OPINION: President Trump And Secretary Zinke Are Right On Wildfires

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Thomas J. Straka Forestry, Environmental Conservation Professor, Clemson University
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On the California wildfires, President Trump tweeted: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” and three months ago, Secretary Zinke identified the same cause for western wildfires: “This has to do with active forest management.”

As a forester, I have to say they are both pointing to the main culprit. I spend much of my time in the West, with West-Coast foresters, and one of them regularly points to a federally-managed forest as a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Before you say this is just a forester saying federal land needs more forestry, several independent government reports have come to the same conclusion.

California’s Little Hoover Commission is an independent state oversight agency that is charged with making reports and giving advice to the Governor and Legislature, and last February they issued a report on rethinking forest management in the Sierra Nevada relative to wildfires, concluding:

A century of mismanaging Sierra Nevada forests has brought an unprecedented environmental catastrophe that impacts all Californians – and with it, a rare opportunity for transformational culture change in forest management practices. The opportunity should not be lost. Proactive forest management practices recommended by the Commission gradually will rebuild healthy high-county forest that store more water, resist new insect infestations, and check the speed and intensity of wildfires.

This critical wildfire situation has been a long time coming. A 1990 federal General Accounting Office report noted that “the most extensive and serious problem related to the health of national forests in the interior West is the overaccumulation of vegetation, which has caused an increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable, and catastrophically destructive wildfires,” and that “39 million acres in national forests in the interior West are at high risk of catastrophic wildfire.”

So the president and secretary are just responding to science-based federal and state reports that confirm the dire need for active forest management.

Most of the national press gives the impression they are using this ploy to downplay climate change or to encourage more timber harvesting for their timber industry friends. It seems more likely to me that they are just listening to science and forestry advisors on how to handle a critical problem in the West.

Interior Secretary Zinke blamed “environmental terrorist groups,” according to The Daily Caller, for holding forest management “hostage” on the federal forests.

As The Hill reports, these groups managed to hide forest management hostage by using tactics “that close off roads, refuse to have firebreaks, refuse to have any timber harvested, no grazing, and the result is these catastrophic fires.”

President Trump tweeted: “California wildfires are being magnified & made much worse by the bad environmental laws. Secretary Zinke agreed that active forest management was limited by attacks from “frivolous litigation from radical environmentalists who would rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods.”

Trump and Zinke are referring to environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These are truly important environmental laws, but environmentalists have used them as tools to drive timber harvesting from the national forests.

An example is using the northern spotted owl as a threatened species to curtail forest management in Washington, Oregon, and California. NEPA requires public participation in the planning for forest management on federal lands. There is nothing wrong with that unless it is used as a tool to create obstacles to any timber harvesting.

Using NEPA, environmental managed to devastate forest management, timber harvesting, and the forest products industry throughout the West, helping to create the conditions that have led to the current wildfire situation.

 A couple of statistics are telling. From 1965 to 1990, according to a report from the U.S. Forest Service, timber harvests on the national forests generally ranged from 10-to-12 billion board feet annually.

After 1990, once environmentalism “kicked in,” the average has been in the 2-to-2.5 billion board feet range. That is a tremendous amount of wood accumulating on the forests, not being utilized and just waiting for something natural (insects, disease, wildfire) to happen to it.

Of course, by not being utilized, the timber processing industry that relied on national forests harvests was decimated.  Mills closed down and wood industry workers lost their jobs. Communities folded.

Referring back to the Little Hoover Commission Report in California that recommended proactive forest management, any increased timber harvesting to get biomass out of the forest and into some useful purpose has been stymied by the long-term environmentalist activism.

Sawmill capacity decreased by about 70 percent from 1980 to 2012. In 1968, there were 262 wood processing facilities in the state; today there are about 77. Employment in the industry has decreased by half from what it was in 1990.

So, efforts to actually encourage active forest management will be much more difficult to implement; in order to harvest timber there must be a market to utilize it. I’d call it an unintended consequence, but, unfortunately, it seems to be just what the environmentalists wanted.

The press needs to give the President and Secretary Zinke a break. They are both making some very valid points.

Thomas J. Straka is a professor of forestry and environmental conservation at Clemson University in South Carolina.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.