October 6, 2020

Wildfires are once again sweeping through America’s West, and some politicians, pundits, and activists are putting the blame on climate change. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for one, has placed the blame for his state’s situation squarely on climate change, claiming that “This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it’s happening.”

But as a new report out today from the Goldwater Institute and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy finds, there is more to the story—and understanding what’s behind these wildfires is essential to get this problem under control.

Whether you believe climate change plays no role, a minor role, or a major role in fueling fires in the American West, there’s simply no escaping the fact that proper forest management would help to reduce both the number and intensity of these wildfires. That’s the subject of the new report Extinguishing the Wildfire Threat: Lessons from Arizona by Mackinac Center Director of Environmental Policy Jason Hayes: In his report, Hayes reflects on the historical, political, and policy reasons our nation’s publicly managed forests are plagued by large, dangerous wildfires—and how active forest restoration programs can make a positive difference.

Over the past few decades, well-meaning but ultimately mistaken policies have sought to “protect” forests and public lands by restricting all but the simplest human uses, like limited outdoor recreation. But shutting off our forests and public lands encourages them to become dangerously overgrown and prone to fires—and now, the West Coast is paying the price.

And Arizona is among the states facing an uphill battle when it comes to wildfires, Hayes writes. Overmature, dense, diseased, and fire-prone stands of Ponderosa Pine are pervasive throughout Northern Arizona and in several national forests. These unhealthy forests pose a significant risk to human health and property, as well as the environment. “As of mid-September 2020, more than 564,000 acres of land across Arizona had been affected by wildfire this year,” Hayes said. “It’s more than evident that Arizona has a clear and present need for active forest management and forest restoration.”

Fortunately, as the report illustrates, Arizona has made significant strides in this space thanks to its Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). This initiative demonstrates one of the key elements to successful forest management: collaboration. It’s been succeeding in Arizona, because it relies on the input of diverse coalition of stakeholders—government agencies, private industry, community groups, nongovernmental organizations, Native groups, and others—whose involvement can ensure that competing concerns are addressed and can help build public support for needed forest management efforts.

“Collaborative management is key to improving forest health, reducing wildfire risk, and improving business conditions that could bring back Arizona’s forest industry,” Hayes said. “The 4FRI effort is a good example of how collaboration with stakeholder groups can encourage forest restoration—and Arizona should continue to build on this important work to build healthier forests.”

Read the full report here.

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