We need a Civilian Conservation Corps for forest management

25 September 2020

Published by https://thehill.com/

USA – Catastrophic wildfires have brought orange skies and devastation to the Western U.S. The exceptional fires of 2020 are the latest in a string of extreme fire years, costing California alone tens of billions per year and far too many lives. At the same time millions of workers have been shoved into the virtual unemployment line by the pandemic.

While the daunting nature of climate change and intensification of wildfires can cause us to feel helpless, there are pathways forward. A new Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) could stimulate the economy, provide work to unemployed and underemployed folks and help significantly reduce wildfire damages in the Western U.S. The best part? There’s bipartisan support for the revival of the CCC. Recent polling finds 75 percent of likely voters support a new CCC, including 74 percent of Republicans. Support like this is hard to come by in the era of polarization, especially on environmental issues.

The fires ravaging the west are being driven both by hotter and drier conditions caused by a changing climate and by a legacy of poor forest management. Human emissions of greenhouse gases have increased spring and summer temperatures by around 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Western U.S. over the past century. This has extended both the area and time periods in which forests burn; in parts of California, fire season is now 50 days longer. In fact, the recent Fourth National Climate Assessment suggested that about half the increase in burned area in the Western U.S. since the 1980s can be attributed to changing climate conditions.

However, even if we were to magically slash our emissions to zero tomorrow, the climate would simply stop warming, not return to the conditions of the 1970s. The best we can hope for is to make our current climate the new normal and avoid making things potentially much worse.

To reduce the severity of wildfires in our current climate, we need to improve forest management. Many Western U.S. forests are adapted to frequent, low level surface fires that clear the undergrowth but generally leave mature trees unharmed — fires that are a necessary component of health and regeneration. However, following The Great Fire of 1910 we began aggressively putting out wildland fires in order to protect homes, businesses and timber. This has led to a large accumulation of dead trees and underbrush, which acts as an accelerant in uncharacteristically severe fires that can result in catastrophic damage to ecosystems as well as homes, businesses and infrastructure along the rapidly expanding wildland-urban interface. These more intense fires also pose a larger risk to air quality across wide regions.

As a Forest Service ranger once memorably explained, it’s time for us to replace Smokey the Bear’s shovel with a drip torch, as land managers have done in the Southeast for decades. We need to start controlling fires instead of extinguishing them, thinning small trees in some regions and doing controlled burns to clear out accumulated fuels. At the same time, we need to allow the best available science to guide forest management and avoid extreme or unnecessary logging of our public forests under the guise of fire mitigation. To complement these measures, it’s vital that we better protect homes in high risk regions, create defensible spaces, improve building codes and deal with the crisis of affordable urban housing that is driving people to live in flammable wildland areas.

One recent study suggested that we would need to undertake a mix of controlled burns and small-tree thinning across 20 million acres of California alone to substantially reduce fire risk. This would be a huge undertaking, one that would take many years and substantially more funding and workers than states and national programs currently have.

A new CCC with a division focused on forest management could provide the resources needed to dramatically speed up our ability to deal with the fuel reduction backlog across Western U.S. forests. While years of experience and training are necessary for the people who plan our forest management, workers can be prepared to assist with basic fire management with only a week of intensive training.

This influx of investment, coupled with fundamentally rethinking the way we manage fire, offers a way forward. While doing controlled burns and thinning tens of millions of acres of forestland will require significant expenditures, the up-front costs pale in comparison to the massive economic, social and health damages we suffer from fires today. In fact, given the massive unemployment crisis the country finds itself in, a crisis which has disproportionately hit Black and Brown communities, the economic, social and environmental benefits of a new CCC would be immense.

President Roosevelt first established the CCC in 1933 during the midst of the Depression. The agency employed three million hungry Americans to plant trees, build trails, occupy fire towers and help manage our lands. Today, as was the case then, this work is labor intensive, providing upwards of 30 jobs per million dollars invested. While the CCC has a complicated history, excluding women and segregating work camps, policymakers can today learn from these deeply troublesome mistakes and create an inclusive CCC that corrects these historic wrongs.

The living wages and direct employment provided through a new CCC can prevent millions of people from falling into destitution and experiencing the long-term scarring associated with unemployment. Workers can be trained quickly to get out into the field and improve our public lands, reduce risks associated with wildfires and engage in other meaningful environmental management projects.

At a time when tens of millions of Americans are desperate for work and our lands are in dire disrepair, now is the time to invest. Far from a one-off measure, a 21st century CCC will pay dividends for years to come.

Zeke Hausfather is director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, California.

Mark Paul is an assistant professor of economics and environmental studies at New College of Florida.

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