Private Ownership is Key – Forest Fire Illustration

Why do national forests burn, but private forests don’t? Something like that was the title of an op-ed I read some years ago (but cannot now find) when the west was suffering a terrible forest fire season. The author, probably Terry Anderson or one of the other fine scholars at PERC, explained that in private forests there is less fuel—dead branches, fallen trees, and dry undergrowth—to feed the fires than in government-owned forests. This means that when, say, lightning strikes in a private forest, a fire is less likely to start, and if it does, it does not burn as hot or as far. (Here is a link to some of PERC’s work on forest fires and forest management.)

Why is there less dangerous fuel in privately owned forests? Because private owners clear it out. They don’t want to see their property go up in smoke.

I was reminded of the point last month, when I saw in person some of the vast private forests of the southeast. Sure enough, there was little to burn there but the live trees.

My wife and I were in Georgia on a family matter, and our business took us back and forth several times over the twenty-seven miles between Abbeville and North Cordele.  I was fascinated by the forests—vast tree farms—through which the road passed. There were stands of tall trees, stands of middle-height trees, and fields of little trees just beginning to grow up, all planted in straight rows a few yards apart.  (Based on a quick Internet search, I believe they are longleaf pines.) Most striking to me was that as we drove by the thick, tall-grown forests, I could look down the seemingly endless dark-green corridors between the rows for hundreds of yards. There was nothing to obstruct my view: no dead branches left on the trees, no branches on the ground, no fallen trees for row after row after row. All the dead wood had evidently been cleared out.

Ah-ha! I thought: less fuel for forest fires. That’s what the op-ed I had read long ago was talking about.

Would it were so in the great National Forests of the west! But the National Forests have no private owners with both the incentive and the authority to clear away dead wood, remove brush, or do controlled burns.

Again, ownership matters.

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