Ryan Zinke knew exactly whom to blame for the catastrophic wildfires that have scorched California and the West this year.
Touring the scarred neighborhoods of Redding in August, President Donald Trump’s interior secretary blasted “special interest” environmental groups for blocking logging projects that he said would have made forests safer.
His words recalled the timber wars of the 1990s, when conservative politicians and out-of-work loggers blamed environmentalists for court rulings and a thicket of regulations that silenced chainsaws in many Western forests to protect the spotted owl and other threatened wildlife.
Now Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, are calling for more logging. “For too long, our forest management efforts have been thwarted by lawsuits from misguided, extreme environmentalists,” they wrote recently in a Sacramento Bee opinion piece.
These days, however, the Trump administration’s words ring hollow in many of California’s 30 million acres of forests, an area covering one-third of the state’s land mass.
Litigation has largely given way to cooperation. Timber industry officials say they’ve found common ground with environmental groups to thin out overgrown forests and reduce fire hazards. While forestry project approvals can take years — and hundreds of thousands of acres of acres still need to be thinned — logging advocates say the Trump administration’s argument is outdated in California.
“To me, it represented a lack of understanding of the dynamics of what’s going on here on the ground in California,” said Rich Gordon, president of the California Forestry Association, the state’s primary timber lobbying group. “So in some ways it may be campaign rhetoric, but it’s not representative of what’s happening in California.
“In many respects, some of our timber wars are over,” Gordon said. “People are working at the table.”
‘A healthier forest’
Litigation doesn’t occur on every project — not by a long shot.
That was true even a decade ago, when suspicions ran higher between loggers and environmentalists. A U.S. General Accountability Office report that examined nearly 1,200 Forest Service projects between 2006 and 2008 found that only 2 percent of the proposals were targeted for lawsuits.
Environmental groups are even less likely to sue now, given there’s growing agreement that California’s wildlands require some form of human intervention.
Scientists say the nation’s century-long practice of fighting all wildfires left California’s woods unnaturally dense with small trees and underbrush — and, ironically, more vulnerable to catastrophic fires. More than 1.3 million acres have burned already this year.
For years, there was little agreement on how to manage the forests better. The logging industry pushed for cutting down large trees, which are more valuable commercially but are also desirable to keep standing because they are more resistant to fire. Environmentalists were suspicious of any major effort to trim the forests, arguing projects were little more than clear cuts and timber sales in disguise.
Nowadays, many scientists, forestry officials and environmentalists agree that some mix of selective logging, clearing and carefully “prescribed” fires is needed to return the forests to some semblance of health.
“There’s sort of a sweet spot,” said Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, Gov. Jerry Brown’s top forestry official. Brown opposes Trump on most environmental issues, but their administrations are largely in agreement when it comes to forest management.
To get a glimpse of the new world of forestry in California, head east on Highway 88 through rural Amador County, into the thick of the Eldorado National Forest.
At about 7,000 feet, you’ll find hard-hat crews trimming branches, yanking out brush and felling trees on either side of the road. Stacks of limbs, branches and brush pile up, and they will be deliberately burned over the winter.
This isn’t clear cutting. Larger fire-resistant trees are spared, while the smaller trees come down. The idea is to create a 20-mile “fuel break” on each side of the road that will dramatically slow any fire that comes through, giving firefighters a better chance of containment.
“This will be a healthier forest,” said Steve Wilensky, an apple grower and chairman of a nonprofit called CHIPS that employs the forest crews.
A former labor organizer, Wilensky said efforts to clean up the Eldorado forest began 15 years ago, when he’d just been elected to the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors and was trying to revive the region’s moribund timber industry. He convened a meeting of logging executives and environmentalists at the public library in the tiny mountain town of West Point, and the warring factions were gradually able to make peace. They dubbed themselves the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group.
“Everyone agreed we had a fire hazard,” Wilensky said.
Before long, the group secured $15 million in federal and state grants, hired dozens of out-of-work loggers and, working in concert with the Forest Service and other agencies, began pulling projects together.
One of its earliest projects thinned shrubs and small trees around the communities of Glencoe, West Point and Wilseyville, creating a fuel break. It helped keep the devastating Butte Fire of 2015 largely at bay. “It was extremely close; four houses burned,” Wilensky said.
The Highway 88 project will pay dividends as well, reducing fire risk while honoring “environmental restoration and stewardship,” he said.
“This was once one of the most litigated parts of the Sierra; no work was going on,” Wilensky said as the chainsaws droned along the north side of Highway 88. “When we finally decided to put down the lawyers and pick up our tools, great things are happening again.”
Crew member Steve Duvall, who worked in the timber industry until the mills began closing in the 1990s, jumped at the chance to get back in the woods.
“This ain’t logging, but it’s basically the same thing,” he said as co-workers chainsawed through a cluster of trees six inches wide. “If California doesn’t want to burn up, then they gotta let us do stuff like this.”
The Highway 88 project owes its origins, in a sense, to a similar collaborative effort begun years ago in Plumas County.
The Quincy Library Group was a remarkable coming-together amid the bitter timber wars. In 1998, Congress enacted a bipartisan law, named for the group, that handed the Forest Service about $293 million to conduct 417 separate forest projects across Northern California’s national forests.
The projects helped; when fires did ignite, the project areas generally “showed decreases in active fire behavior and effects,” an independent scientific panel wrote in a 2013 report.
Yet it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Environmental groups from outside the Quincy group filed protests and lawsuits to block some of the projects, arguing they were mainly targeting large, old-growth trees whose removal wouldn’t reduce fire hazards. The Forest Service often scaled back or delayed projects to mollify the protesters, the scientific panel said.
