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Controlled Burns Can Prevent Smoky Skies. Why Won’t the Federal Government Approve Them?

As long as government policies continue to fan the flames of extreme wildfires, we’ll suffer the consequences.

  • Tate Watkins
  • Smoke from the Quebec wildfires blankets New York and New Jersey in an orange haze. © Anthony Quintano

    This article was originally published by Reason.

    Even though the start of summer is more than a week away, over 400 wildfires are already burning across Canada, emitting smoke that has polluted streets, parks, and neighborhoods a thousand miles away. Americans from Boston to Atlanta have suffered the effects of tiny particulate matter inflaming their lungs, getting a taste of what western state residents deal with nearly every wildfire season.

    The fires spilling smoke all the way down the East Coast highlight how backward policies delay or even prevent forest restoration work that would cut wildfire risk. The two main methods, controlled burning and mechanical thinning, make forests resilient by removing fuel in methodical, deliberate ways before it goes up in smoke in much more intense wildfires. But pollution standards and excessive red tape perversely discourage these beneficial projects. Add in potential litigation from environmental groups, and fire-prone areas can be left at risk for years while projects linger in limbo.

    As long as government policies continue to fan the flames of extreme wildfires, we’ll suffer the consequences.

    Even as New York City took on the hazy orange glow of Blade Runner last week, when it comes to legal standards, there was zero air pollution to record. Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets limits for pollution that emanates from vehicle engines, factory smokestacks, and all sorts of other sources. If states exceed the standards, then they risk losing federal highway funding or facing various regulatory consequences. Smoky days from wildfires, however, are treated as “exceptional events” that do not count against pollution standards. Yet when “burn bosses” set prescribed fires at the ideal times and under the best possible conditions, the emissions do count. 

    The approach penalizes a beneficial practice that not only emits less pollution than wildfires but can even avoid future ones altogether. It limits opportunities to use controlled burns, especially at times when it would be most sensible to perform them—like when bad pollution days would render the additional smoke from a prescribed burn marginal. Yet federal rules make it incredibly complex, technical, and resource-intensive to have smoke from a prescribed fire exempted in the way that wildfire smoke is. States are effectively encouraged to risk the catastrophic damages of wildfires rather than employ a tool that would preemptively help mitigate them. The Government Accountability Office reports that just a single prescribed burn has been excluded from air quality standards since current ones went into effect in 2012.

    Still, rather than solving this counterproductive approach, the EPA is considering tightening its restrictions—despite warnings from federal officials and fire researchers that stricter standards would further stifle the controlled burning needed to slash wildfire risk.

    This comes at a time when wildfires cause up to $20 billion in economic damages annually, routinely threatening local communities, scarring ecosystems, polluting water sources, and choking the air with smoke. But even though wildfire smoke is the single largest source of fine particulate pollution, it’s exempted from air quality standards. The EPA estimates that emissions from wildfires in California’s San Joaquin Valley produce nearly 10 times the air pollution as agricultural dust, the second-largest source.

    Man using fire to change North American landscapes is nothing new. Native Americans used to set fires to clear overgrown vegetation, make it easier to hunt and travel, and spur growth of forage plants and vegetation used in weaving.

    In the early 20th century, however, the federal government decided to aggressively suppress all forest fires, whether ignited by lightning or human hand. Federal legislation outlawed the use of most intentional fire, but decades of all-out suppression turned western forests into tinderboxes. Wildfire fuel accumulated in the form of incredibly dense stands of trees and overgrown vegetation littering forest floors. A similar story played out in Canada.

    Today, it often takes years to navigate environmental compliance rules before restoration projects can get started in U.S. national forests. Research from the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) has found that some prescribed burns take an average of more than seven years to ignite from the time their environmental reviews are initiated. 

    One forest restoration project outside of Bozeman, Montana, was impeded for more than 15 years by a combination of federal red tape and incessant litigation from environmentalists. In addition to delays related to environmental review, the Bozeman project was held up by a court ruling known as the Cottonwood decision. Based on a 9th Circuit ruling, it forces federal agencies to redo forest-wide planning documents in some western states whenever a new endangered species is listed or “critical habitat” is designated. Sen. Angus King (I–Maine) has likened the ruling to an entire city having to redo its zoning code every time an issue arises in a single neighborhood.

    Bozeman’s controlled burning and thinning was impeded due to a lawsuit over a federally protected lynx, even though the specter of a catastrophic wildfire threatened to leave its residents with only three days’ worth of drinking water. Yet none of the yearslong, repetitive paperwork spurred by the litigation resulted in any material change to the project. Moreover, redoing the forest-wide red tape yielded no conservation benefit to the lynx because federal agencies already modify the specifics of individual projects when new information about endangered species comes to light.

    Congress passed legislation in 2018 to avoid the duplicative and illogical busy work that the Cottonwood decision requires, but it expired earlier this year. The expiration meant that nearly 100 federal land management plans became subject to litigation that could force agencies to essentially redo their homework for no tangible conservation benefit. Now, legislators are sensibly considering a new bill with bipartisan support that would clarify that federal agencies do not have to redo forest-level paperwork in such cases, saving them time and funding that can be spent in the woods mitigating fire risk.

    Forests will change, and burn, whether humans choose to actively alter them or not. When people advocate for leaving forests alone, they’re advocating for a management strategy whether they realize it or not. And our current strategy is leaving millions gasping for air from sea to sea.

    Written By
    • Tate Watkins
      Tate Watkins
      • Managing Editor,
      • Research Fellow

      Tate Watkins is a research fellow and managing editor at PERC. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Reason, The Atlantic, The Hill, and many other outlets.

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