A 2018 study by the research group Headwaters Economics found that eight national monuments that had been redesignated as national parks saw their attendance increase by an average of 21 percent within five years. Since then, lawmakers have embraced the idea.
“We haven’t done it yet because it’s expensive,” said Megan Lawson, an economist at the land-use nonprofit Headwaters Economics.
She said depending on where you’re talking about burying lines, the cost could be five or 10 times the cost of wiring them above ground. But despite the upfront cost, in some places it still might make sense.
“We also need to be looking at the intensity and frequency of a lot of these natural disasters is increasing,” Lawson said.
Megan Lawson of Headwaters Economics points out that a family shut out of Arches is naturally going to scramble to find a nearby alternative. “They’re going to use Google and find another destination,” she said, “so we need to anticipate those pressures on surrounding public lands.”
“The increasing distance between the wealthy and least wealthy is getting more and more dramatic,” said Megan Lawson, an economist at Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont.
So on a grand scale, experts interviewed for this story say public money may be better spent toward “hardening” existing homes, bringing them up to fire safe building codes, and keeping brush and shrubbery around them cleared out. Of course, every option is expensive. According to the western think tank Headwaters Economics, some 40 million westerners are now living in the potential path of wildfires.
The allure of America’s wide-open spaces, combined with rocketing house prices, has led more people to settle in cheaper, fire-prone areas. Roughly half the population of the American West now lives at “the wildland-urban interface”, according to Headwaters Economics, a think-tank.
“We do actually know how to do things better [now],” says Kimiko Barrett of Headwaters Economics, a land management think tank based in Montana.
After cities such as Chicago and San Francisco burned to the ground in the 19th and early 20th centuries, “we as a society stopped to think about how our cities were built, and our infrastructure, in relation to fire.”
“We can solve this,” Barrett says, using that same all-hands approach today in areas where forests and people increasingly meet.
“We can solve this again.”
“It’s a great first step,” said Kimiko Barrett, a researcher and policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, a wildfire policy consulting nonprofit in Montana. “We need to start looking at creating communities adapted to living with this increasing risk.”
To speed up this process, a Montana-based nonprofit research group called Headwaters Economics has developed a framework that puts to work fitness-tracking apps and internet search frequencies, in addition to trailhead surveys, to get a better handle on how much use specific trails are getting.
Wildfires scorched more than 10 million acres (4 million hectares) of land and almost 18,000 houses and other structures last year, according to federal data and the research group Headwaters Economics.
“We can no longer expect that we’ll be saved from these,” said Kimiko Barrett with Headwaters Economics, adding that firefighters need more pay and support. “We overlook the long-term psychological, physical and emotional well-being of firefighters.”
“Our sense is that it is indeed a more affluent set of folks who are moving,” says Megan Lawson, a Montana-based researcher, statistician, and economist with Headwater Economics. The trend isn’t new and there are competing theories as to the reasons behind it.
“A big piece of it is that moving’s expensive,” Lawson says. People with greater income and wealth have more ability to change locations. “They also have greater cushioning and can handle high costs of living,” she describes.
Kimiko Barrett is the lead wildfire researcher at the Montana think tank Headwaters Economics. She says the wildland-urban interface has been growing since the 1970s. And the pace has picked up as housing costs have skyrocketed and many have looked farther out to find something they could afford.
“We as society and our political institutions have this very ingrained assumption that we can be saved from wildfires through proper treatment of the forest,” said Kimiko Barrett, who studies wildfire and community resilience at Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based environmental think tank.
“But given the severity of climate change and the scale at which fires are occurring,” she added, “how long are we going to continue to try that, without bringing in the role of human decisions?”
Among the most significant ways to reduce the threat of wildfires to people and property are to tighten building standards and landscaping requirements, and to push new development away from areas most exposed to fires, according to experts.
But those approaches tend to be controversial, and also require cooperation from state and local officials, according to Kimiko Barrett, a wildfire policy expert at Headwaters Economics, a consulting group in Montana.
“We are nested in this belief and this assumption that we can domesticate wildfires to the point where we will be safe from it. The reality is that with climate change and the scale, the pace, and the severity with which wildfires are currently burning, that’s no longer an assumption we can safely rest upon,” says Kimiko Barrett, lead wildfire researcher at the nonprofit Headwaters Economics.
Let’s stipulate that wildfires are part of the ecosystem in the western United States. They are nature’s way of clearing the forest floor and nourishing the soil. But after decades of misguided policy that pushed for extinguishing fires at first spark, combined with a warming, drier climate, wildfires have grown catastrophically in size, intensity and complexity.
According to a report by the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project, a new ten-unit campground costs anywhere from $400,000 to $1 million to construct, and a single vault toilet costs $20,000 to install—not including annual maintenance. Agencies like the Forest Service simply don’t have the budget or staff for such improvements, but with a new Democrat-controlled Congress in Washington, D.C., they could.
2020 became one of worst fire years on record with more than 10 million acres (4 million hectares) of land scorched and almost 18,000 houses and other structures destroyed, according to federal data and the research group Headwaters Economics.
The research group Headwaters Economics compiled a chart of Gallatin County data titled “All Sectors of the Economy Are Growing Except Farm.”