The protests stunned many in the Quincy group. “Maybe we were naive,” said Quincy veteran Mike De Lasaux, a retired UC Cooperative Extension forestry expert.
Now, as the next generation of forest projects emerges, Wilensky fears that harsh rhetoric from the Trump administration could imperil the hard-won detente between loggers and environmentalists while so much more needs to be done.
“We’ll be back in litigation if Zinke has his way,” he said. “It makes me sick to think of it. He ought to come out and pay a visit.”
Red tape, spotted owls
The Trump administration insists that environmentalists’ lawsuits and other protests have gummed up efforts to improve forest health. “We have been held hostage by these environmental terrorist groups ... that have refused to allow harvest of timber,” Zinke told conservative Breitbart News recently.
Zinke’s press office cited a plan by the Bureau of Land Management this year to allow Boise Cascade to harvest 3.6 million board feet of lumber on a parcel of BLM-owned land in southern Oregon. Environmentalists filed an administrative appeal. As it was pending, a wildfire tore through 52,000 acres of land, including a portion of the forest where the harvest was set to occur. No homes were damaged.
Along similar lines, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Brenda Kendrix said 25 different projects in California were “held up by litigation” filed by environmentalists in the past few years.
In at least one case, the so-called Gemmill thinning project in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, a wildfire broke out before the case could be resolved.
The Gemmill project, initially approved by the agency in 2011, called for thinning more than 1,100 acres of forest near the community of Wildwood. Environmental groups took the Forest Service to court, arguing that the project would “further remove or degrade old-growth forests” and eliminate critical habitats for northern spotted owls. The lawsuit was pending in 2015 when a lightning strike triggered the 144,000-acre Fork Complex Fire.
The fire burned up a portion of the area scheduled for thinning, including “845 acres of northern spotted owl nesting, roosting and foraging habitat,” according to a report compiled earlier this year by the Forest Service.
Denise Boggs of Conservation Congress, a Chico group whose lawsuit derailed the Shasta-Trinity project, disputed the Forest Service’s assertion that the 2015 fire reached the area earmarked for thinning.
In any event, she said the litigation was the right thing to do — and she might file another suit if the Forest Service goes ahead with plans to revive the thinning project.
She believes some forest thinning can help reduce fire risk, but only in the immediate vicinity of people’s homes. She also says some deliberate “prescribed burns” can be helpful, too.
Beyond that, she’s ready to resist “an unholy alliance between the Forest Service and the timber industry” aimed at extracting large, old-growth, fire-resilient trees in spotted owl country.
“I’m not going to apologize for any lawsuit I’ve filed and I’m going to continue to file them if I believe they’re necessary,” Boggs said.
Boggs’ group has a mixed record on litigation. Of the 11 lawsuits she’s filed the past six years, one resulted in a court order halting a project altogether: a proposed timber salvage on hundreds of acres of critical spotted owl habitat in an area of the Mendocino National Forest that burned in 2012. In two other cases, also involving timber harvests in the Mendocino forest, her group got court orders delaying the projects and forcing the government to do redo its environmental documentation.
Regardless of outcome, Trump administration officials say the mere threat of lawsuits from groups like Boggs’ worsens the volume of red tape, leading to delays in getting projects done.
“Forest Service personnel write longer and more detailed environmental documents anticipating legal challenges,” the agency said in a statement.
For instance, it can take the Forest Service two years to study spotted owl habitats before it green-lights a project to remove trees and brush in owl country, said Jim Branham of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that promotes forestry projects.
“That’s all well and good but we’re seeing the King Fire, the Rim Fire — all these fires — destroying numerous owl (habitats),” Branham said, citing two of the biggest fires to rip through owl country in the past five years. “We’re losing the very habitat that these processes are designed to protect.”
A new kind of thinking
Patrick Koepele will put his environmentalist’s credentials up against anyone’s. He runs the Tuolumne River Trust, which is fighting to keep more water in the state’s rivers, drawing howls of protests from farmers and the Trump administration.
Yet he’s advocating for more chainsaws in the woods, through his work with Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions, a group of environmentalists and loggers attempting to reduce fire risks in the region around Yosemite National Park.
The group’s members, who first convened in 2010, were wary about working together — until the disastrous Rim Fire, which burned 250,000 acres in Yosemite and the Stanislaus National Forest in 2013.
“That kind of cemented my sense of the forests in the Sierra as really overgrown,” Koepele said.
The group is now planning a project that will thin about 1,000 acres of forest east of Sonora.
“Before I lived in the foothills and became more closely acquainted with forests, I would have been skeptical of something like this,” said Koepele, who moved to Sonora from Davis in 2000. “Now I’ve gotten to see the forests, and spent time with researchers and spent time with some of the loggers.
“That’s my evolution. I think there’s a quite a bit of that among environmental groups in the Sierra.”
That kind of thinking has carried over to the highest levels of state government.
Gov. Brown secured $96 million from the Legislature this year to pay for more forest management projects. He also just signed Senate Bill 901, which attempts to shield electric utilities from certain wildfire costs but also relaxes logging restrictions for larger trees on small parcels of privately owned land.
The new law allocates $1 billion over five years, generated by proceeds from the state’s “cap and trade” carbon emissions program, to ramp up forest thinning.
Branham of Brown’s Sierra Nevada Conservancy said California’s overgrown forests are one of the few places where his boss and the Trump administration are mostly in lockstep.
“It’s happening at a time when there’s not many places where the state of California and the federal government are seeing eye to eye, right?” Branham said. “We’re kind of on the same page about what needs to be done.”
Editor’s note (Oct. 5): This story was updated to correct information about Conservation Congress’ record of litigation against Forest Service projects.