News Room (210)
The cost trends around wildfire also are troublesome. Since 1990, the number of homes destroyed has tripled. Yet in the last 30 years, 60 percent of new homes in the U.S. were built in the wildland-urban interface, the private land next to public forests.
Federal firefighting costs average $3 billion annually; also triple the amount from a decade ago. Our research and others indicates that at least one-third and up to 95 percent of the firefighting bill goes to defend private homes….
What has not yet been tried is altering the pattern of future home development on fire-prone lands. The key is to get the incentives right. Currently, local governments benefit from a federal government subsidy that pays the bulk of firefighting costs and underwrites risky and expensive developments. Passing on more costs to local governments – where home building is permitted – would incentivize better planning.
With this year’s 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act some people are asking whether protected public lands, set aside for conservation, also provide economic benefits in addition to their scenic and recreation values.
The good news is that in today’s modern, technologically-advanced economy, wild places can help communities attract and retain talent. Wilderness (and national parks, wildlife refuges, national monuments) also can play a role in attracting the tidal wave of retiring Baby Boomers. And, more obviously, wild places create jobs in outdoor recreation, now a $646 billion industry.
It’s estimated that at least 30 percent of the money the Forest Service and BLM spend on wildfires is spent to protect private property, like homes on the edge of public lands.
A new report from Headwaters Economics in Bozeman offers strategies to keep that number from growing.
According to “Protected Lands and Economics: A Summary of Research and Careful Analysis on the Economic Impact of Protected Federal Lands,” a report published by Headwaters Economic this summer, western counties that have permanent protections on federal lands—such as National Parks, Monuments, or Wilderness Areas—show higher than average rates of job growth and have higher levels of per capita income.
“Protected federal public lands in the West, including lands in non-metro counties, can be an important economic asset that extends beyond tourism and recreation to attract people and businesses,” the report states.
In addition to outdoor recreation, Headwaters Economics group has found that protected federal public lands support faster rates of job growth and higher income levels related to the knowledge-based economy.
As a result, local officials have little incentive to stop a high-risk development when they stand to reap the property tax rewards without bearing the full risks.
“The consequences of those development decisions aren’t being felt by the people who are making them,” says Rasker…
Protecting forest-edge homes from wildfires will become intolerably expensive unless western communities change the way they approve development, a Montana research group says.
Taxpayers subsidize irresponsible building when federal money is used to fight wildland fires, Headwaters Economics says in series of studies. Unless changes are made in the way homes are approved, sited, financed, insured and protected, the $3 billion national firefighting budget will erupt into an unsustainable burden, the group says…
…That economist, Ray Rasker with Headwaters Economics, suggested that making local governments responsible for some of these firefighting costs might motivate local leaders to practice smarter land-use planning by denying development plans that scatter homes around the fringes of heavily forested areas.
Local government participation in wildfire suppression costs is an idea that could gain political traction, and county commissioners had better brace for it. Rural fire departments – funded by taxpayers – suppress all other structural fires. Why shouldn’t they participate in the cost of defending homes in the so-called WUI, wildlands urban interface, when wildfire strikes?…
The West’s upcoming wildfire season holds the high risk of again being long, expensive and dangerous, with an acceleration of alarming trends that include more and bigger fires, and increased dangers and costs associated with the need to defend private homes. Unfortunately, what we have tried so far is not adequate to prepare for these developments…
Now is the time to add a third idea that would improve local land use planning and bring a level of cost accountability to the local governments that permit new homes and subdivisions. Today, national taxpayers fund much of the cost to suppress wildfires, and local governments do not face a financial risk when permitting homes on dangerous, fire-prone lands…
While the fires that broke out last week San Diego County are now almost fully contained, California is bracing for what could be the worst fire season ever.
Economist Ray Rasker, Executive Director of Headwaters Economics, joins Take Two to talk about what people can do to adjust to the increasing risk of wildfires…