Every so often, a Presidential tweet sparks a worthwhile conversation on the national stage. While President Trump is constantly criticized for his choice of words on the digital platform, two of his latest messages in question centered on the cause of the devastating wildfires that have ravaged portions of California:
“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
A day later, the President followed up with a second tweet: "With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get smart!"
Under any other circumstances, the entire US forest value chain would applaud the President for raising awareness about a topic that is so often dismissed at the legislative level. Only a handful of representatives at the national level—led by Congressman Bruce Westerman—have attempted to address these issues, most famously via the Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2017.
However, in this particular case, the President’s remarks were simply ill-informed and ill-timed. While many of the devastating wildfires in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) and much of California do indeed originate in poorly-managed forests, the current blazes that are decimating California did not start in a forest. Rather, they were sparked in a “wildland-urban interface,” which are areas where suburbs abut undeveloped wildlands—in this case grasslands. Aided by strong Santa Ana winds, the fires have quickly spread to engulf huge swaths of the state.
The President’s tweets also implied that the state’s forest management is to blame; however, the majority of California’s forests are federally owned. The New York Times notes that, “Of the state’s 33 million acres of forest, federal agencies, including the Forest Service and the Interior Department, own and manage 57 percent. Forty percent are owned by families, Native American tribes or companies, including industrial timber companies; just 3 percent are owned and managed by state and local agencies.” These statements by the Times are not incorrect.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed the wildfires on a segment of extreme environmentalists who oppose logging, writing “Every year we watch our forests burn, and every year there is a call for action. Yet, when action comes, and we try to thin forests of dead and dying timber, or we try to sustainably harvest timber from dense and fire-prone areas, we are attacked with frivolous litigation from radical environmentalists who would rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods.” Secretary Zinke’s statements are also not incorrect.
Finding Middle Ground
It’s not easy to find middle ground these days—especially amid a series of raging fires that have claimed over 50 lives as of this writing—but it’s an area worth occupying. Cooler heads always prevail.
The single largest contributing factor to the dangerous state of western forests has not been climate change; rather, it is almost entirely an artifact of the way that our national forests—millions of acres of timberland—have been managed since the mid-1970s. The controversy and senseless litigation that has surrounded harvesting activities on publicly-owned lands has long prevented the US Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from taking a common sense, science-based approach to managing forests to control for naturally-occurring, catastrophic events like forest fires, insect damage and disease.
To be clear, cyclical changes in climate undoubtedly impact western forests. Precipitation, snowpack/snowmelt, temperature, soil moisture, the density of trees, shrubs and other potential fuel—as well as the health of these trees and shrubs—all contribute to the conditions that create favorable wildfire scenarios. All of these factors are also impacted by climate variability. But in the case of the devastating fires that have grown in scale over the last few decades, it is a widely-held belief that the mismanagement of western national forests is the primary cause for the unprecedented destruction.
In a separate blog post we published earlier this year, we noted that forest mortality now far exceeds forest growth in western national forests. In 2017, forest growth was 48 percent of mortality while timber harvests were a mere 11 percent of what is dying annually—and this trend is on the rise. The USFS estimates that 6.3 billion dead trees were standing in 11 western states in 2015, up from 5.8 billion in 2010. Regardless of the climate variability in the region, this accumulation of dead timber is a tremendous problem that has resulted in a very dangerous situation.
The good news is that a successful model for managing forests to minimize devastating mega fires and disease risk already exists. We need only look to privately-owned working forests to find a solution. Working forests are managed for production and health and, while fires and infestations do occur in these forests, overwhelming incidents like those currently ravaging California are rare.
At a landscape level, working forests are made up of a patchwork of smaller timber tracts that are thinned and harvested at different intervals. Due to this hands-on management, the landscape-level forest has multiple characteristics that prevent catastrophic damage:
- Because they are thinned at regular intervals, these forests do not contain as much fuel as forests that are unmanaged, and the remaining trees stand farther apart. Together, these conditions in private working forests are much less likely to foster crown or canopy fires, which are the most serious, deadly and difficult fires to contain. Public forests, which are not managed for production and health, contain densely packed trees surrounded by a surplus of varying fuels on the forest floor. As a result, fires in these forests are much more likely to rage out of control, threatening both lives and property.
- Due to rotating harvest schedules, working forests are also of different age classes. Planting and harvesting tracts of timber at varying periods helps to slow down—and sometimes even stops—the spread of fire or disease. A comparison of the damage caused by the mountain pine beetle in the West and the southern pine beetle in the South demonstrates this. Insect infestations generally start in older, less healthy trees. In the South, where forests are of varying age classes, an infestation might start in a 50-year old stand. When the infestation tries to spread to neighboring stands, it will soon encounter younger, healthier trees that are able to easily defend themselves against disease and insect attacks. This phenomenon limits the damage insects can cause. Public forests that remain unmanaged, however, are uniformly older, more likely to be even in age and, when their health declines, they are much more susceptible to insect infestations that can travel quickly through large swaths of forest.
Simply cloning a management style from region to region is unrealistic, as there are a number of key differences between western and southern forests. Timberland acres and tree species are dissimilar, as are the soil and terrain, elevations, climatic trends and precipitation norms just to name a few. However, key forest management practices such as regular thinnings, harvests and prescribed burns—rigorous monitoring and reacting to health issues—are pretty universal in application. For example, a 2015 study by The Nature Conservancy and the USFS showed that a 12,000-acre “doughnut hole” within a major western fire zone remained untouched by the massive Carlton Complex fire in Washington. The area survived, the researchers believe, because it had previously undergone a thinning and prescribed burn.
The fires currently burning across California are high-profile in nature and extremely destructive, and the forestry community has an opportunity to redirect the President’s digital messages and promote a more positive conversation. Though his messages on the topic lack discretion, they have created an environment for education about sustainable forest management. A failure to address these issues at the legislative level will only result in the continued loss of life, the destruction of wildlife and wildlife habitats, homes and other structures, and a dramatic change in millions of acres of timberland.