This week's installment in our Q&A series hits close to home. As we write, a 10,000-acre wildfire burns less than twenty miles from our office in Bozeman, Montana, a humbling reminder of the reality of large and destructive wildfires in the west.Dean Lueck knows wildfires better than most. Before becoming an economist he was a smokejumper with the U.S. Forest Service in McCall, Idaho. Recently, Lueck combined his hands-on experience fighting fires with his impressive academic career studying property rights and natural resource economics. The result was Wildfire Policy: Law and Economics Perspectives, a volume he co-edited with Karen Bradshaw. This summer, Lueck is continuing his research on wildfire policy at PERC, along with Jonathan Yoder, as a 2012 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow.Q: Can you highlight a few examples of major wildfires and what efforts were taken toward suppression?A: First, there is the famous 1910 “Big Burn” in northern Idaho and western Montana. That fire, or actually a collection of fires, burned about 3 million acres, killed over 80 people, and devastated the town of Wallace, Idaho. It was fought in a disorganized manner by unskilled firefighters including convicts, vagrants, U.S. Army soldiers, timber land owners with only hand tools. Because the fire took place predominantly on national forest lands, it led to dramatic changes in federal fire policy. Also during the period between 1880-1920, there were many fires as large or larger than the Great 1910 Burn. Many of these took place in the northeast and the Great Lakes region where private timber land dominated.In general organized wildfire suppression efforts were very limited prior to 1900 and efforts focused primarily on protecting homes, buildings, and towns, but not on putting out the fire itself. By the late 20th century fire suppression had become organized within a large centralized, coordinated and hierarchical system heavily dominated by the U.S. Forest Service. Crews had become specialized and highly mobile. The use of aircraft in transport and direct suppression with water and retardant had become routine.More recently, the Biscuit Fire in Oregon burned nearly a half a million acres in 2002. It began on July 13, and at its zenith on July 31 there were over 2,000 firefighting personnel, 21 helicopters and 40 bulldozers assigned to the fire. The fire was not completely suppressed until December and cost more than $150 million. The fire destroyed four homes and ten other structures, forced the evacuation of 15,000 people, and destroyed or damaged thousands of acres of valuable timber. No one was killed during the suppression effort.By contrast consider the Black Dragon Fire in 1987, which burned 18 million acres along the Amur River, which is the border between China and Russia. The fire started in China and burned 3 million acres there. The Chinese fielded over 60,000 unskilled fire fighters and hundreds died. The Russians did essentially nothing to suppress the fire, and it grew an additional 15 million acres. The disparate approaches resulted from a lack of cooperation between Russia and China and extreme differences in the relative value of timber in the two countries.Since 1999 there have been 134 fires of more than 100,000 acres in the United States. For the last 10 years, average annual federal suppression expenditures have been over $1 billion.Q: What does your project (with Jonathan Yoder) seek to add to the economics of wildfire policy?A: The main goal of our project is to gain an economic understanding of the organization of wildfire suppression. Fire suppression organization today seems complex, administratively cumbersome, and often inefficient. We want to understand the causes and consequences of the current system both theoretically and empirically. We want to understand the economic foundations that have driven how fire suppression institutions developed into those that we see today, and understand how they vary across environmental, demographic, and political jurisdictions. We will then have a better foundation for understanding where inefficiencies lie, and how suppression institutions might be improved.So, for example, we are examining the emergence of wildfire suppression among timber landowners in the northwestern and northeastern United States during the late 1800s. These private organizations pre-date the Forest Service fire crews, and this type of timberland owner association, to our knowledge, is pre-dated only by urban firefighting organizations. The federal government’s involvement in fire suppression emerged with the accumulation of federal forest lands and even stimulated expansion of the national forest system.Q: What are some of the criticisms of modern wildfire institutions? Do the resource values justify the suppression costs?A: Many critical observers feel there is an excessive amount of suppression and too little fuel management or prescribed burning, especially on federal lands. There is also the concern that suppression costs may often outweigh benefits (damage reduction). We certainly know of specific cases in which suppression costs exceeded the resource value at risk. There is also a concern that suppression effectiveness is often low so that suppression expenditures have little payoff. At the same time there is strong political pressure to put out all fires so there has been a recent reversion back to the so-called “10am rule” in which fire crews and land managers are directed to put all effort into suppression even where suppression costs would be high relative to potential damages. The long-term effects of continued fire suppression are also likely to lead to fuel buildups that can result in larger, more devastating fires in the future.
