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President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Dec. 21 that instructs land managers to treat 8.45 million acres of land and cut 4.4 million board feet of timber, which is about 80 percent more than was cut on U.S. Forest Service lands in 2017.

Part of the reasoning given in the executive order is that “post-fire assessments show that reducing vegetation through hazardous fuels management and strategic forest health treatments is effective in reducing wildfire severity and loss.”

But a study conducted by researchers at the University of Montana found that between 1999 and 2012, only 6.8 percent of fuel-reduction treatment areas in the United States were subsequently hit by wildfires.

Kevin Barnett, a research associate in the Department of Economics at UM, helped quantify the frequency and extent of fire and fuel treatment interactions on federal lands across the U.S.

“The Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program received a lot of financial investment and resources over the past 15 years,” Barnett told the Missoulian. “We treat quite a lot of landscapes each year. And less than 10 percent of that had even (been) burned by a subsequent fire. So that raises more broad general questions over the efficacy of fuel treatments to change regional fire patterns.”

Wildfires are a growing issue in the U.S. and in Montana. In 2018 alone, 35 wildfires cost the state more than $95 million, an amount of money that ate into the budget for a wide range of services.

Shortly after Trump's executive order was issued, Bozeman-based research firm Headwaters Economics published a report arguing land-use planning is more effective than logging to reduce wildfire risk.

“There are many valid reasons to log,” explained Headwaters researcher Kelly Pohl, who wrote the report. “One really important reason is to improve forest health and that’s a perfectly reasonable strategy for many ecosystems. But when we’re talking about protecting communities and disasters to homes and neighborhoods, logging is not the most effective tool.”

Pohl argues that if the goal of fuel treatments and logging is risk reduction for communities, then the placement of fuel treatments should be strategic for maximum effectiveness.

“Research shows that home loss is primarily determined by two factors: the vegetation in the immediate area around the home, and the way the home is designed and constructed,” she said. “Modifications to this area, known as the home ignition zone, are more effective at protecting communities than fuel treatments on outlying federal land."

Fuel treatments within 100 to 200 feet of homes can make a meaningful difference, she noted, "which often requires treatment on private land, not on federally managed forests."

Pohl said that from 2000 to 2015, almost 17 million acres of federal land were treated for fuels reduction, but during that same time period, more than 93 million acres burned.

Therefore, she noted, “the odds of putting fuel treatments in the wrong place are extremely high.”

“Even if federal land management agencies were able to increase their treatments and meet the President’s goal of treating 8.45 million acres, it would still equate to less than 2 percent of all federal lands,” Pohl said. “It is unlikely these locations will be among the hundreds of millions of acres that burn during the effective lifespan of a fuel reduction treatment, typically 10-20 years.”

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