The "Smokey Bear Effect": How Government Forest Takeover Has Led to More, Bigger and Hotter Fires
National Public Radio reports today on how the federal government's "takeover" of America's forests with the creation of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 has led to more, not fewer, forest fires in the long run. Among fire historians it's known as the "Smokey Bear Effect," thus the title of the segment "How The Smokey Bear Effect Led To Raging Wildfires," here's a slice:
MP: Maybe there's a lesson here for government intervention in the economy?Scars from thousands of sections show how often fires burned in the Southwest. It was every five or 10 years, mostly — small fires that consumed grass and shrubs and small seedlings, but left the big Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir just fine. This was the norm.Then something happened. "Around 1890 or 1900, it stops," say tree ring expert Thomas Swetnam. "We call it the Smokey Bear effect."Settlers brought livestock that ate the grass, so fires had little fuel. Then when the U.S. Forest Service was formed, its marching orders were "no fires." And it was the experts who approved the all-out ban on fires in the Southwest. They got it wrong.That's the view of fire historian Stephen Pyne. "The irony here is that the argument for setting these areas aside as national forests and parks was, to a large extent, to protect them from fire," Pyne says. "Instead, over time they became the major habitat for free-burning fire."So instead of a few dozen trees per acre, the Southwestern mountains of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah are now choked with trees of all sizes, and grass and shrubs. Essentially, it's fuel. And now fires are burning bigger and hotter. They're not just damaging forests — they're wiping them out. Last year, more than 74,000 wildfires burned over 8.7 million acres in the U.S.