Wildfires a Wakeup Call on Ineffective Land Management Practices
The recent Woolsey and Camp fires in California were catastrophic on all fronts: loss of life, damage to property, and total annihilation of the environment. There can be no clearer wakeup call that our current land management policies are ineffective and require immediate remedy. Reducing the threat of wildfires requires tremendous dedication and sacrifice, but as your representatives in Congress and the State Legislature, we’re committed to ending this crisis for our rural districts and for all California.
To address this growing problem, we must first define a “natural” and “healthy” forest. Forests in California might appear picturesque as they currently exist, but they are in no way natural or healthy. As the US Forest Service will tell you, healthy forests average between 40-60 trees per acre; California forests typically contain hundreds of trees per acre. In fact, some portions of the San Bernardino National Forest have approximately 600 trees per acre. This is a ticking time bomb.
Second, we must recognize that forest fires naturally occur and predate human intervention. For more than a millennia, forests burned every few decades, oftentimes from lightning strikes, which cleared out much of the overgrowth and dead wood. In fact, the lodgepole pine found throughout California, and in our own backyard, is one of many plant species that must be exposed to fire in order to release its seeds. What changed with forest fires? Three forces: 1. Modern firefighting techniques to protect structures and stop the spread of large fires. 2. Special interest groups who seek to prevent active land management in forests. 3. Government forest management policies reflective of this interest group pressure. To complicate matters further, recent changes in rainfall patterns have only increased the danger posed by wildfires. These changes have left us with overgrown, unhealthy forests.
Since passage of the National Forest Management Act of 1976, we’ve seen a 79 percent reduction in forest “thinning” activities. State and federal administrations have compounded this problem through environmental policies that make removal of vegetation and diseased trees more difficult. The results won’t surprise you: From 1940 to 1985, 300,000-400,000 acres burned annually in National Forests. The most recent figures provided by the Forest Service indicate over a million acres burned in California this year alone.
Better forest management policies, which help forests return to a more natural state, will result in smaller, less intense wildfires. This is why we support efforts like HR 2936, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, which would make it easier to manage overgrown forests on federal land.
Much can also be done at the state level to make our forests healthier. California currently spends billions of taxpayer dollars each year in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Legislative Analyst’s Office lists forest management as among the most efficient uses of this funding, yet California spends little to keep our forests healthy. Instead, it’s allocated to less efficient programs, like the High Speed Rail Authority, which just received a scathing report from the State Auditor concluding the program is poorly managed and won’t achieve its goals.
Carbon emissions from wildfires are the equivalent to an additional 19 million vehicles on our state’s roadways. It begs the question: Why aren’t we using this funding to address the threat of wildfires? Instead of pouring more tax dollars into the Bay-to-LA high-speed rail boondoggle, funds should be used for fire suppression and prevention. Our state government cannot continue to ignore the fact that wildfires constitute approximately one-eighth of California’s carbon emissions.
Implementing real solutions will require politicians to break from rigid orthodoxies. We need to work together to prevent greater loss of life and more environmental destruction. In the wake of the deadliest wildfires in California history, we have a moral responsibility to enact forest management reforms that will mark the end of this devastating period instead of continuing policies that have failed us repeatedly.
Congressman Paul Cook represents the 8th Congressional District. Assemblyman Jay Obernolte represents the 33rd Assembly District.
This Op-Ed was published in the San Bernardino Sun and Riverside Press Enterprise on December 5, 2018.