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Q&A with Dean Lueck on Wildfire Policy and Suppression

This week’s installment in our Q&A series hits close to home. As we write, a 10,000-acre wildfire burns less than twenty miles from our office in Bozeman, Montana, a humbling reminder of the reality of large and destructive wildfires in the west.

Dean Lueck knows wildfires better than most. Before becoming an economist he was a smokejumper with the U.S. Forest Service in McCall, Idaho. Recently, Lueck combined his hands-on experience fighting fires with his impressive academic career studying property rights and natural resource economics. The result was Wildfire Policy: Law and Economics Perspectives, a volume he co-edited with Karen Bradshaw. This summer, Lueck is continuing his research on wildfire policy at PERC, along with Jonathan Yoder, as a 2012 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow.

Q: Can you highlight a few examples of major wildfires and what efforts were taken toward suppression?

A: First, there is the famous 1910 “Big Burn” in northern Idaho and western Montana. That fire, or actually a collection of fires, burned about 3 million acres, killed over 80 people, and devastated the town of Wallace, Idaho. It was fought in a disorganized manner by unskilled firefighters including convicts, vagrants, U.S. Army soldiers, timber land owners with only hand tools. Because the fire took place predominantly on national forest lands, it led to dramatic changes in federal fire policy. Also during the period between 1880-1920, there were many fires as large or larger than the Great 1910 Burn. Many of these took place in the northeast and the Great Lakes region where private timber land dominated.

In general organized wildfire suppression efforts were very limited prior to 1900 and efforts focused primarily on protecting homes, buildings, and towns, but not on putting out the fire itself. By the late 20th century fire suppression had become organized within a large centralized, coordinated and hierarchical system heavily dominated by the U.S. Forest Service. Crews had become specialized and highly mobile. The use of aircraft in transport and direct suppression with water and retardant had become routine.

More recently, the Biscuit Fire in Oregon burned nearly a half a million acres in 2002. It began on July 13, and at its zenith on July 31 there were over 2,000 firefighting personnel, 21 helicopters and 40 bulldozers assigned to the fire. The fire was not completely suppressed until December and cost more than $150 million. The fire destroyed four homes and ten other structures, forced the evacuation of 15,000 people, and destroyed or damaged thousands of acres of valuable timber. No one was killed during the suppression effort.

By contrast consider the Black Dragon Fire in 1987, which burned 18 million acres along the Amur River, which is the border between China and Russia. The fire started in China and burned 3 million acres there. The Chinese fielded over 60,000 unskilled fire fighters and hundreds died. The Russians did essentially nothing to suppress the fire, and it grew an additional 15 million acres. The disparate approaches resulted from a lack of cooperation between Russia and China and extreme differences in the relative value of timber in the two countries.

Since 1999 there have been 134 fires of more than 100,000 acres in the United States. For the last 10 years, average annual federal suppression expenditures have been over $1 billion.

Q: What does your project (with Jonathan Yoder) seek to add to the economics of wildfire policy?

A: The main goal of our project is to gain an economic understanding of the organization of wildfire suppression. Fire suppression organization today seems complex, administratively cumbersome, and often inefficient. We want to understand the causes and consequences of the current system both theoretically and empirically. We want to understand the economic foundations that have driven how fire suppression institutions developed into those that we see today, and understand how they vary across environmental, demographic, and political jurisdictions. We will then have a better foundation for understanding where inefficiencies lie, and how suppression institutions might be improved.

So, for example, we are examining the emergence of wildfire suppression among timber landowners in the northwestern and northeastern United States during the late 1800s. These private organizations pre-date the Forest Service fire crews, and this type of timberland owner association, to our knowledge, is pre-dated only by urban firefighting organizations. The federal government’s involvement in fire suppression emerged with the accumulation of federal forest lands and even stimulated expansion of the national forest system.

Q: What are some of the criticisms of modern wildfire institutions? Do the resource values justify the suppression costs?

A: Many critical observers feel there is an excessive amount of suppression and too little fuel management or prescribed burning, especially on federal lands. There is also the concern that suppression costs may often outweigh benefits (damage reduction). We certainly know of specific cases in which suppression costs exceeded the resource value at risk. There is also a concern that suppression effectiveness is often low so that suppression expenditures have little payoff. At the same time there is strong political pressure to put out all fires so there has been a recent reversion back to the so-called “10am rule” in which fire crews and land managers are directed to put all effort into suppression even where suppression costs would be high relative to potential damages. The long-term effects of continued fire suppression are also likely to lead to fuel buildups that can result in larger, more devastating fires in the future.  [Read more…]

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Lessons From the Old West: Don’t Ban It, Brand It


Last Saturday was roundup and branding day at my ranch in the Madison River Valley, about 20 miles west of Bozeman. Neighbors came to help and I put the P J (my registered brand) on the left side of my calves. As I carefully placed the irons on each calf (yes, they are hot, and yes, there is short term pain but it seems to subside quickly) I was reminded of why branding came to work so well in the West.

In the old West a statewide registration of brands developed rapidly. Often a brand registration system was one of the first pieces of legislation a territory would pass (for more details, see Anderson and Hill’s The Not So Wild, Wild West). Those registrations continue today. You can go to the Montana Brand Registry and find that if a cow has a P on the left rib and a J on the left hip, that cow belongs to the P J Ranch. Or, a PJ on the left shoulder of a horse establishes my clear claim to that horse. I can issue you a bill of sale if you buy one of my horses or cows, and that serves a proof of a legitimate transfer of rights.

This system works well for the people in white hats, my neighbors who want to know who a stray belongs to, and against those in black hats, the rustlers who might want to steal my livestock. The state maintains the registration and enforces ownership claims. And I can use the existing court system to enforce my property rights.

Branding cattle and horses carries important lessons for environmental problems, namely that we should move towards greater branding of transitory resources, particularly air and water. This would help both the white hats, people who behave responsibly, and constrain the black hats, the villains that dump their waste on other people’s property. PERC has outlined how this can be done with marine fisherieswater markets, and other resources, but, unfortunately, environmental regulations have focused more on command and control than on lowering the costs of measuring and monitoring pollution. If only a fraction of the money that is spent on formulating, enforcing, and complying with environmental regulations was devoted to developing branding technology we would be much better off.

Atrazine is a common chemical used to control broad leaf weeds. Its widespread application in the Midwest has caused concern over its presence in drinking water. Should atrazine be banned, as it has been in most of Europe? Used correctly, atrazine is a cheap way of lowering the cost of food production. Instead of banning it, why not brand it? One could require every user to of atrazine to have, at the time of purchase, a particular tracer placed in his or her container of pesticide. A registration of users would be maintained by the state. Then if levels of atrazine in drinking water exceed a specified level, those harmed (and proof of harm is an important part of common law remedies) could take those responsible to court.

Of course the use of tracers must be coupled with a common-sense understanding that “the dose makes the poison.” We now have the ability to measure extremely minute amounts of potentially harmful chemicals in our air and water. The fact that atrazine may be measured in ground water doesn’t necessarily mean harm has been done. If one of my cows sticks her head through the fence and eats a mouthful of grass, I may owe my neighbor a couple of pennies. But my neighbor shouldn’t be able to shut down my entire ranching operation.

Notice that branding doesn’t remove the state from the scene, but instead focuses its coercive power on the definition and enforcement of property rights, which penalizes those who act irresponsibly and rewards those who don’t infringe on the property rights of others. Having my cattle branded reduces the transaction costs of running a responsible ranching operation. Branding pesticides and herbicides would have the same positive effect on environmental quality.