Dear Joe Biden,
As we head deeper into springtime this year, millions of Americans across the western United States are gearing up for what is sure to be another intense fire season.
Over the past several years, our country has experienced a dramatic uptick in severe wildfires. Particularly large and catastrophic fires have left entire towns destroyed, forcing tens of thousands into homelessness and taking hundreds of lives. And even those large conflagrations that have remained confined to remote regions have still taken a massive environmental toll - they have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat and released millions of tons of CO2 into the air.
While natural, low-intensity forest fires can have tremendous benefits – thinning out overstocked forests, encouraging new growth of pioneer species, adding complexity to our landscape, etc. – there are few redeeming qualities to the extreme-intensity, forest-replacing fires that have ravaged tens of millions of acres in the last decade alone. So, what can be done reduce the incidence of such fires?
Of course, climate is an incredibly important piece of this puzzle. A hotter, drier, windier western U.S. means more opportunities for ignition, longer fire seasons, and more extreme fire behavior. Climate-focused action must be taken to curb the current trajectory we’re on, or else future fire seasons may make our recent, catastrophic seasons look like child’s play.
Unfortunately, the impacts of climate-focused policies are incremental by nature. It may take years or decades for these policies’ benefits (i.e., a planet that’s not warming up as fast, or not warming up at all) to be fully realized. But we don’t have that kind of time.
While long-term, big-picture policies aimed at reducing our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions are undoubtedly critical, we also need to look at fire-reduction actions that can start having an impact today. There are no silver bullets here, but I believe there are two major steps we could take to quickly reduce our risk of catastrophic wildfires: cutting more trees in unhealthy, overstocked forests, and investing in technologies that will create more markets for underutilized forest products.
Some environmentalists may balk at any plan that encourages more timber harvesting. A century of unsustainable cutting that, in many places, left ecological devastation in its wake, has made plenty of people gun-shy about the prospect of felling still more trees. But a good thinning is just what tens of millions of our forested acres desperately need.
For decades, our natural resource agencies operated under a misguided zero-tolerance forest fire policy. And by quickly stamping out every forest fire they could, they upended forests’ natural fire regimes. Without low and medium-intensity fires clearing out brush and thinning out trees every few years (or ten years, or twenty years, depending on the forest type), forests became overstocked.
Overstocked forests, put simply, have too many trees. Competing with too many other stems for space, water, sunlight, and nutrients, trees in overstocked forests are less healthy and less vigorous. And not only are these forests more susceptible to devastating fires (because they’re so tightly packed), but they’re also more susceptible to diseases and bug infestations.
Plenty of public forests across the western U.S. have been working to thin out overstocked stands, but we could be doing much more. We should ramp up our thinning targets and dedicate more resources to these projects, but we should also, crucially, make sure we have the human and physical infrastructure in place to efficiently deal with a bump in timber production. That may mean investing in training programs that prepare job seekers for forestry or mill-related careers (loggers, foresters, truckers, engineers, etc.), and it may mean putting in place programs that incentivize mills to expand their production capabilities or open new locations.
But, unfortunately, these measures, too, will only get us so far. That’s because only a portion of our overstocked forests is economically viable to thin at all. In many places, trees are too small, too malformed, too inaccessible, and/or too far from the nearest mill to be worth harvesting. In such situations, natural resource agencies may actually pay operators to do thinning work – but such pay-for-work contracts become prohibitively expensive as they scale up.
One way to at least partially address this problem is to create new markets for under or non-utilized forest products. Researching, investing in, and incentivizing the private production of more engineered wood products and biomass fuel infrastructure would be a step in the right direction here. The former would help mills extract more value from each log they processed, while the latter would create a market for topwood, branches, and other slash materials that may otherwise be piled and burned or simply left on the ground. A greater supply of engineered wood products (e.g., cross-laminated timber, oriented-strand board, I-joists) may also help us build more homes more affordably; meanwhile, expanding infrastructure that generates electricity from biomass will help curb our reliance on fossil fuels and offer a new, steady stream of power to rural communities.
Some of the investments necessary to ramp up our thinning efforts may be costly upfront. But those costs will be well worth it, because the long-term benefits will be many-fold. We will reduce the incidences of large wildfires, saving billions on potential infrastructure losses while retaining the valuable ecosystem services that healthy, thriving forests provide all of us. We will also support job growth in rural and economically-depressed areas, reduce our reliance on foreign timber imports, and create clean, renewable energy by burning forestry operations slash as biomass.
While these policies will not completely alleviate our nation’s forest fire problem, I do believe they will make real and positive impacts.
Thank you for taking the time to review this letter.