California is suffering, yet again, through a horrendous summer of wildfires that are destroying forests, homes — and lives. Many in the media seem to blame the size of the fires on climate change.
President Donald Trump had a different take in a recent tweet: "California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!"
Trump is correct that human-caused policies may be playing a bigger role than human-caused climate change in the increasingly destructive wildfires.
For decades the U.S. Forest Service allowed logging companies to enter forests and clear out dead, stressed and diseased trees and underbrush, all of which are kindling for wildfires. Between 1960 and 1990, roughly 10 billion to 12 billion board feet of timber was removed annually from national forests, according to the Forest Service. But a steady decline led to only about 2.5 billion board feet harvested in 2013, leaving forests filled with dead and diseased trees.
As the Forest Service reported last December, in California "the total number of trees that have died due to drought and bark beetles" reached a historic 129 million on 8.9 million acres. The dead trees continue to pose a hazard to people and critical infrastructure."
You can say that again! But it doesn't have to be that way — and it wasn't in the past.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands, said at a hearing last year: "The sale of excess timber provided a steady stream of revenue to the treasury and thousands of jobs to support local families. We could match and maintain tree density to the ability of the land to support it."
But, he continued, "Forty-five years ago, we began imposing laws that have made the management of our forests all but impossible."
The result of those changes has been a rapid expansion, not so much in the number but the size of wildfires.
The Government Accountability Office has published a chart showing the total national forest acreage burned between 1910 and 1997; national forests, as opposed to state and private forests, are mostly in Western states. Wildfires took between 300,000 and 400,000 acres annually between 1940 and 1985. There has been a steady increase ever since. The current California wildfires have consumed more than 1 million acres, according to the Forest Service.
Why the decades of smaller fires? Better-managed forests, especially when management focused on "select cutting."
But one of the purposes of the National Forest Management Act of 1976 was to protect national forests from excessive logging. And it required forest planning based on a consensus of groups, including environmental organizations that tended to oppose the logging.
In addition, the Endangered Species Act tied the hands of effective management if specific actions would have a perceived negative impact on threatened species.
Such changes ultimately made forest management, in McClintock's words, "all but impossible."
The irony is that California Gov. Jerry Brown is dedicated to reducing carbon emissions — using more renewable energy sources, imposing higher mileage standards on cars and trucks, etc. But the wildfires that have grown so extensive on his watch undermine those efforts.
The Earth has been on a gradual warming trend since the last ice age; there is very little humans can do about that. And many climate scientists concede that most carbon-reducing proposals would have minimal impact on rising temperatures.
But there is a lot we can do about reducing the size and intensity of wildfires, which would also reduce carbon emissions. And it starts with embracing policies that were standard practice decades ago. Well-managed forests are much safer and less-costly forests.
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation.