USDA’s Forest Service (USFS) has launched a new strategy for managing catastrophic wildfires and the impacts of invasive species, drought, and insect and disease epidemics. It is a landscape-management approach with the kind of wide breadth advocated by Solutions from the Land and is a welcome addition to the government’s arsenal to be used in the battle against a changing climate and its consequences.
The severity of wildfires, the damage they inflict and the costs to contain them have risen steadily over the past two decades and according to a review of data by U.S. News and World Report, 2018’s wildfire outlook continues the trend. Exemplifying the drift this year to more severe conflagrations are the unprecedented, massive wildfires ongoing in California that have wiped out millions of acres and taken lives.
A new report – Toward Shared Stewardship across Landscapes: An Outcome-based investment Strategy – outlines the Forest Service’s plans to work more closely with states to identify landscape-scale priorities for targeted treatments in areas with the highest payoffs.
A tour of California by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last month prompted the head of USDA to commit to work closely with states to reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires. Furthermore, he promised his agency’s help in strengthening the stewardship of public and private lands.
The USFS report outlines the Forest Service’s strategy and intent to help all parties prevent wildfire from reaching levels like those being seen in California.
Beyond catastrophic wildfires, both federal and private managers of forestland are also dealing with invasive species, degraded watersheds, and epidemics of forest insects and disease. The conditions fueling these growing challenges – including a changing climate – are not improving and are, in fact, increasing the length of fire seasons, the size and severity of wildfires, and the risk to communities, natural resources and firefighters.
USFS officials say the strategy announced this month represents a new approach, enabled by new opportunities provided by Congress to work closely with state leaders to identify land management priorities that include mitigating wildfire risks.
Solutions from the Land sees the announced strategy as a good first step, but cautions that any concerted effort to address wildfires must ultimately deal with the massive scale of the problem.
Decades of litigation over forestland access and regulation has hampered any flexibility in the approaches that, to date, have been taken to address the potential for wildfire destruction. The announced strategy would indicate a more open, collaborative federal effort that will also involve state officials and members of the timber and livestock communities, and other forestland stakeholders.
The prioritization of investment decisions on forest treatments will be made in direct coordination with states. Using the most advanced scientific tools, the approach allows the Forest Service to increase the scope and scale of critical forest treatments that protect communities and create resilient forests. It is a ‘good neighbor policy,’ that is integrating state and national government capabilities.
The USFS says it will build upon the authorities created by the 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act (the so-called “Omnibus Bill”), including policy provisions that can expedite land treatments to improve forest conditions, new road maintenance authorities and longer stewardship contracting in strategic areas. The agency says it will continue streamlining its internal processes to make environmental analysis more efficient and timber sale contracts more flexible.
The Omnibus Bill also includes a long-term “fire funding fix” starting in fiscal 2020 that officials hope will stop the rise of the 10-year average cost of fighting wildland fire and reduce the likelihood of the disruptive practice of transferring funds from Forest Service non-fire programs to cover firefighting costs. The product of more than a decade of hard work, the bipartisan solution can ultimately stabilize the agency’s operating environment.
Also, because rising rates of firefighter fatalities in recent decades have shifted the USFS’s approach to fire response, the report emphasizes the agency’s commitment to a risk-based response to wildfire. That includes using new mapping and decision tools to locate treatments where they can do the most good, protecting the communities, watersheds, and economies where the risks are greatest.
Solutions from the Land commends the USFS for pursuing this landscape-based approach to forest land management. We call upon the Forest Service to implement their strategy in a way that reflects just how massive a threat that wildfires and their root causes can be. And we urge stakeholders to reach out to state forest officials and call on them to take full advantage of the wildfire abatement benefits being offered through the USFS strategy.