Experts Weigh In On Biden Administration's $50B Wildfire Crisis Plan
EL DORADO COUNTY (CBS13) -- A $50 billion plan to more than double the use of controlled fires and mechanical thinning to reduce trees and other vegetation that may cause fire was announced this week by the Biden Administration, but the breakdown of how it will be funded over 10 years has some experts left with more questions than answers.
The plan is called, "Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A New Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America's Forests," and it outlines goals for the Forest Service and its partners to expand efforts to prevent the catastrophic wildfires that have devastated areas in the Western U.S. through aggressive forest thinning around "hot spots", especially in areas near homes and communities.
The Associated Press reports the plan's $50 billion price tag breaks down to an estimated $20 billion over 10 years for work on national forests and $30 billion for work on other federal, state, tribal and private lands, according to a spokesperson for Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack, Kate Waters.
"It's just reality that it is expensive to do this work," said Robert York, Assistant Cooperative Extension Specialist and Adjunct Associate Professor of Forestry at UC Berkeley.
On Thursday, two days after the Biden Administration announced plans to address the "wildfire crisis in the west," CBS13 met York at the Blodgett Forest Research Station at Berkeley Forests. It was sunny, but there was snow on the ground. On the 4,000 acres of property managed by the research center, where prescribed burns happen often, the conditions weren't right, yet.
York demonstrated the tools he would use on a day where conditions would allow a prescribed burn. York has researched fire management techniques for more than two decades, he knows how to use tools like fuel moisture sticks and a drop torch for safe burns.
Alone, he said, he could run a prescribed burn -- in the right conditions -- on one acre per hour. The example demonstrates that the larger the burn area, or more complex the conditions, the more trained personnel it would take to safely manage the area.
"It could've cost $2,000 an acre to do that initial treatment, now, to do a prescribed fire because we've managed it in the past, it's much more affordable," said York.
He uses the Blodgett Forest Research Station as an example of what it takes to get land "back on track" when it comes to management. Now, he said, it costs around $200 to do the same work, with regular maintenance.
This example provides insight into the price tag on the Forest Service's 10-year plan.
"There's a lot of acreage in the west that the federal government owns that they haven't really managed appropriately, and so, getting out of that hole is going to cost a lot of money," said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program and Senior Research Scholar at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.
Wara said the projected 10-year goals outlined in the 25-page plan is "heartening" because it's a sign, to him, that the U.S. Forest Service recognizes the crisis that the western U.S. faces when it comes to wildfires.
Partnerships between private, state, tribal and other landowners must also extend to partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service. At the Blodgett Forest Research Center, the property lines are marked by the center's prescribed burns that allow room between trees and vegetation. Within the same view on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service, trees and vegetation are denser because it has not been managed in the same way.
The U.S. Forest Service addressed the "paradigm shift in land management" and the change of focus on how the U.S. will approach wildland fire management.
"It doesn't directly address the fact that there's not enough money being spent by the federal government to actually accomplish the goals that it's setting for itself," said Wara.
Wara said the $50-billion cost is "closer" to what the goals outlined will likely cost to accomplish, but still has questions about the real ways the Forest Service plans to pay to accomplish the outlined goals.
"In the end, it reflects the value we're putting in the forest, we have to invest in the forest to save them," said York.
Vice President Kamala Harris will speak in San Bernardino, California on Friday with a focus on wildfire prevention.
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