President Trump has a good point on California wildfires

25 September 2020

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USA – The Hill reported on President Trump’s recent interview where the causes of California wildfires were discussed. Trump downplayed climate change as a cause and, instead, stressed poor management of state forests. I listened to that interview and the president made a lot of sense on the forest management issue.

The wildfire problem is complex. While climate change and past wildfire suppression practices are major contributing factors, and a lot of the California wildfires are not in forests, the lack of active forest management is also a huge contributor. Trump seems to be listening to federal and state government experts on the wildfire issue, as his conclusion that poor forest management is one of the major root causes is supported by those experts.

At the federal level, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) summarized wildland fire risk in 2017 as resulting from “various land management practices, including fire suppression” that “disrupted the normal frequency of fires in many forests and rangeland ecosystems, resulting in abnormally dense accumulations of vegetation.” The result was an “altered landscape, combined with drought and other climate stressors,” which “has contributed to larger and more severe wildland fires.”

During his interview the president said, “when the leaves build up, and you have a floor of leaves, and the trees fall down, and you don’t remove them because the environmentalists don’t want you to touch the tree, within 18 months that tree gets to be like a matchstick, it gets to be unbelievably flammable.” That is a pretty good summary of the GAO report, spoken with the general public in mind.

At the state level, California has an independent state oversight agency, the Little Hoover Commission, which is charged with investigating state operations and policy in order to develop recommendations for improving state operations. In 2018, the commission issued a report on rethinking forest management on the state’s Sierra Nevada forests, correcting “a century of mismanaging” them by using “proactive forest management practices.” The report discussed the tragedy of 129 million dead  trees in the state, a number that was expanding. The lack of active forest management created a “overgrown and overcrowded forest,” weakened and unable to survive a historic drought and bark beetles which invaded the state’s forests.” Trump seemed to echo the commission’s thoughts.

A 2018 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), a nonpartisan office that provides fiscal and policy advice to the California legislature came to the same conclusion. It also noted the need for proactive forest management, and that these activities result in removal of trees in commercial and noncommercial timber management activities that produce lumber that is sold for revenue and other “woody biomass” that can’t be utilized by sawmills. The report explained that in 1988 timber harvesting in the state was nearly 5 billion board feet and from there it dropped to a recent low of 900 million board feet in 2009 (a decline of 80 percent), with later harvests between one and two billion board feet.

The LAO report included a telling table on the state policies that hinder active forest management. Forest management activities in California frequently require the following major state environmental permits: Timber Harvest Plan; Environmental Quality Act Environmental Impact Report; Endangered Species Act Incidental Take Permit; Lake and Streambed Alteration Agreement; Section 402 Water Quality Certification; National Pollutant Discharge Permit; and Burn Permit.

Trump said it above in simple words; the authors of the LAO report concluded that decades-long forest management activities and policies resulted in reductions in timber harvesting, accelerated fire suppression and expanded environmental regulations. The combination of these activities and policies reduced the volume of trees and other woody biomass harvested from the forest, heightening tree density across the state’s forests and producing forests that contained much smaller trees and brush.

A Democratic senator from Oregon called the president’s forest management claim “a big and devastating lie,” while a Clinton administration undersecretary for natural resources and environment accused him of shifting the blame from federal lands to state lands. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called Trump a “climate denier” and “climate arsonist.” Climate change, forest management and wildfires provide a volatile political issue that is climaxing near the 2020 elections. Like all political issues, it is much too complicated for one simple answer. But, Trump deserves credit for being on the ball in terms of one major aspect that is often ignored. Screaming “Climate Change!” will only address part of the problem.

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

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