It’s Past Time to Manage California Forests

Reducing Catastrophic Devastation with Preventive Forest Management

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor

In light of the deadly Paradise fire in northern California, along with the other devastating fires in the state over the last 10 years, California Ag Today spoke with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke about the state’s forests.

Perdue believes that significant losses could have been averted.

“The issue really right now is what are we going to do about it? These are called disasters. Because of the loss of life, wildland fires have been greater than hurricanes this year,” Perdue said. “We’ve had two significant hurricanes, but the death toll is surpassing that. And the interesting thing in this disaster: these are disasters that we can do some things about, and we need to be about doing things … that we can do, but we need the authority to do that.”

Zinke said that officials need to act on good forest management.

“We talked about active forest management for a long time, but you know, talking’s over,” Zinke said. “It’s now time to act.”

Zinke noted common sense forest principles that need to be addressed at once.

“One is to remove the dead and dying trees; to thin and do prescribed burns late in the season rather than midseason,” Zinke explained. “This is fixable. The president’s right, and this is not just one administration—this goes back years of failure to manage our public lands, and it is absolutely a situation that can be mitigated, but we need to act.

Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior

“It is unsustainable and unacceptable that we have the devastation, the loss of life, but we need to prioritize getting back to an active management system. There are other countries that prevent the devastation,” Zinke said. “I spent a lot of time in Germany, which does not have the scale of fire that we experience. There are models of active forest management that are effective, and this is the time to act.”

But Zinke explained that good forest management in California has a big problem: radical environmentalists.

“Take a look at who’s suing. Every time there is a thinning project, who’s suing. Everyone should recognize that the density of dead and dying trees is higher. The density of trees are higher and there are active forest management principles that we should use to mitigate these devastating forest fires,” Zinke said. “However, when there is lawsuit after lawsuit by, yes, the radical environmental groups that would rather burn down the entire forest than cut a single tree or thin the forest. And it’s easy to find who is suing and who has promulgated these destructive policies.”

Zinke said that he does not want to point fingers just at the environmentalists, though.

“There’s a lot of variables: the season’s getting longer, the temperatures are getting hotter. We’ve had historic drought conditions in California, which has lead to dead and dying trees from beetle kill. There is a high density of trees, with enormous underbrush and those things can be mitigated, but we have to get to work,” he explained.

Perdue challenges the radical environmentalists’ desire for an untouched, pristine forest.

“I think that’s been the theory from well-meaning environmentalist over the years: is that a forest that you did nothing to was pristine,” Perdue said. “We know that’s not to be the case. It gets undergrowth. It gets where you don’t have good recreational activity, poor hiking, poor access or wildlife growth and access, water quality, all those kind of things. It’s not pristine, and that’s the issue that we’re trying to bring up. A well managed, well-groomed forest is always better for all of those kinds of issues.”

Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture

A well-managed forest provides economy and jobs for rural communities as needed, but wildlife, the recreational aspect, the hiking, the water quality, all those also improve with well-managed forests.

“I think some environmentalists are coming around to that to that way of thinking, I think even some environmentalists realize they’ve overreached and [are] keeping management out of these forests, but we need more to come along, and we need the lawsuits to stop,” Perdue said.

Zinke said public land is for the benefit and the enjoyment of all people and not special interest groups.

“And what we’re seeing in the last decade [is] that special interest groups are really exercising their very tight agenda. The result has been a buildup of fuels coupled with droughts, and with increased density of dead and dying trees, as well as beetle kill. And so the condition of our forest as we look at them today, are not healthy—and they are a threat to populations like, like Paradise, and we can do better,” Zinke explained.

“I think the solution is looking at models that are effective, using best science, best practices, and certainly having more authority or we don’t have to go through an entire Environmental Impact Report (EIS) to cut a single tree,” Zinke said.

And that’s exactly what Zinke had to do when he was a congressman in Montana.

“[As] a former congressman, I sponsored the bill to allow a power company to remove vegetation in a prescribed easement. And it took an act of Congress to move the bill through. But is still gave 60 days for a notification before the power company could remove what was called an imminent danger tree. This is a tree that’s going to fall on the power lines, no doubt … it has a potential of starting a forest fire, but it still took 60 days of notification for a power company to have the authority to remove a single tree in a prescribed easement, he said.

