Unintended Consequences

When the U.S. Forest Service decided on its fire-fighting policy early in the 20th century, the goal was to protect a valuable resource. Today, managers realize that interrupting natural fire cycles has, ironically, created unprecedented hazards.

“A fire of 5,000 acres was considered large in drier forest regions 25 years ago. The massive 2002 Biscuit Fire – at nearly a half-million acres – entered the record books as the state's largest fire since the 19th century and was the nation's most expensive fire suppression effort of the year.”

Nearly 40% of Oregon's forests are at high risk of an uncharacteristically intense fire. Another 45% are at moderate risk. In the drier parts of the state where fire cycles are more frequent and have been suppressed for decades, the fuel load of shrubs and small trees has leveraged risk dramatically.

Across the West, the unintended consequence of a century-old management strategy is beginning to express itself in fires that can no longer be readily suppressed despite the people, technologies and resources available.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service just completed a status review of spotted owls, from 1994 to the present... They found that spotted owl critical habitat has declined more than 3% in that decade because of habitat loss from uncharacteristic wildfire – this forest health problem... How do we go reduce the risk to those owls...?”

Mealy Lecture Series

  • "Risk Assessment For Environmental Laws", Steve Mealey contends that environmental harm can sometimes result not only from certain activities, but from certain "protections" and "failures to act," as well.


« Back to Trends and Issues