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Up in Smoke: How Bureaucracy Makes Wildfires Worse

Complex regulations delay wildfire prevention

August 2022


This video is part of our Kite & Key Shorts series—easy to understand...but hard to forget.


Wildfires in the United States are spreading like … well, wildfire.

Fires have consumed over 10 million acres in three of the past seven years, primarily in the West.i Many of these fires occur on federally-owned land. The reason? Because the federal government owns over half the land in the West.ii

The problem isn’t a lack of resources. In 2020, the U.S. Forest Service spent more on fire management than any other item, devoting $1.76 billion to fire suppression.

So, why are wildfires still such a major problem?

At least part of the answer is paperwork. The Forest Service tries to minimize fire damage with methods like controlled burns, which clear dead trees and brush so there is less fuel for fires.iii But before they can perform these treatments, they have to go through an approval process ... which is a lot more complicated than it sounds. On average, it takes more than 4 1/2 years before the Forest Service can begin doing any actual work.iv

That’s one reason the Forest Service only treats about 2 million acres a year, despite the fact that there are 80 million acres that need it. The Forest Service wants to treat an additional 20 million acres of land over the next 10 years. But it’s estimated that the lengthy review process will make them miss that goal.v

Excessive paperwork is putting our forests and our firefighters at risk, which should light a fire under the regulators.



  1. Recent years have often seen over 10 million acres burned by wildfires.
  2. On average, it takes 4.7 years to get clearance for a controlled burn.
  3. Paperwork delays will likely make the Forest Service miss its goal of treating 20 million acres of land over the next decade.


  1. "Does Environmental Review Worsen the Wildfire Crisis?" (Eric Edwards and Sara Sutherland), pg. 1 The Property and Environment Research Center
  2. Ibid., pg. 10
  3. Ibid., pg. 4 
  4. Ibid., pg. 9
  5. Ibid., pg. 1 


SOUND: Freewalker” (Angela Parrish) 
FOOTAGE: Bureau of Land Management // Mike Newbry (Unsplash) 


  1. The Property and Environment Research Center
    "Does Environmental Review Worsen the Wildfire Crisis?" (Eric Edwards and Sara Sutherland)

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