This has been the worst year in recorded history for wildfires in the United States, and the vast majority of over 9.5 million acres burned so far has occurred in the American West. Huge sections of states were closed by fire, smoke clogged the air in cities and national forests, monuments, parks and wilderness areas were shut off to visitors. Whole communities were evacuated and some completely lost.
The economic toll of these fires is in the billions of dollars but is outpaced by the unfathomable human toll from lives and livelihoods lost.
Increasing temperatures and prolonged droughts mean we can expect more intense wildfires in the future, which means we urgently need a Marshall-like plan for our forests that involves public land agencies, private landowners and our nation’s young people.
This plan starts with educating the public on the beneficial and necessary role fire plays in forest and ecosystem health, and continues with changing our policies on prescribed burning.
The West’s ecological history has long involved forest fires. Plant and animal species from aspen and conifer trees to elk and deer depend on fires to introduce new growth opportunities and provide nutrient-rich habitats. We should be working with public schools, communities and public land agencies to ensure that the critical role fire plays in forest health is better understood, including how proactive prescribed fires and other mitigation measures cost much less — and aren’t as destructive — than the billions of dollars spent every year fighting uncontrolled fires and rebuilding communities.
For motivation, we can take lessons from outside the United States. The cessation of traditional prescribed burning in the moorlands in England and the forests of Australia has led to catastrophic raging infernos over fuel-laden ecosystems. In Australia, the 2020 wildfires were declared the worst wildlife disasters in modern history in a report from the World Wild Fund for Nature.
To that end, we need to be proactive, working in tandem with forestry companies, private landowners, public land managers, air quality agencies, and policymakers to restore our forests by removing excess trees, including those that have died due to disease or insect infestation, and implementing more prescribed burns on public and private land, starting in high-priority areas such as wildland urban interfaces (WUIs). Focusing on WUIs first will ensure wildfires are less likely to reach homes and businesses — and if they do, will burn slower and cooler. If we can protect our communities with buffer zones, then we can spend less time and resources fighting dangerous fires, focusing instead on promoting forest health.
At the same time, we need to build a forest health workforce to truly get ahead of the threat of catastrophic fire to homes, businesses, and sensitive wildlife habitat. We both have experience working with local conservation corps in the West that are tasked with restoring forests, repairing riparian areas and building trails on our public lands. Two corps we know well — Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and Forest Stewards Guild in northern New Mexico — are doing herculean work in the Rio Grande River watershed restoring the Carson, Cibola and Santa Fe national forests, among others, to protect communities and protect water quality. Unfortunately, federal funding for forest restoration work through the conservation corps is far too low for the scale of the work that needs to be done.
Imagine that instead of employing a few thousand young Americans across the West, our conservation corps employed ten thousand or more. Imagine those young people guided by an action plan and partner organizations with the shared goal of protecting communities and improving forests. This action could be based on and built out through the Corps’ successful and existing programs across the West.
Such a jobs program would soften the economic impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on mountain communities and rural areas near our forests. The experience that America’s youth would gain by working in the corps can lead to careers in forest health, outdoor recreation and rangeland management.
These forest restoration strategies are not new ideas — in fact some of them mimic those used by Native Americans long before there was a United States. But we know they will make a huge difference to our forests, health and economy. We need both the public and political will to do it. We think the incoming Biden administration is dedicated to work on forest health issues, but this is just one more item on a crowded and urgent agenda.
As a private landowner and a public official, we both are committed to helping the administration and Congress find ways to protect Western communities from dangerous wildfires while putting young people to work in our forests. The future of our land, our communities and our people depend on it.
Martin Heinrich represents New Mexico in the United States Senate. Conservation philanthropist Louis Bacon is the chief executive of Moore Capital Management and founder and chairman of The Moore Charitable Foundation.