Zinke noted that there are a number of legislative fixes, and some of them can be in the Farm Bill.

“We need more authority to have category exclusions, to do the right thing and take a common sense approach so we don’t have to go through year after year of these 100,000-acre-plus fires that are enormously destructive,” Zinke said.

The massive fires put our firefighters and our communities at risk.

“I do think that America is waking up, and sees that we can manage these forest using best practices, and best science,” Zinke said.

“We should be able to manage our forests. And when nature alone takes this course without management .. it has consequences, and those consequences, unfortunately, have led to entire communities being destroyed and a tremendous amount of loss of life. We can do better and we should,” Zinke explained.

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Drought Takes Big Toll on Sierra Nevada Mountains

New Aerial Survey Identifies More Than 100 Million Dead Trees in California

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced the U.S. Forest Service has identified an additional 36 million dead trees across California since its last aerial survey in May 2016. This brings the total number of dead trees since 2010 to over 102 million on 7.7 million acres of California’s drought-stricken forests. In 2016 alone, 62 million trees have died, representing more than a 100 percent increase in dead trees across the state from 2015. Millions of additional trees are weakened and expected to die in the coming months and years.

With public safety as its most pressing concern, the U.S. Forest Service has committed significant resources to help impacted forests, including reprioritizing $43 million in California in fiscal year 2016 to conduct safety-focused restoration along roads, trails and recreation sites. However, limited resources and a changing climate hamper the Forest Service’s ability to address tree mortality in California. USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Forest Service officials are seriously hampered not only by short-term budgets passed by Congress, but also a broken budget for the Forest Service that sees an increasing amount of resources going to firefighting while less is invested in restoration and forest health, Vilsack said.

“These dead and dying trees continue to elevate the risk of wildfire, complicate our efforts to respond safely and effectively to fires when they do occur, and pose a host of threats to life and property across California,” Vilsack said. “USDA has made restoration work and the removal of excess fuels a top priority, but until Congress passes a permanent fix to the fire budget, we can’t break this cycle of diverting funds away from restoration work to fight the immediate threat of the large unpredictable fires caused by the fuel buildups themselves.”

 

dead trees sierra nevada california drought
Bark Beetles have contributed to tree die-off in the Sierra Nevada forest due to the drought in California

The majority of the 102 million dead trees are located in ten counties in the southern and central Sierra Nevada region. The Forest Service also identified increasing mortality in the northern part of the state, including Siskiyou, Modoc, Plumas and Lassen counties.

Five consecutive years of severe drought in California, a dramatic rise in bark beetle infestation and warmer temperatures are leading to these historic levels of tree die-off. As a result, in October 2015, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on the unprecedented tree die-off and formed a Tree Mortality Task Force to help mobilize additional resources for the safe removal of dead and dying trees.

This year, California had a record-setting wildfire season, with the Blue Cut fire alone scorching over 30,000 acres and triggering the evacuation of 80,000 people. In the southeastern United States, wildfires have burned more than 120,000 acres this fall. The southeast region of the Forest Service is operating at the highest preparedness level, PL 5, reflecting the high level of physical resources and funding devoted to the region. Extreme drought conditions persist, and many areas have not seen rain for as many as 95 days.

Longer, hotter fire seasons where extreme fire behavior has become the new norm,] – as well as increased development in forested areas – is dramatically driving up the cost of fighting fires and squeezing funding for the very efforts that would protect watersheds and restore forests to make them more resilient to fire. Last year, fire management alone consumed 56 percent of the Forest Service’s budget and is expected to rise to 67 percent in by 2025.

As the situation in the southeast demonstrates, the problem of shrinking budget capacity is felt across the U.S., not only in the western states. The health of our forests and landscapes are at risk across the nation, and the tree mortality crisis could be better addressed if not for the increasing percentage of the Forest Service budget going to fight wildfire. “We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country,” Vilsack said.

Forest Service scientists expect elevated levels of tree mortality to continue during 2017 in dense forest stands; stands impacted by root diseases or other stress agents; and in areas with higher levels of bark beetle activity. Photos and video of the surveys are available on the Forest Service multimedia webpage.

Learn more about tree mortality and the work to restore our forests in California at the Forest Service’s web page by clicking here.


U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

U.S. Forest Service