Presidential order sets goals for fuel reduction

The Executive Order also addresses the use of drones and increases timber harvesting by 37 percent.

prescribed fire Custer State Park
Firefighters ignite the Norbeck prescribed fire in Custer State Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

With the devastating wildfires in California this summer and the visits by President Trump to the Camp and Woolsey Fires, firefighting and forest management were brought into the national conversation. Mr. Trump showed an interest in the fire siege, criticizing forest management, suggesting rakes as one of the solutions, and threatening on multiple occasions to cut unspecified funding allocated to California.

The magnified interest seen in Washington may have been the impetus for the *Executive Order (EO) signed by Mr. Trump on December 21. The document requires emphasis in a number of areas related to wildland fire, some of which have specific goals. The stated rationale for the EO is identified:

For decades, dense trees and undergrowth have amassed in these lands, fueling catastrophic wildfires. These conditions, along with insect infestation, invasive species, disease, and drought, have weakened our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands, and have placed communities and homes at risk of damage from catastrophic wildfires.

With the same vigor and commitment that characterizes our efforts to fight wildfires, we must actively manage our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands to improve conditions and reduce wildfire risk.

Both Mr. Trump and his Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, who also showed up before cameras at fire scenes this summer, denied that climate change is one of the factors affecting the increase in wildfire activity in recent decades.

“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in an interview after visiting the Carr Fire at Redding, California.
climate assessment wildfires increase
The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. Source: adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016.

The EO lists a number of areas with specific goals or directives.

FUEL REDUCTION. The four Department of the Interior land management agencies now have an objective in 2019 of treating a total of 750,000 acres to reduce fuel loads. The objective for the Forest Service is 3,500,000 acres. As of December 8, 2018, according to the National Situation Report, the year-to-date accomplishments for acres treated with prescribed fire were 525,659 and 1,307,389, respectively. Presumably, mechanically or herbicide-treated acres were not included in those 2018 figures. The goals appear to be substantially higher than what has been done this year. However, as direction from on high moves the goal posts, federal agencies can sometimes initiate creative methods to keep everyone happy. For example, recently the Forest Service has started “counting” wildland fire acres where light to moderate wildfires have caused vegetation to improve what used to be called “fire condition class”. These then become “treated acres”. In addition, some timber sales are now being counted. So, magic, presto, poof! The number of acres “treated” adds up more quickly than they used to. A person with extensive D.C. experience told us that they expect the land management agencies are not worried about meeting the fuel treatment goals laid out in the EO.

prescribed fire acres accomplished 2018
Prescribed fire data from the December 8, 2018 National Situation Report.

LOGGING. Calling it “health treatments”, the FS has a goal of selling 3.8 billion board feet of timber in 2019, while the DOI’s goal is 600 million. This total of 4.4 billion board feet is a significant 37 percent increase over the 3.2 billion board feet removed from those agencies’ lands in 2017, according to the Sacramento Bee. The EO also requires the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to identify salvage and log recovery options from lands “damaged” by fire, insects, and disease in 2017 and 2018. Many people say that logging is not the answer to the wildfire problem, and that areas visited by fire are not necessarily “damaged”. While some rehabilitation is often required, burned areas don’t always have to be fixed or logged.

NATIVE AND INVASIVE SPECIES. Both the FS and the DOI have goals of treating 750,000 acres.

UNMANNED AERIAL SYSTEMS. The Secretaries are ordered to maximize the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, in forest management and in support of firefighting. The DOI has been extremely aggressive in the last two years in establishing a surprisingly robust UAS program. There is a report that a person formerly with the DOI’s Alaska Fire Service is now heading the Forest Service UAS program.

The goals in the EO are an unfunded mandate. It says, “[The agencies] shall review the Secretary’s 2019 budget justifications and give all due consideration to establishing the following objectives for 2019, as feasible and appropriate in light of those budget justifications, and consistent with applicable law and available appropriations.”


*Here is a backup copy of the Executive Order in case the one at WhiteHouse.gov disappears.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Eric. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

A correction was made December 26 about the new leadership of the Forest Service UAS program.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

11 thoughts on “Presidential order sets goals for fuel reduction”

    1. David: good question. I added this to the article:

      The goals in the EO are an unfunded mandate. It says, [The agencies] shall review the Secretary’s 2019 budget justifications and give all due consideration to establishing the following objectives for 2019, as feasible and appropriate in light of those budget justifications, and consistent with applicable law and available appropriations.

  1. So, they are still proposing 10-20% budget cuts while treating more acres and accomplishing all of the other things those agencies must still do. I wonder through what fantasy they imagine this happening?

  2. As seen on the NIFC table, the underlying issue with regard to prescribed fire activity is that the large majority of its acreage for both DOI and FS is from the southern and eastern areas, which generally means lighter fuels than are found in the western states. Prescribed fire acreage in the western states, where wildfire activity is greatest, is pitifully small. So, no wonder if the agencies think they can meet the President’s target acreage, as long as they can pump out the prescribed fire acres from the midwest and east of the Mississippi. But to meet the President’s intent, to reduce western wildfire activity via fuels management methods such as prescribed fire, the Executive Order will be meaningless unless targeted at specific areas of the country. It would certainly be more interesting if the 750,000 acres for DOI had to come out of areas west of the Mississippi.

  3. Helps if you have a budget to keep the lights then we can talk about the EO. Alas, I’m sure we will kick the can down the road yet again.

  4. I’m curious to know who will do the timber harvest planning, who will do the logging, and where the additional logs will be processed? Utah has a dearth of saw mills. Even in California, logs are hauled fairly long distances to the few remaining mills. And what investor will be willing to put up the required funding to build new mills given the very volatile nature of this decision.

    1. No one will do the planning, logging, burning etc. until the latest DC standoff ends. All a shutdown accomplishes for the land management agencies is to shorten the amount of available time to achieve larger goals with smaller budgets. Burn windows will be missed, sale marking will be rescheduled, equipment will sit idle. Shutdowns also interfere with hiring and training to provide employees with the skills to meet goals. Technicians and seasonal employees, who are often key to meeting goals, are hardest impacted by shutdowns.

  5. FYI: An AFMO from the Alaska Fire Service was recently hired as the FS UAS program manager. The DOI -OAS UAS program staff remains unchanged.

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