When it comes to wildfires, California is “not on the side of nature,” Gov. Jerry Brown acknowledged in an Aug. 1 press conference. “We’re fighting nature.”
There are, however, things people can do to mitigate the risk of forest fires, which are growing ever longer and more destructive in the West thanks to high temperatures, drought and invasive species. After years of neglect, California’s government is now stepping up efforts to do just that.
The federal government, however, is not moving with the same sense of urgency.
Over the weekend, President Trump tweeted that California’s multiplying wildfires are “being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws...“Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!”
There’s just one problem. The Trump administration’s own budget request for the current fiscal year and the coming one proposed slashing tens of millions of dollars from the Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service budgets dedicated to the kind of tree clearing and other forest management work experts say is needed. And it’s just one example of how the federal government is still not prioritizing fire mitigation to the scale that is needed, according to forestry experts.
“I think for a number of years the feds were more ahead of this dilemma, at least in discussions,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley. But “I have to say right now, I think the state is moving ahead. It’s certainly being more innovative, it’s doing more policy work.”
It will be hard to dramatically alter the status quo, however, without more help from the federal government. Through the national forests, national parks, Bureau of Land Management, and others, the federal government manages more than 40 percent of California’s total acreage, as of 2015. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, by comparison, manages a little more than 30 percent.
Neither federal nor state authorities have been doing enough to respond to the historic 100 million-plus dead trees littering the state’s forests, experts say. “California’s forests suffer from neglect and mismanagement, resulting in overcrowding that leaves them susceptible to disease, insects and wildfire,” the independent Little Hoover Commission wrote in a February report. And a 2017 report by two U.S. Forest Service officials found that “the current scale and pace of treatment implementation is not keeping up with the current needs or addressing the backlog” of overgrown forests.
California policymakers are now trying to address these problems through a spate of new laws and increased funds. In May, Gov. Jerry Brown released an executive order and Forest Carbon Plan to improve forest management. And he requested $96 million to help fund the effort. The Legislature passed a series of laws in June to help contain the wildfire threat.
Congress did take an important step forward when it struck a bipartisan deal earlier this year to fix the way the U.S. Forest Service budgets for firefighting. The upshot is the agency will not have to borrow funds from its fire prevention activities to combat the increasingly intense fires burning through the West each summer, allowing it to “focus its resources on maintenance and prevention work,” said Republican Rep. Ken Calvert of Riverside County. Calvert was among those who helped orchestrate the spending fix.
The new budget structure doesn’t go into effect until fiscal year 2020, however. And Stephens said that while the move “enables for more work to happen on the front end,” it’s not yet clear that’s happening. “I see good intentions, I see good ideas, but I don’t see work on the ground,” he said.
Lawmakers in Washington, moreover, are not seeking major increases in forest management funding the way the state has. Although Congress has rejected the Trump administration’s proposals for deep cuts to the fire mitigation budgets, the Senate included just a $5 million increase to the Forest Service budget to remove “fuels” like dead trees, low-hanging branches, brush and and flammable materials like pine needles and leaves on the forest floor. The House proposed a more sizable $20 million bump. Even that is unlikely to be enough to catch up forest projects to where they need to be.
The 2017 U.S. Forest Service Report, for example, noted that the federal government had “treated” only about a quarter of federal land that ought to be managed through forest thinning or controlled burns.
In California, the Forest Service performs some sort of fire risk reduction on between 200,000 and 300,000 acres of federal land each year. That amounts to between 1 and 1.5 percent of the 20 million acres of national forest in the state.
For example, they have been hand-cutting overgrown and dead trees, performing prescribed burns, thinning the canopy and applying flame retardant all along the border between the national forest and small town of Idyllwild, not far from Palm Springs. They were three-quarters done with the 66-acre area when the Cranston Fire hit in late July. That allowed firefighters to more aggressively contain the fire from the ground, coupled with help from the air.
As of Tuesday, the fire was 96 percent contained, with only four structures destroyed, three minor injuries to firefighters and no deaths. That’s “extremely low” compared to most wildfires, according to Matt Ahearn, the battalion chief on prevention for the district.
Rob Griffith, assistant director of Fire and Aviation Management for the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service, says the goal is to increase the the number of acres covered to 500,000 per year in the state — which would push the ratio to 2.5 percent.
Stephens, however, told The Sacramento Bee that forest thinning and the prescribed burning needs to be happening at five or ten times the rate that it’s currently happening in California.
“Currently we don’t do (forest management work) sufficiently enough to see a major, broad scale impact on reducing wildfires,” agreed Jeffrey Kane, a professor of fire ecology and fuels management at Humboldt State University.
But that requires more skilled personnel, more equipment and generally more resources on the front end.
Griffith would not explicitly say that the Forest Services needs more money. Instead, he pointed to partnerships with non-governmental organizations as a way the agency is maximizing its impact. One of those is The Nature Conservancy, which is teaming with the Forest Service on a project to restore and manage 30,000 acres in Placer County, not far from where the King Fire ravaged the landscape in 2014.
According to Ed Smith, a forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, the Forest Service told the group, “We don’t have enough money in the treasury to treat this much area.” So the Nature Conservancy sought out private donations as well as state funds to pair with the federal money.
Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove represents a sprawling swath of the Sierra Nevada mountains that includes most of Placer County. He supports active forest management, but argues that rather than spending more federal money, the government can actually make money by allowing timber companies to thin the forest. “Forest management ... used to make the federal government money,” he noted. What’s changed? “Environmental laws and litigation,” he said. That’s “added years of process to simple forest thinning processes, to the point they’ve become cost prohibitive.”
McClintock and other House Republicans are pushing legislation that would allow forest management projects to bypass many of those environmental review steps. But many Democrats and environmental groups are opposed to that approach.
Smith, with The Nature Conservancy, acknowledged that the environmental review process has slowed down forest management projects the group works on, and says there are ways to streamline the assessments. “But when you’re talking about complex systems and large scale projects, we still need to do environmental review,” he said. “Those laws were developed to protect natural resources and ourselves.”
And Stephens pointed out that from a fire safety perspective, the first priority needs to be removing dead trees and brush from the forests, rather than the live trees that a timber company would be interested in.
Smith said enlisting the private sector in the process could certainly help tackle some of the challenges, particularly in developing the infrastructure needed to clear trees. But there, too, the federal government will need to act. “It takes an up front agreement by the government to allow longer term investment,’ he explained.