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New Federal Policies Will Help Manage Wildfire Risk

Henry McCann May 8, 2018
Controlled burn of forest.

California’s headwater forests have experienced a long-term decline in health and have suffered unprecedented tree death and severe wildfires as a result. About half the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade forests are owned and managed by the US Forest Service (USFS). HR 1625, the federal budget bill enacted in March of this year, contains four new reforms that will make it easier for the USFS to ramp up management efforts and reduce wildfire risk in this region:

  1. Protecting funds dedicated to forest management and restoration. The Forest Service’s fire suppression activities have traditionally been funded from the same pot of money that pays for management to reduce hazardous fuels, like prescribed burning and mechanical thinning. The rising costs of wildfire suppression thus draws resources away from management actions. This fiscal practice, sometimes known as “fire borrowing,” creates a vicious cycle. With low levels of management, fuels continue to build up, increasing the likelihood and intensity of future fires—and the cost of suppressing them. The reform freezes USFS expenditures on wildfire suppression at 2015 levels and creates a new source of wildfire suppression funds that is independent from funds for forest management and restoration. This change becomes effective in fiscal year 2020.
  2. Expediting small-scale forest management projects. Currently, the USFS can streamline environmental review for certain types of small-scale projects that don’t pose a significant environmental threat, such as restoring burned areas, stopping insect infestation, and performing some commercial harvesting. This reform expands USFS authority to streamline approval for small, proactive fuel-management projects that improve forests’ resilience to drought, pest, and wildfires. USFS Region 5 (serving California, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands) is evaluating opportunities to use this new streamlining tool in 2019.
  3. Improving tools for collaboration between the Forest Service and local parties. USFS’s stewardship projects allow businesses, local governments, and nonprofits to play a larger role in carrying out forest management projects on USFS lands. This harnesses additional resources to promote forest health on these lands. The new policy doubles the maximum duration of stewardship projects to 20 years, which could encourage larger projects and more substantial investments in supportive infrastructure, such as roads, sawmills, and biomass energy generators.
  4. Improving tools for collaboration between the Forest Service and states. This reform expands the management work that states may perform on USFS lands under the Good Neighbor Authority (GNA). The GNA can be helpful when private or local government landowners share a boundary with federal forests. The new policy expands the use of GNA programs to include road rehabilitation and repair projects that can improve access to forests in need of management. The USFS expects this will encourage partnerships with state agencies such as Caltrans and California State Parks, which regularly repair roads in the vicinity of national forests.

This new suite of policies signals a growing prioritization of forest management and provides concrete steps to increase the pace and scale of active management. The changes will allow USFS to develop stronger partnerships with other forest landowners and stakeholders, and could help lead to healthier headwater forests in California.

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