7 years. And these are the averages. Many urgently needed projects take much longer.

While many bureaucratic, technical and fiscal obstacles influence these delays, bureaucracy and court proceedings contribute significantly. Fuel reduction projects are more likely to require an Environmental Impact Statement, the most comprehensive level of assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act, than other projects covered by NEPA. The process comprehensively analyzes a project’s environmental impact and requires that the potential impact be compared to many other hypothetical projects. It may take another five years to complete.

NEPA is intended to serve the laudable purpose of making informed decisions, but when delays come at a significant environmental cost, requiring something as stringent as an Environmental Impact Statement is counterproductive. Last year, nearly 10,000 acres of northern spotted owl habitat went up in smoke in northern California’s Klamath National Forest in the Antelope Fire. The Forest Service was aware that the area was threatened by a wildfire and had a plan to protect it, but the project was blocked for about a decade by environmental reviews and objections from environmental campaigners, ironically worried about the owls’ well-being . This kind of year-long delays is becoming all too common.

Add litigation to the mix, and things can really go sideways. The forest service is risk-averse. Surveys of agency employees have found that the mere threat of litigation can cause the agency to step back and waste valuable time trying to “procedurally prove” a project. Fears of litigation for projects that require an environmental impact statement — the complexity of which can open plans to further lawsuits — can take another two years before they can actually be implemented. According to Drew Stroberg, a district ranger in the Klamath National Forest, the Forest Service’s project to reduce wildfire risk in the owls’ habitat was delayed in part because the agency wanted to avoid potential lawsuits. After the area was devastated by fire last year, he noted that the resources and extensive reports generated in this effort “could also end up in the bin.”

The same could be said of the Biden plan if it fails to reduce red tape and the risk of court cases. How can the forest service meet its ambitious 10-year goal when almost all of its time is spent reviewing and planning its first projects?

A good start would be to streamline the environmental assessment process for forest management. Other major projects are already under scrutiny under NEPA with less scrutiny than the reduction of combustible fuels. These efforts receive a categorical disclaimer, allowing them to skip the rigor of an environmental impact statement and instead receive a more moderate analysis that takes about three years on average. That’s still plenty of time to determine whether a forest management project poses an undue risk, but such an approach could allow the forest service to prevent the kind of destruction seen in the Klamath National Forest. Requiring a less complex report would also reduce the forest service’s risk of litigation and save additional time. As each wildfire season brings new disasters, each year counts.

The only way to meaningfully address our wildfire crisis is through better active forest management, as the Biden administration has proposed. But if the risks of litigation and overly cumbersome regulation aren’t eliminated, that plan is likely to go up in smoke.

Mr. Wood is Vice President of Law and Policy at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont.

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