PUBLIC LANDS

Wildfires could bankrupt states if they acquired federal tracts -- report

Western states are ill-equipped to take ownership of federal lands because of the spiraling cost of fighting wildfires on national forests, according to a new report from a Denver-based conservation group.

The report by the Center for Western Priorities found that in a handful of Western states in 2011 and 2012, the Forest Service spent more to quell wildfires than what the states spent on their entire law enforcement budgets.

But advocates of state ownership argued states would manage forests more proactively than the Forest Service through activities like logging and hazardous fuels removal, lessening wildfire costs over time.

The report comes as conservative state lawmakers in the West pursue legislation to acquire federal lands or study the pros and cons of doing so. Conservationists, sportsmen's groups and Democrats have generally resisted the idea, saying the lands should remain under federal ownership and managed on behalf of all Americans.

Since 2001, the federal government has spent an average of $3.1 billion annually on wildfires, the CWP report said, citing a study by a former researcher for the Congressional Research Service.

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The report tallied what the Forest Service spent suppressing wildfires in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in 2011 and 2012.

Top expenditures in 2011 included $230 million in Arizona and $155 million in New Mexico. In 2012, the Forest Service spent a high of $169 million in Idaho. But that's just what the Forest Service spent on suppression. It spends significant additional funds on wildfire preparedness and hazardous fuels work, according to a 2013 CRS report.

The suppression figures came from Forest Service data that had been compiled for CRS. A Forest Service representative could not be reached to verify the numbers.

The 2012 and 2011 fire seasons were the third- and fourth-most expensive, respectively, in Forest Service history, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.

"Calling on states to seize public lands may make for great political theater, but it makes for horrible policy," said a statement today by Greg Zimmerman, the Center for Western Priorities' policy director.

"If public lands are transferred, states would have to assume the firefighting responsibilities," he added. "The money to pay for this critical service will have to come from somewhere. One bad fire season would risk a state's financial stability."

The costs of wildfires have risen dramatically over the past decades as a result of an accumulation of trees and underbrush, persistent drought, and the expansion of homes in the wildland-urban interface.

Plus, since 1960, the eight largest fire years by acres have all occurred after 2000.

Just yesterday, the Forest Service released a report highlighting that since 1995, the portion of its budget devoted to wildfire has risen from 16 percent to 42 percent, forcing cuts to forest restoration activities, capital improvements, endangered species recovery and research.

Zimmerman said that calls by Western politicians to acquire federal lands make for good sound bites but that they are "conveniently silent" about the costs of maintaining those lands and protecting residents.

Ann Hutchinson, a wildland fire training specialist who is a member of the Public Lands Foundation, a Bureau of Land Management employees group, said that if states acquired federal lands, they'd need to fund fighting wildfires and also would lose their share of the more than $400 million that is doled out each year by the federal government in payments in lieu of taxes (PILT).

While data on the costs and benefits of owning federal lands are inherently complicated, a CRS report made for Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) last September found that the costs of maintaining federal lands in the Gem State -- including congressional appropriations, litigation costs, federal highway money and PILT -- are far higher than what they returned in timber, oil and gas, grazing and recreation fees.

But Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory (R), who is a leading national advocate for state ownership of federal lands, said much of the costs of managing federal forests could be reduced through better management by officials who are accountable to the local public.

"We certainly can't afford to manage our forests the way the federal government manages them," Ivory said in an email in response to the Center for Western Priorities report. "We can't afford not to manage the forests the way states already manage them for the health AND productivity. Under present federal management, the forests are neither healthy nor productive."

Ivory in 2012 founded the nonprofit American Lands Council, whose mission is to "secure and defend local control of land access, land use and land ownership."

ALC argues that preliminary studies show states manage their lands at less cost per acre or visitor than the federal government and that states "stand to gain overall revenue while still acting as responsible stewards for future generations" if they acquire federal tracts.

"The only solution big enough to protect and secure the health AND productivity of our forests and public lands is to have them managed by representatives directly elected by, and directly accountable to, those whose lives and livelihoods are directly dependent upon the wise, long-term stewardship of those lands, rather than distant, unelected, unaccountable bureaucracies," Ivory said.

The CRP report counters that states would have few options to finance wildfire protection, at least in the near term.

"They could sell off public lands; raise fees on ranchers and other public land users; increase the pace of large scale logging; or rapidly develop lands with oil wells, mines and roads at the expense of other important uses of public lands like hunting, hiking and camping," the report said. "And ironically, selling public lands to private owners for housing and other development might result in even greater wildfire costs."

Legal experts say there is little chance any states will succeed in a large-scale acquisition of federal lands without congressional action -- which is also considered unlikely in this political climate.

Western governors are split on the issue, though members of both parties conceded it is unlikely Congress or the federal agencies will allow a transfer of lands (Greenwire, June 11).

Twitter: @philipataylor | Email: ptaylor@eenews.net

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