They’re not worthless to the things that live in them, of course. They love ‘em. And they aren’t worthless aesthetically, if that’s your bag. Any place with plants slurps up carbon dioxide, providing a bulwark against climate change. And they probably have value as a matter of public health; some research suggests that trees cut down pollutants in cities, and that exposure to nature extends lifespan—or, really, lack of trees reduces lifespan—though nobody’s really sure how.
But as a product, though? As board-feet for building or biomass for burning? Not so much. “Foresters are raised from childhood to believe that wood is good and has infinite value. As a society we think of wood as this super-eco-friendly material,” says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “But in fact, most wood is worthless. The cost of making it into something useful far outweighs the value.”
Hooray, you are thinking. If it’s not worth it to turn trees into lumber, stop cutting down forests. Done and done. Except if you don’t reduce the number of trees, and if you then also try to put out every fire, and allow runaway climate change to make droughts and heat waves worse … the boreal forests of North America will continue to literally go up in smoke, erasing the landscape and spewing climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere.
Everyone pretty much agrees on how to deal with our new Burning World: Stop trying to suppress fire and start managing that land to restore a more natural (less intense) fire regime. It would be great, really great, if the wood and other biomass that people need to take out of those wild lands could actually pay for some of that work. But the math, sadly, doesn’t pencil out.
Since a particularly rough fire season in 1910, the US Forest Service and the agencies that work with it have essentially tried to put out every wildland fire that erupts. They succeed with almost all of them … but the fires that get away can turn into deadly, massive conflagrations. Meanwhile, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have regularly blown through their suppression budgets for 15 years in a row. In 1998, the Feds spent about $428 million (corrected for inflation) on fire suppression, and 1.3 million acres burned; in 2018 they spent almost $3 billion, and 10 million acres burned. It’s untenable.
And everyone knows it. The newest Federal budget lets the various forest-related agencies pull other money in to deal with suppression. Fire scientists mostly agree that so-called active fuel management—setting controlled fires or cutting down small trees and clearing out undergrowth—is the way of the future.
In a desiccated landscape, in times of high heat and winds, fires can use undergrowth and small trees as “ladder fuel,” burning up into the crowns of trees. Crown fires move faster and are more devastating to nature and structures alike. But remove some of that ladder fuel, and fires move more slowly, burn out sooner, and leave old, tall trees alive. (Sometimes that’s even a necessary part of their lifecycle.) When a fire bumps into an area that’s already had a controlled burn, it stops—no fuel. Taken together, those kinds of active management mean forest services no longer have to fight every single fire, and when they do, the fires are easier to direct away from human-built structures like houses.
To be clear, though, management isn’t about saving houses. “Fuel treatment and fire management are designed for changing fire behavior and fire effects on natural resources,” says Mark Finney, a research forester with the US Forest Service. “It can also change fire movement and thus risk to external assets. But the main purpose is to change fire behavior for land management.”
Done right, it can cost quite a bit of money. Management by prescribed fire costs anywhere between $10 and $250 an acre. According to the Forest Service’s National Fuels Program Manager, mechanical thinning—people with saws—can cost up to $2,000 an acre. Other analyses say it can go over $3,000 per acre.
The Federal government owns 640 million acres of land; the states own land, too. The chief of the US Forest Service often says in speeches that 80 million acres of the land his agency alone is responsible for is at risk of disease, insect infestation, or wildfire—all things that management helps to mitigate. At $3,000 an acre, that’s some ugly math.
But so is the math of fire. Just this summer the Carr and Mendocino fires in Northern California alone cost $854 million in losses and killed nine people. California incurred $17 billion in damages from fire last year and has more than 2 million homes exposed to fire danger, most in the so-called wildland urban interface where human habitation rubs up against nature. That’s just one state.
