Fighting Fires with Finance

Private and public investors are finding ways to prevent future fires.


Wildfire is causing needless loss of life and resources. Last year, the Camp Fire that burned in northern California took 85 lives, destroyed nearly 19,000 structures, and burned 153,000 acres. Efforts to prevent a similar tragedy this year led to intentional blackouts that left millions without electricity. Yet the fires rage again, consuming 75,000 acres this year. Wildfires across the west burn on average 7 million acres annually.

Fire-fighting now takes up more than half of the Forest Service’s annual budget, leaving few dollars for restoring forests and preventing future fires. A century of fire suppression and decades of reduced commercial harvest have increased forest density and left an accumulation of fuels on the forest floor. Add that to a drier climate and residential development expanding on the forest edge, and the mix is a design for disaster.

There are, however, ways to reduce the threat of fires, especially crown fires, which can run like a freight train across the landscape. These include thinning the forest and burning some of the fuel on the ground.  But the federal agencies that manage most of the forested landscapes in the West lack the funding and autonomy to take action before fires hit.

Fortunately, a new breed of conservationists is showing the way through conservation investment funds.

Blue Forest Conservation, a public-benefit corporation (a company that seeks to provide a public benefit as well as to earn profit) created the Forest Resilience Bond. Seeing the need for restoration work in the Tahoe basin, this group of innovators sought out private investors to provide capital funds to increase the pace of forest restoration. Harvest began this summer with $4 million invested to kick-start a 15,000-acre restoration project in California’s Northern Yuba River watershed. Restoration includes tree thinning, prescribed burns, and invasive species management.

Quantified Ventures, a for-profit capital firm, is exploring a similar model next to the San Juan National Forest in Colorado. As the project moves forward, private investors will again be the driving force, ponying up funds to get the work done quickly. Local communities benefit from these projects by reducing fire risk, which also reduces the potential for erosion of watersheds and contamination of community reservoirs. Hence, nearby neighborhoods, water utilities, and other local water users have demonstrated a willingness to help pay back the upfront investment. The return to investors will come from sales of valuable wood products and avoiding risk to properties and water resources. Private investors will earn a financial return while protecting the environment.

Such conservation finance projects are demonstrating how we can have forest health and healthy, forested communities.

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