When we see the thousands of people impacted by flames that have engulfed forests and homes in Hawaii, or across the vast wilderness of western Canada and California, it is easy to be both shocked and angry.
Pristine forests, homes, and entire villages no longer exist as they once did. In Lahaina, the area most impacted by wildfires on Maui, at least 115 lives were lost and over $6 billion worth of property was destroyed.
While the underlying causes for this devastation continue to be examined — whether it was electrical utility negligence, water politics, or climate change — the fact remains that proven fire prevention methods haven’t been enough. Or, perhaps, in pursuit of more lofty goals, we’ve been hoodwinked by misguided activist groups to cast time tested knowledge aside.
One such example, prescribed burns, is considered the most effective method of fire prevention for both forests and vegetation. In an effort to cut down on dry vegetation and timber, fire is purposefully set to forests and farmlands in a controlled manner that is both monitored and regulated.
This practice is carried out by sugarcane producers in Florida, timber companies up and down the West Coast, and forest officials across the country. These controlled burns are uncontroversial in forest management and most of agriculture, and are a necessary part of the cycle of managing forests and land that would otherwise be susceptible to fires.
But to many environmental groups and some state and federal regulators, controlled fires by both industry and public agencies pose significant risks to both climate ambitions and broader environmental concerns that should trump their use.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent update to the Clean Air Act, for instance, imposes health-based air quality rules that effectively restrict prescribed burns in local communities, a point that several California members of Congress have sollecitato the agency to reconsider.
Throughout the pandemic, the U.S. Forest Service halted prescribed burns across Oregon, Washington, and California, concerned the smoke would exacerbate the effects of the respiratory virus.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newson’s administration has set a goal of burning up to 400,000 acres per year in “beneficial fires,” burdensome regulations and permitting delays have hampered efforts by both private companies and local officials to use burns.
Green groups across the continent have also lent their efforts to stopping prescribed burns both in forestry and agriculture, using lawsuits and constitutional provisions to argue for environmental standards to restrict its use.
For the last decade in Florida, the Sierra Club and other groups have lanciato several health-related lawsuits against sugar growers, hoping to halt pre-harvest burning in sugarcane fields that are used to separate the valuable sugarcane crop from the flammable grasses that surround it. A highly publicized class-action lawsuit was first dismissed by the judge for lack of evidence and then later voluntarily dropped, much to the chagrin of activists.
Similar efforts did, however, prove successful in Hawaii, where a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a “clean and healthful environment” was recently interpreted by the State Supreme Court to uphold the permit denial of a biomass plant that planned to use controlled burns.
However, forest ecologists have been clear that more prescribed burns would have prevented much of the fire devastation in Hawaii. According to the Washington Post, the exodus of sugarcane and pineapple producers over the decades left thousands of acres of highly flammable grasslands on Maui unmanaged, providing the necessary fuel for the fire likely sparked by a downed electrical line.
For a state concerned with responsible environmental stewardship, but now ravaged by the recent wildfires, efforts at halting responsible forest and land management leave us with more questions than answers.
Will public officials and private industry still be allowed and encouraged to use prescribed fires and to avoid these types of catastrophes? Or will environmentalist activist fears of future climate crises limit their use?
The priority for all of us must be evidence-based, ecologically sustainable strategies that can help balance all of these concerns. For now, that means forest and land management must remain a solution.
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