Excluding the cost of the actual timber itself, wildland fires in the US cost anywhere from $500 to $1,500 per hectare, says Jeff Prestemon, a research forester who studies the economics of fire for the US Forest Service. That’s about $1,200 to $3,700 an acre. His model includes property and other resources, like an index of scenic beauty. “We assessed the values of products that could be sold among those trees that could be cut down in the process of doing the treatment,” Prestemon says. “Sometimes those materials don’t have a market value. You may cut down a tree, but if there’s no mill nearby to buy the logs, that’s just a cost.”
(There’s that value thing again. If trees aren’t close to roads and mills, they can cost too much to harvest.)
“If you were to allow for sales—sell everything you could from these treatments in places where you could get a sale—then you could treat up to about 25 percent of the timberland in national forests in the Western US,” Prestemon says. “If you didn’t allow for those kinds of sales … the amount of timberland would be about 1 percent.”
Now, his math might actually be conservative. Prestemon took into account health consequences of smoke in the immediate vicinity of a fire, but didn’t look at long-term public health consequences of more particulates in the atmosphere. More recent research puts that number at around $20 billion a year in the US. Add that in and the per-acre cost of fires goes up, which means more financial justification for fuel management.
The basic idea, though, is that if you do manage, you save money on fire damage and also on fighting fires later, because you won’t have to. “That is one of the ideas of trying to get some of these forests back to this more fire-adapted condition,” Prestemon says. “When fires burn through, they won’t be as catastrophic, and they’ll be easier to steer away from buildings and other important features of the landscape.”
Some environmental advocates worry that all this could just become cover for the timber industry to move into untrammeled land and cut down old-growth trees. The business (perhaps predictably, if you’re of a cynical mindset) denies that this would be the way things would go. And it's true that the federal deal to get more money for fire suppression also had some easing up on the regulations on the timber industry. “The forest industry, to some extent, does removal with a board-feet type mindset,” says George Geissler, president of the National Association of State Foresters. “But even on industrial lands, there is such a thing as a pre-commercial thinning operation. Even industry spends money on lands to make sure they’re healthy in the long term.”
It’s true, Geissler says, that the kind of material that gets removed during active management—small-diameter, young trees and shrubby stuff—doesn’t really have a market, which means no value in the capitalist sense. “That’s where a lot of research is going—how do you use small-diameter things instead of having to put money out every time you do something to grow these trees?” Geissler says. But even before they figure that out, he insists, foresters are already more sophisticated than the old clear-cut days. They can avoid trees marked for preservation, protect watersheds, follow the rules of the Endangered Species Act, and still manage a forest for fire. “It’s not like it was 100 years ago, when it was cut out and get out,” Geissler says.
Managing all those relationships and financial interests, among industry and policymakers and environmentalists, is supposed to be built into a new plan from the Forest Service, released in August. It advocates for going state-by-state to respond to different local priorities and needs and accommodate management of public and private land alike.
The real sticking point may be the various kinds of that land. Different parts of North America have different kinds of forests. In the South, Prestemon says, 86 percent of wildland is privately owned. Typically that means it’s closer to roads and mills. And prescribed burning is more rare in the American West, where there are fewer cooler, wetter days when burning is safer, and the terrain is more mountainous. As Prestemon acknowledges, his model only looked at forest land—not chaparral or grasslands. “If you’re not in the Southeast, or the west side of Oregon and Washington, you’re going to pay through the nose to do this,” Stahl says. “It’s only where timber grows fast, is close to markets, and is easily accessible and close to roads that it’s worth doing. But that’s not where we have the fire problem. We have the fire problem in Santa Rosa, and Redding, and Southern California, where not only is the wood worthless but there isn’t even any wood. It’s chaparral, it’s grass, it’s invasive species. It’s not forest.”
So it seems unlikely that a broad philosophical change in how policymakers and scientists think about fire, coupled with a massive human intervention in America’s not-so wild lands, is going to pay for itself. Despite Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s assertion that climate change isn’t the problem—that environmental terrorist groups were standing between 129 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevada and massive profits that also fight fires—this problem increasingly looks like one that will require the application of cash.
Which leaves only one thing certain: Someone is going to have to pay, or megafires will keep burning until there is nothing left for them to burn.