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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Legislation would help manage forests, prevent wildfire

By: Rayne Pegg and Erin Huston; Ag Alert

Last year’s Rim Fire, California’s third-largest fire, understandably garnered a lot of media attention. More than 250,000 acres burned, private property was lost and significant water resources were placed at risk of impairment.

As we enter the 2014 fire season after a winter of significant drought, it is timely to reflect on the series of events that place California at risk of extreme wildfire. It is also important to remember how costly the devastation from just one fire can be. Individually, the Rim Fire cost $130 million to suppress—and this does not include the damage to rural communities, the environment or economic activities that rely on the forest.

California has already experienced numerous fires this season and the outlook for 2014 shows significant wildland fire potential. Fires are historically common in California and can actually prompt a regrowth process for several species. However, we’ve reached a point where fires burn hotter and more frequently than ever. Fires of this intensity and size threaten our rural communities, environment, water supplies, and federal and state budgets.

Devastating wildfires represent a cost associated with not managing our forests. Fires that once burned every 10 to 15 years, naturally, allowed for new tree and vegetation growth and the release of regenerating seed. However, today’s fires are less frequent, cover larger acreage, burn hotter and pose a greater risk to life and property.

Forest management on federal lands to reduce dead trees, thin densely grown areas and remove brush is significantly backlogged and commonly subject to nonsensical litigation, resulting in overgrown tree canopies, increased presence of disease and diminished wildlife habitat. This backlog and inability to properly manage our forests results in a series of destructive wildfire seasons.

Just as homeowners maintain their private gardens to manage overgrowth, weeds and dead plants so healthy plants can thrive, our forests need to be managed. But timber harvesting and thinning of trees have become fraught with litigation, which has left forestland to become overgrown with trees and underbrush, making it perfect habitat for forest fires.

Timber harvesting is often depicted as clear cutting that results in our lush forests looking like vacant lots. But most forestry in California consists of selective harvest, limited to younger trees within a range of height and width. Older-growth trees are left to grow and stabilize the soil, while dry brush and dead trees are cleared from the forest floor. Thinning out only selected trees and clearing the forest floor of dead brush creates spacing for new, beneficial vegetation and reduces overgrown brush and dry vegetation.

We also need to recognize that rural towns rely on foresting jobs to survive. Though growing marijuana is becoming popular in these areas, the money generated from that activity does not stay in the community and support local schools, public services or roads.

Because not enough money has been set aside in the federal budget to fight wildfires, money for forest-management activities ends up being robbed. Here’s how: The U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are the two federal entities responsible for wildfire suppression. Suppression funding levels are based on the 10-year average of suppression costs; currently, that’s not enough to provide the necessary level for suppression activities nationwide. When suppression funding runs out, which happens regularly, both the USFS and DOI have the authority to transfer funds from within their budgets to make up for shortfalls. So money is usually taken away from non-suppression programs, including land management programs that decrease long-term wildfire risk and costs.

In the last two years, more than $1 billion was taken from 2013 and 2014 appropriations bills to repay the transfers from 2012 and 2013. It is estimated that the fiscal year 2014 wildfire season suppression is underfunded by $470 million, which will likely lead to another round of transfers that will again short-change forest management and other programs.

For this reason, the California Farm Bureau Federation is a member of the Partner Caucus on Fire Suppression Funding Solutions, a diverse coalition working to pass legislation known as the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. The WDFA would change the approach to funding wildfire suppression by developing a wildfire emergency funding process for a portion of USFS and DOI suppression activities similar to funds for other natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and tornadoes.

The legislation would treat catastrophic wildfires as the “predictable” emergencies that they are and provide a more reliable funding structure that does not harm land management and wildfire risk-reduction activities. In the rare case it should become necessary, USFS and DOI would retain their financial transfer authorities.

We must plan for catastrophic wildfires and manage our forests. Rather than relying on annual emergency appropriations to suppress fires we expect, this legislation provides a consistent, predictable funding stream that protects critical forest management activities that benefit the California economy and our forests.

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