REPORT: Red tape is making wildfires worse

For Immediate Release
June 15, 2022
Contact: Kat Dwyer, 406-587-9591, kdwyer@perc.org 

(BOZEMAN, MT)—As megafires ravage the west, a new report finds that critical projects proven to reduce wildfire severity are being delayed for years, leaving forests and communities at risk. Due to environmental reviews and litigation, the average length of time from initiating the environmental review process to beginning work is astonishingly long:

Prescribed burns:

  • 7.2 years for environmental impact assessment projects
  • 9.4 years for litigated projects with environmental impact assessments

Mechanical thinning:

  • 5.3 years for environmental impact assessment projects
  • 6.8 years for litigated projects with environmental impact assessments

The delays persist despite widespread agreement that both prescribed burns and mechanical thinning are essential tools in the effort to mitigate wildfire damage. Firefighters from the 2021 Bootleg Fire in Oregon reported areas previously treated with both methods reduced fire intensity and fueled a more manageable ground fire. 

The U.S. Forest Service set a goal to restore an additional 20 million acres over the next 10 years using these techniques, but the report finds that unlikely without changes.

“The Forest Service is mired in paperwork while the forests literally burn before our eyes,” said Jonathan Wood, Vice President of Law and Policy at The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), which produced the report. “Reforms to the environmental review process are critical if America is to tackle the wildfire crisis.”

Delays cause destruction 

The review process, known as The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), is intended to scrutinize projects that could harm the environment. Despite good intentions, it is also causing greater destruction when it comes to wildfires.

Last year, 10,000 acres of northern spotted owl habitat in the Klamath National Forest in northern California went up in smoke. The Forest Service was aware wildfire threatened the area and developed a plan to address it, but the project was tied up for nearly a decade—one of several proposed treatment areas destroyed by wildfires while awaiting environmental review last year.

An urgent crisis

With nearly two million acres already burned or burning, 2022 is shaping up to be another devastating year for wildfires, making mitigation tools even more critical. A century of fire suppression in our national forests has created unhealthy, overgrown forests with a build up of dead trees, underbrush, and other fuels. Coupled with historic drought and a changing climate, wildfires have become more frequent—and more serious.

The report, Does Environmental Review Worsen the Wildfire Crisis? was produced by The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). Authored by PERC Senior Research Fellows Sara Sutherland and Eric Edwards, the analysis is the most comprehensive assessment of NEPA’s impact on wildfire mitigation.

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