The Case Against Burning
Air Date: Week of May 19, 2000
Commentator David Riggs, Director of Land and Natural Resource Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, believes our approach to caring for the nation’s forests is misguided.
RIGGS: The massive wildfire in Los Alamos is a predictable result of our national land management policy, which makes fire suppression and prescribed burns a priority.
CURWOOD: Commentator David Riggs of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
RIGGS: Smoky the Bear's caution, "Only you can prevent forest fires," symbolizes decades of fire suppression by the federal government. Although many of us have fond memories of the fire-conscious bear, we can expect to see more fire disasters when federal land management agencies embrace and suppress and prescribe policy.
Fire suppression, which puts out fires as soon as they are discovered, results in a build-up of dry, highly-flammable excess wood in the nation's forests. This leaves more wood in the forest to burn tomorrow, and the fire hazard continues to grow. Excess timber can be burned up in small, prescribed fires, or it can be removed mechanically. Our federal land management policy has placed a priority on prescribed burns, which should only occur when weather and moisture conditions are just right. The frequency of prescribed burns is also important to keep the forest clean of its excess fuels.
But prescribed burning has not worked well in practice. The Los Alamos fire started as a small, prescribed burn that quickly went out of control. Other prescribed burns have had similar outcomes. Unless it is removed mechanically, most of the surplus wood has to burn eventually. Consequently, an abundance of dead and dying trees due to the long-time absence of fire results in fire intensities that cause enormous damage to soils, watersheds, fisheries, and other ecosystem components. Plus, as the Los Alamos fire amply demonstrates, people and their property are at tremendous risk when they are adjacent to these national tinder boxes. We need a policy that calls for cutting excess timber and carrying it out of the forest. The federal government's suppress and prescribe policy has created massive fire hazards, and needlessly puts lives, property, and the environment at risk. If we continue to put dangerous and ineffective policy above common sense, we will continue to see more fire disasters like Los Alamos.
CURWOOD: David Riggs is the director of land and natural resource policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.
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