As people from across the country flocked to public land in the western United States this summer to compensate for 2020 travel plans disrupted by COVID-19, many were greeted by a side familiar to Westerners: wildfire smoke. After a brutally smoky fire season in 2020, this year is well on the way to becoming the smokiest year in the western United States since at least 2006. The forest fires are a result of climate change (and forest management practices in some places) which, according to scientists, reflect a new normal for the region.
For people who enjoy the outdoors and the communities that serve them, this smoke can have dire effects. Rigorous mountain biking, hiking, or climbing can be dangerous if visitors suck in lungs of smoke with every deep breath. Particulate matter from forest fire smoke is linked to serious health problems, including lung and heart problems. The health risks from forest fire smoke are particularly serious for the elderly, children, and those with asthma and other respiratory diseases. For those who come from far and wide to enjoy spectacular views in places like Yosemite and Glacier National Parks, the smoke-obscured view can make the difference between an amazing trip and a disappointing one.
The fact that the forest fire season coincides with the outdoor recreational season and the times of prime visitors to America’s national parks and other public areas increases the risk of injury. As Americans take their summer vacation and the snow is melting at high elevations and in the northern states, making many of our most beautiful public areas accessible, forest fires accelerate and flood the region with smoke.
In a study we published last month that focused on camping on public land, we estimated that between 400,000 and 1.5 million people per year camp in the western continental United States on wildfire smoke days. This research also showed that people who had reserved in advance for the camp were largely continuing with their plans despite the impact of poor air quality. The fact that many campers are more likely to accept bad conditions than to forego a visit at all shows how much people appreciate their visit to public land. Our research found that campers in the most popular – and inaccessible – locations are the least likely to react to smoke.
However, these results may change as the forest fires continue to worsen. People can search outside of the American West for their summer vacation. For northern states like Idaho and Montana, whose midsummer recovery season lasts only a few months, communities that rely on public land to fuel a tourism-based economy could be dire. We saw ominous signs of what might lie ahead this summer. In Winthrop, Washington, a gateway community for the Northern Cascades, the mayor said smoke and nearby fires were “the end of the season.” Summer camps in east Washington were closed because of forest fire smoke.
The solutions are not easy. State government agencies can focus on reducing the risk of fire through mechanical thinning of forests, mandatory burns, and managed forest fires. The $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the Senate last month is taking steps in that direction by allocating more than $ 1.9 billion to fuel cuts to reduce the risk of forest fires. However, the needs in this area are enormous and this funding will not fully cover the backlog of hectares in need of such treatment.
Another option is to find ways to relocate visits to places and times of the year when forest fire smoke is less common. Many national parks are already overcrowded during the high season in summer. It might be worthwhile to find effective pricing structures and other incentives to relocate visits to reduce congestion and smoke pollution. That summer, the National Park Service experimented with a reservation system in some of the most popular parks. Whether this is a long-term solution remains to be seen. The fact is, however, that forest fires are worsening and concrete policy and behavioral changes are essential for those who flock to the natural wonders of the west.
Margaret Walls is a Senior Fellow with Resources for the Future, a DC-based independent nonprofit research organization. Her main research interests are resilience and adaptation to extreme events as well as parks and public spaces.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer is a Fellow at Resources for the Future. He studies forest fires and how they interact with ecosystems and communities.