Neguse: Feds should give states more say in burn bans on U.S. lands

Geronimo Interagency Hotshot Crew on assignment at the Big Windy Complex Wildlands Fire outside of Galice, Oregon, 2013. (USDA Photo by Lance Cheung)
Geronimo Interagency Hotshot Crew on assignment at the Big Windy Complex Wildlands Fire outside of Galice, Oregon, 2013. (USDA Photo by Lance Cheung)

WASHINGTON — Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse has urged the U.S. government to give states more power to ban burning on federal land in an effort to mitigate wildfires, which have become dramatically more destructive in recent years.

The bans could apply to everything from cigarette smoking and campfires to controlled burns.

During a U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands hearing on Thursday, Neguse pointed out that Colorado state officials are currently unable to ban burning on federally protected lands. That power ultimately rests in the hands of Congress, although Congress can direct that certain activities be managed by states. 

Patti Hirami, U.S. Forest Service acting deputy chief of state and private forestry, said at the hearing her agency would “absolutely be open” to negotiations about giving states more say in burn bans.

Federal burn bans are implemented locally by administrators, such as national park superintendents, who try to “collaborate” with states, said Tina Boehle with the National Interagency Fire Center. Although the states are not the sole decision makers, they are involved in the process, she said.

Neguse’s point was that local communities should be allowed to “move forward with banning fire at an earlier stage.” He also questioned whether the Forest Service provides enough prevention education when nine in 10 forest fires are caused by humans.

Wildfire costs are “staggering” and statistics “sobering,” said Neguse, a Democrat who represents the 2nd District. 

Federal firefighting costs totaled more than $3 billion last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center — an increase of more than 80% percent from five years earlier.

Wildfires in 2018 consumed more than 8.7 million acres, according to the NIFC. But Hirami said more than 80 million acres are at risk for “uncharacteristically severe” burning.

“Wildfires today kill more people, destroy more property and cost more to fight than ever before,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group that focuses on western land management.

One reason for the rising costs is an increasing number of homes to defend, he said.

Rasker proposed regulating flammable vegetation, encouraging wildfire-resistant construction materials and incentivizing fire-aware subdivision design, actions he said could be carried out by local governments.

But several lawmakers and witnesses also noted that the decline in timber harvesting may be a contributing factor. Harvesting, a practice condemned by some environmental groups such as Greenpeace, is listed by forestry management organizations as crucial for fire prevention.

“Excess timber will come out of the forest one way or another,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.). “Nature’s way of managing untended forests is pretty rude.”

Marko Bey, who directs a nonprofit forest and watershed restoration project in Oregon and California, advocated for a “middle way” approach to wildfire prevention. He recommended commercial tree thinning and use of controlled fire to avoid the homogenous landscapes he said are most conducive to wildfires.

“This may be the most salient thing I’ve ever heard a witness say,” Rep. Bruce Westerman  (R-Ark.) said of Bey’s remarks, adding that he agreed with “95% percent or more” of the witnesses, all but one selected by Democrats.

“The forest doesn’t care about what policy we make,” he said. “They continue to grow.”