Saturday, August 25, 2012
Megafires, incentives and the inactivity bias
One of the recurring themes of my conversations with Joseph is this country's growing disinterest, bordering on antipathy, in getting things done. (If you think I'm bad, you ought to get him started.) From building a badly needed piece of infrastructure to addressing global warming, we seem to focus most of our energy on finding reasons for inactivity.
NPR's excellent series on wildfires has a good example. If you weigh the costs and risks of prescribed burns against the costs and risks of letting current trends continue, the case for action is overwhelming, but we continued to let the situation get worse.
Add climate change to the mix (another situation we've shown lots of interest in discussing and little in solving), and we may have reached the point where there are no good solutions, only less terrible ones.
I remark just how lush his forest is, how the Ponderosa pines almost reach out and touch one another. He doesn't take it as a compliment. "They're a plague," he says. "On this forest, it's averaging about 900 trees per acre. Historically it was probably about 40. Here in the national forest, what we're facing is a tree epidemic."
Armstrong has rubbed some people the wrong way with talk like that. But he says forest this dense is dangerous. "We're standing here on the edge of what is known as the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed," he explains. "Imagine a huge bathtub" — a natural bathtub sitting in the mountains around Santa Fe. When it rains, the water flows down into reservoirs. That's where the state capital gets most of its water.
Trees help slow down the flow, but big wildfires take out the trees. They even burn the soils. "They convert from something that's like a sponge to Saran Wrap," Armstrong says. "In the aftermath of a wildfire within this watershed, that would flood like the Rio Grande, for heaven's sakes; that would come down a wall of water, and debris and ash and tree trunks, and create devastation in downtown Santa Fe. Suddenly, they find that the entire mountain is in their backyard."
Armstrong supports trimming smaller trees with machines and chain saws. But that costs hundreds of dollars per acre. The service now lets some natural fires — ones started by lightning, for example — burn within prescribed limits. Or they start "prescribed" burns when conditions are safe. These clear out smaller trees and undergrowth to keep them from fueling megafires. Armstrong has done that here.
But people didn't like the smoke, and when an intentional fire gets out of control, people sue. And there's been widespread drought in recent years. These are some of the reasons the Forest Service has reduced the use of prescribed fires.