As wildfires became an increasing and more costly problem over the last few decades, the Forest Service has been required to fund wildfire suppression activities by borrowing from other parts of its budget, curtailing other important forest management activities, including reducing small timber and brush levels in forest stands that made them more susceptible to wildfires. It was a “Catch 22,” which was fixed in this year’s Omnibus Appropriations bill.
Now the Forest Service and Department of the Interior will be allowed to use natural disaster funding to fight catastrophic wildfires, allowing them to better address other urgent management needs. It almost seems the Forest Service is being rewarded for creating its own natural disasters.
President Trump tweeted on Sunday about “bad environmental regulations” making California wildfires “much worse,” specifically mentioning the need to clear trees from the forest and water resource issues. I won’t comment on the water issues, but as a forestry professor I know he is right about the trees. I’ll bet he got that notion from listening to Westerners who have been complaining about poor forest management on the national forests for decades.
Those environmental regulations surely included the Endangered Species Act (as his administration is proposing changes to it) and probably the National Environmental Policy Act. Both of those laws offer fundamental and invaluable protections to the environment, but they also have become obstructionist tools for environmentalists to limit active forest management on the national forests.
The “bad” aspect of these laws is that they provide an avenue for those opposed to actually harvesting trees to make timber sales nearly impossible to accomplish via prolonged public participation activities, legal challenges and appeals, and immense paperwork requirements. Earlier this summer the Trump administration indicated those are the areas that need to be addressed in terms of new regulations. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke described the more damaging and costly wildfire situation as the “new normal” and as a “status quo” that was unacceptable and promised to work with Congress to craft better “management solutions.”
Many are blaming climate change for the wildfire problem, but it’s more than that. The Forest Service itself has helped create the problem. Forests that need thinning (removal) of small trees and brush have been neglected, making them tinderboxes that burn more often and more intensively. In the mid-1980s it harvested as much as 12.7 billion board feet of timber; last year it was 2.6 billion board feet.
The national forests were originally established to be working forests, not parks and not natural disasters; the intent was for them to be assets, not liabilities, and to produce revenue. The same type forests managed by state agencies actually turn a profit that ends up in trust funds. In the late-1980s timber harvested on the national forests was valued at over a billion dollars; last year it was less than 200 million dollars. Many of those trees not harvested ended up as fuel for the wildfires.
It is not just timber harvesting. Reduction of brush, debris and small trees is usually accomplished by prescribed burning. These are controlled fires that reduce the biomass volume near the ground, so wildfires don’t have a place later to spread to the tree tops. Its nature’s way to lessen the chance of catastrophic fires and it provides ecological benefits to the forest.
But prescribed burning uses fire and produces smoke. Another problem is local government allowing urban areas to encroach too close to dangerous forest boundaries (called the wildland-urban interface). Many of these encroachers are the same environmentalists wanting to be close to nature. They’ll be the first to complain about the smoke of a prescribed fire and they are well-versed on how to use environmental red tape to prevent that smoke. They’re also a big reason the fires have become so costly and that fighting wildfires now involves much emphasis on saving houses.
Dozens of newspaper articles berated Mr. Trump’s remark to “tree clear” to reduce wildfire risk and damage. Even if he would have toed the liberal line and said “due 100 percent to climate change,” the same newspapers would probably just have accused him of creating the climate change. He just can’t win with much of the press. In this case, at least with the trees, he was right on and deserves credit for listening to local concerns in the West.
• Thomas J. Straka is a professor of forestry and environmental conservation at Clemson University in South Carolina.