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Study Shows Large Wildfires Occur Predominantly on Federal Land

federal land map

Anyone that lives in the western U.S. is likely living near land managed by the federal government. Many Western Montana counties, for example, have more than 50 percent of their land under federal control, a situation that poses problems for local use and tax revenue. 

The conflict between federal and local control was highlighted at the beginning of 2013 when the process of sequestration slowed the flow of federal money into local counties.

The incident led many to fear that programs designed to help counties adjacent to public land, like the Payment in Lieu of Taxation program, are in danger of being cut or reduced as the U.S. government works to pay off its growing debt load.

Recently, though, many have been making more direct complaints against the way the land is being managed. The argument is that federal restrictions on timber harvests and grazing have led to overgrown forests that are not only more apt to catch fires that spread quickly, but also limit economic growth.

Indeed, a study of where large fires broke out between 1980 and 2003 (see image below) appears to indicate a direct correlation between big fires and federal land.

Federal land U.S./Fire map

Of course, larger fires are more apt to happen in wilderness areas where there is not easy access by firefighting crews, a characteristic that many federal lands have in common, but that very few statewide holdings posses. That is likely because federal lands put a premium on inaccessible wilderness areas, as evident by the closing of old logging roads. State lands on the other hand are often easier to log and easier to access, as locals tax the production on these lands to fund schools and other state institutions.

Whether the fires are the cause of mismanagement or simply something that happens in wilderness areas could likely be argued back and forth by both sides. The evidence does seem to support, however, that if a fire is going to get big, it will likely do so on federal land, which is a scary prospect for those that live and breathe in counties near such holdings.

Some, like the American Lands Council (see video below) are arguing that the path out of this situation is for the federal government to place management back in local hands like it did with other states in the 1820s (Illinois and Louisiana for example).

Even now, the state of Montana is taking a close look at the issue of federal and local management after Senate Joint Resolution 15 was passed in 2013 calling for an interim study. The future is wide open, but there will likely be a call during the next biennium for more state control of these federal lands.

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