Florida’s Right to Farm law recognizes the important role agriculture plays in our state — both to produce the food we eat and to protect the landscape we enjoy. But current law does not go far enough to protect farms from frivolous, unjust lawsuits. SB 88 by Sen. Jason Brodeur and HB 1601 by Rep. Jayer Williamson is necessary to keep farmers farming.
More than 17 million acres in Florida, or nearly one-half of our state’s landmass, is forestland. Foresters who own some of this land contribute greatly to our environment by protecting the land from development, filtering water and replenishing our aquifer, and providing wildlife habitat to many endangered species.
Prescribed burning is an important tool for forester landowners to manage and care for the land. On average, each year, the state of Florida authorizes more than 2 million acres of prescribed burning, which has multiple beneficial environmental impacts. Prescribed fire helps reduce the spread of some forest diseases and can help slow the spread of some invasive species. It provides nutrients back into the soil, allowing for the healthy growth of plants and trees. It protects habitats for endangered species.
Not only does prescribed burning benefit the environment, it also protects our residents. Without regular controlled fires, trees get stressed by overcrowding, and flammable vegetation continues to build up. Prescribed burning reduces the buildup of fuels that contribute to uncontrolled wildfires so that when wildfires inevitably occur, they burn with less intensity, reduced spread and fewer smoke impacts on communities and firefighters.
Prescribed burning also contributes to better air quality. In both the updating of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for PM 2.5 (81 CFR 164, pg. 58010) and the updating of the Exceptional Events Rule (81 CFR 191, pg. 68216), the EPA clearly documents the role of wildfire as an emissions source and the relevance of prescribed fire use and fuels management to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
SB 88 and HB 1601, which strengthen Florida’s Right to Farm laws, will enable forest landowners to continue to use prescribed burning to manage and care for their land.
If prescribed fire is limited or discontinued, science and experience prove that we will perpetuate conditions that generate catastrophic air quality issues and put communities and individuals at risk. Fuel will build up to the point where eventually wildfires become unmanageable under initial attack. And the emissions from those wildfires will be exponentially more dangerous than emissions from prescribed burning, not to mention the damage and destruction wildfires will cause to homes, businesses and life.
Florida’s prescribed burn program is highly regulated and closely monitored. In the late 1980s, the Florida Forest Service developed the Certified Prescribed Burn Manger program to educate prescribed fire practitioners regarding their legal and good-neighbor responsibilities along with basic information on fire behavior, smoke management and other topics.
In 1999, the FFS developed its first smoke management plan (SMP) approved by EPA. Florida’s current SMP (dated 2014) was developed in conjunction with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Highway Patrol.
By following the guidelines in the SMP, Florida is able to conduct one of the largest prescribed burning programs in the nation. The use of weather forecasts and sophisticated smoke models determine the best days to conduct a burn while minimizing impacts from prescribed fire emissions.
I am immensely proud of the recognition Florida has earned for its prescribed burning program. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have acknowledged the effectiveness of the program in managing the land, protecting the people and improving our air quality.
We could not have accomplished so much without the cooperation, support and participation of Florida’s private landowners. I urge the Florida Legislature to pass SB 88 and HB 1601. In doing so, our laws will prevent frivolous and unjust lawsuits, and keep farmers farming.
Jim Karels retired in 2020 as Florida’s State Forester. For more than 12 years, he was responsible for protecting Florida and its residents from the dangers of wildfire and managing forest resources to ensure they are available for future generations. He also served as the President of the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) and the Chairman of the NASF Wildland Fire Committee.