The Idaho Legislature is currently considering Senate Bill 1338, which would allow counties to declare a public nuisance those neglected federal lands that pose a fire risk, and request abatement from the relevant federal agencies.
Let’s consider the context. In 2015, about 742,000 acres burned in Idaho. The Idaho Department of Lands spent more than $78 million on fire suppression for state lands. This was more than double the amount spent in any of the last 10 years. 2015 was also the worst wildland fire season in the U.S. in at least 55 years. Over 10 million acres burned.
The increase in acres burned and containment cost is an enormous issue in Idaho and throughout the west. The 2015 total agency cost in Idaho alone for the USFS, BLM, and the Idaho Department of Lands was $304 million. About 20 percent of that was for fire preparedness and the balance was for fire suppression.
One of the most repeated arguments for not transferring federal lands to Idaho is the fire-fighting costs. However, let’s keep in mind that fire-fighting costs are a reflection of insufficient management, particularly on federal lands. What does active management mean? Quite simply, thinning, logging and other treatments designed to reduce fuel load. Active management by the feds is not happening sufficiently. The volume of timber harvested on USFS lands in Idaho is down over 90 percent from its peak in the 1970’s. More timber density equates to more fuel for larger, hotter, and more destructive fires.
Opponents of Senate Bill 1338 offer spurious and often conflicting reasons for opposing it. We are told that the real goal is to seize and sell off public lands. Or, the legislation is not needed because county commissioners can already declare any neglected public land a nuisance. Finally, we are told, the legislation has no teeth because the federal government can rebuff requests for abatement.
What are we to make of all this? Perhaps my view is simplistic, but I believe the opposition is terrified of having counties publicly call for fire abatement only to be given the brush off – and then a catastrophe happens. Communities are destroyed, private homes are burned, scores of animals killed, and the air fowled.
Of the roughly 20 million USFS acres in Idaho, about 12.6 million of those forested acres are managed (not wilderness). 8.8 million acres of those managed forests face a high degree of mortality risk. Stated another way, about 70 percent of USFS lands in the state, or 16 percent of Idaho’s land mass, is a tinder box.
Those who support federal ownership of public lands should insist that federal agencies actively manage those lands. Further, they should advocate holding federal agencies accountable for their failure to reduce wildfire risks in Idaho.