The current wildfire crisis in the western United States shows no sign of abating. Repeated policy failures manifest in an enduring, multi-decade commitment to fire suppression combined with massive development in the wildland-urban interface and accelerating climate change have created the conditions for ever larger, more intense, and destructive wildfires. Many of these fires are happening on federal public lands, raising important questions about the federal government’s approach to wildfires and its responsibility for the harms that they cause. While there is no easy fix to the crisis and while westerners will need to get used to living with more fire, more smoke, and more damage and destruction, there is widespread agreement that any long-term solution will require substantial and sustained investments in forest restoration and resilience, especially on federal public lands. To date, however, long-term funding for forest restoration and resilience has been lacking.
This Symposium Article focuses on the issue of wildfire emissions from federal forests and the challenges that wildfire emissions, and forests generally, pose for climate policy. It starts from the observation that forests and land use may well turn out to be the hardest and most important part of the climate crisis, as illustrated by the increasing frequency of novel extreme wildfire events in the western United States and around the world. This Article argues that the mainstream climate policy approach to forests and land use, which views them as near-term mitigation opportunities that are relatively fast, easy, and cheap, needs to be reevaluated. Rather than looking for ways to leverage forests and land use as part of climate policy, this Article argues that we should be looking for ways to leverage climate policy to protect and restore forests and to enhance their resilience in the face of accelerating climate disruption. To that end, the Article proposes a new climate liability and funding mechanism that could facilitate longer-term investments in forest restoration and resilience. The proposal has three key elements: (1) a strict liability regime for all greenhouse gas emissions from unintentional fires on federal public lands; (2) a requirement that the federal government pay the social cost of carbon for these emissions; and (3) a special fund that would receive these payments and be dedicated to forest restoration, with a requirement that the funds be spent on actual on-the-ground restoration work.