Capitol Alert

California has enough water to fight fires. The problem is overgrown forests, McClintock says.

California has enough water to fight the fires raging in the state, according to Republican Rep. Tom McClintock.

It’s overgrown forests that are the problem.

McClintock, whose district stretches from Lake Tahoe to Kings Canyon National Park, spoke to The Sacramento Bee after meeting with officials battling the Donnell Fire in Stanislaus National Forest on Thursday. “It’s the same old story. I asked them what the tree density was in the forests where the fire is,” McClintock said. “It’s about 300 trees per acre.”

“A healthy density in the Sierra is about 80 to 100 trees,” McClintock continued.

Asked about President Trump’s Tweets earlier this week complaining that California water policies were hurting efforts to fight more than a dozen major fires burning across the state, McClintock responded, “I think the president confused two issues that are separate,” referring to water policy and forest policy.

But he added, “Once you separate them he’s right on both.”

McClintock has long been critical of both the state’s water policies and its forest management practices. California’s leaders are now seeking to ramp up efforts to do some of the forest management that the Republican congressman and others have been advocating for — things like clearing dead brush and trees and thinning the number of trees in the forest. Much of California’s forests are on national forest land, however, which requires federal action.

The U.S. Forest Service, for example, is heading up the response to the Donnell Fire, a 23,000-plus acre blaze that is only 5 percent contained. Most the forest land is uninhabited, however, so the threat to property and lives is far lower than the deadly Carr Fire around Redding or the Mendocino Complex Fire, which is now the largest fire in state history.

On Wednesday, McClintock joined the rest of the House Republican delegation in signing a letter to President Trump thanking him for “declaring a major disaster declaration for wildfires burning in California.” That Aug. 5th disaster declaration only made federal relief funding available for fire victims in Shasta County, where the Carr Fire is burning. And the Republican letter does not specifically request federal aid for victims of the Mendocino Complex Fire, as a letter from a bipartisan group of California Congress members asked on Aug. 7, or other fire victims.

McClintock’s Democratic opponent, Jessica Morse, criticized the congressman on Twitter for not joining the bipartisan letter. McClintock told The Bee it was because he had already signed onto the GOP delegation letter which addressed all the fires burning in California. But instead of a direct request for federal disaster aid, it simply urges Trump’s “continued leadership and support” for California and says the members of Congress “stand ready to assist you in expediting federal support to impacted communities.”

McClintock praised the response from both the Cal Fire and federal responses in fighting the fires burning around the state. His concern is that existing forest management policies have created massive amounts of tinder to fuel these catastrophic fires.

Congress made a breakthrough earlier this year when it agreed to change the way the Forest Service budgets for firefighting, creating a separate stream of money to fight fires so that the agency doesn’t have to raid its regular budget and slow its other forest work. The bipartisan deal rolled back some environmental requirements, which many liberals didn’t like. And on the flip side, it didn’t go nearly far enough for conservatives, like McClintock, who want to rein in environmental reviews on a far broader scale to make is easier for forest clearing and logging projects to go forward.

“We still have a long way to go,” he told The Bee. McClintock and other House Republicans support legislation that would allow forest management projects to bypass many of those environmental review steps. The legislation has twice passed the House, only to be stalled in the Senate. He noted, however, that he was able to get similar language included in a 2016 water infrastructure bill that circumvented the review process for certain forest management efforts in the Tahoe Basin national forests. He believes the results will make “a very strong case that (the law) needs to be extended throughout West.”

Conservation groups, however, are skeptical. Ed Smith, a forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, told The Bee earlier this week that there are ways to streamline environmental assessments. “But when you’re talking about complex systems and large scale projects, we still need to do environmental review,” Smith said. “Those laws were developed to protect natural resources and ourselves.”

And House Republicans will have a tough time convincing Senate Democrats to get behind their proposal, especially given their belief that the biggest factor driving California’s more and more intense wildfires is climate change. The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have conducted a wholesale rollback of environmental regulations and policies that climate scientists fear will make the problems much worse.

“It is our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean has said.

In the short- and medium-term, however, fire officials and forestry experts are urging policymakers to prioritize more forest management activities. Trump said at a dinner Wednesday in Washington that he wanted “to have some meetings about (California’s fires), because there are reasons and there are things you can do to mitigate what’s happening.” His own administration, however, has proposed budgets that would slash forest management funding.

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