by Paul SchwennesenPrometheus, mankind’s great advocate and insubordinate pilferer of flame, must be perplexed by the goings-on in fire-riven Arizona. The towering columns of smoke have gone, but the forest conflagration has left behind half a million charred acres and more than a few smoldering resentments. Primary among these resentments is a question over management of public forest resources: who should decide how we avoid or at least mitigate such a calamity in the future? It is of course ironic; Marx claimed Prometheus as the figurehead of the communal mystique, and no asset is more communally owned than America’s western forests. Not surprisingly, these forests are a prime example of the tragic consequences of collective ownership and central management.In addition to our famed cactus down south, Arizona harbors around seven billion cubic feet of live timber and the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pine. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest lies on 2.63 million acres of this stand. Each year, solar energy and carbon are converted into nearly twenty-four million cubic feet of timber on national forest land. This resource is impressive and aesthetic, drawing sun-scorched tourists by the busload.It also draws “managers” by the score. Aldo Leopold embarked on his first Forest Service assignment here in 1909, just a few miles from Bear Wallow. Ever since, the forest has been managed in the public domain by well-educated and better-intentioned technocrats charged with maximizing the public good. Under a complicated rubric of “multi-use,” the Forest Service attempts to harvest the sustainable yield of the resource (it is, after all, under the Department of Agriculture). Timber, livestock grazing, and hunting permits are just a few of the “extractive” uses they are charged with upholding. Habitat protection, endangered species management, and increasing recreational demands are a large and growing slice of the resource allocation pie.The extraordinarily difficult job of balancing these competing demands is precisely the sort of thing that bureaucracies are bad at handling. As Malcolm Gladwell notes, these kinds of complex problems are not puzzles (which more information and better education can help solve), but mysteries (in which more information and better education tends to confuse). In the late-1980s, for instance, timber harvesting off national forest land came to a nearly complete halt as a result of court injunctions precipitated in the Pacific Northwest. Litigation by environmentally conscious lobbying groups, specifically over concerns of habitat destruction for endangered species, made large-scale timber harvest a thing of the past. Grazing permits likewise encountered a dramatic decline for similar reasons. Combined with an aggressive thirty-year campaign of actively putting out all fires (is there any more iconic mascot than Smoky the Bear?), these actions led predictably to a dramatic increase in forest-density and ground cover.Forest density and ground cover is called “habitat” by the green contingent, “fuel-load” by their brown compatriots. And, of course, there is an element of truth in each view, often masking personal preferences and economic agendas. But the point is this: the kind of see-sawing policy shifts which encouraged dramatic, perhaps unsustainable, increases in extractive uses in the early 1980s was followed by dramatic, perhaps unconscionable, reductions in these uses a decade later. These market-insulated policy shifts were not based on good information (which markets are extraordinarily good at projecting), but on politics and the relative power of lobbying those in control. The short-term increases in forest habitat resulting from reduced extraction charged the pan for the tremendous blazes we have encountered in the past decade.This past May, one of the sun-scorched tourists started a blaze that subsequently burned more acreage than any other single event in state history. Two and a half billion board feet of timber are estimated to have gone up in a whiff of carbon and particulate pollution this summer. Five hundred nineteen thousand, three hundred and nineteen acres of prime habitat, prime camping, prime hunting, and prime timber disappeared in an ecological blink of an eye. Before us lie the smoking remnants of command-and-control planning gone predictably awry.“Well,” you say, “forests burn periodically, it’s a natural and proper consequence of growth.” If only it were that simple. Fire is indeed a natural ecological force, particularly in the brittle ecosystems of the semi-arid west. But size matters. Half-million acre infernos are almost certainly not typical of the “natural” order of things.
After more than one thousand miles by jet, 40 minutes by float plane, one hour driving, a hike, and a row we arrive to our destination: a 12 x 14 foot cabin in remote Alaska on Prince of Wales Island. We had the lake nearly to ourselves.