Forest Service to Work More Closely With States to Battle Wildfires

Two of the last three years have seen historic amounts of land burned across the U.S.

Two of the last three years have seen historic amounts of land burned across the U.S. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

The new strategy includes increased logging and prescribed burns.

The federal government will work more closely with states to help curtail the spread of devastating wildfires, officials announced this week.

The U.S. Forest Service plan, touted at the Capitol Thursday by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, focuses on working with state and tribal stakeholders to target localized preventive treatments, including prescribed burns, to areas most likely to benefit from them.

The latest federal spending bill gave the Forest Service flexibility to pursue some of those treatments—including road maintenance, increased logging and the removal of dead plants—to reduce the amount of burnable fuel in the path of wildfires, interim chief Vicki Christiansen said in a statement.

“The challenges before us require a new approach,” she said. “This year Congress has given us new opportunities to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with state leaders to identify land management priorities that include mitigating wildfire risks. We will use all the tools available to us to reduce hazardous fuels, including mechanical treatments, prescribed fire and unplanned fire in the right place at the right time.”

The Forest Service has treated a steadily growing area of land since the 1990s, but “catastrophic wildfires and the corresponding loss of lives, homes and natural resources have continued to grow, partly because our treatments have been uncoordinated and not at the right scale,” the report says.

The changes are also necessary because forest land across the country continues to be subjected to myriad challenges, “among them catastrophic wildfires, invasive species, droughts, degraded watersheds, and epidemics of forest insects and disease,” the report says. The report suggested those challenges are driven primarily by climate change, citing “regional changes in temperature, precipitation patterns and other environmental conditions" as factors. 

Perdue himself declined Thursday to attribute the growing risk of wildfires to man-made climate change. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did as well, noting at a cabinet meeting that the cause is unimportant because the Forest Service has to address the increased risk either way.

Shared responsibility is key to that prevention, according to the report.

“In an era of megafires that sweep across landscapes in multiple ownerships, no single entity can meet the challenge alone at the scale needed to reduce fire risk across broad landscapes,” it says. “The belief that individual landowners and land managers can and should shoulder all responsibility for disturbance-related risks within their own jurisdictions is outdated. The risk is at scales that are simply too great.”

The Forest Service will begin by meeting with state and local stakeholders across the country to discuss the framework of the plan, align goals and receive feedback.

“We commit to work more closely with the states to reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires,” Perdue said in a statement. “We commit to strengthening the stewardship of public and private lands. This report outlines our strategy and intent to help one another prevent wildfire from reaching this level.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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