President Trump recently tweeted “The Governor of California, @GavinNewsom, has done a terrible job of forest management,” Newsom tweeted back, “You don’t believe in climate change. You are excused from this conversation.”
On October 29, former Governor Jerry Brown addressed the U.S. Congress, saying, “California’s burning while the deniers make a joke out of the standards that protect us all. The blood is on your soul here and I hope you wake up, because this is not politics, this is life, this is morality. You’ve got to get with it—or get out of the way.”
Despite California’s current and former governors both being ardent members of the catastrophe chorus, climate change has almost nothing to do with California’s recent wildfires.
These fires are the result of a century of successful fire suppression, combined with a failure to remove all the undergrowth that accumulates when natural fires aren’t allowed to burn. Not only does excessive undergrowth create fuel for catastrophic super fires, but these excessive trees and shrubs compete with mature trees. This is the real reason why our forests not only are tinderboxes, but also are filled with dying trees.
Forest professionals who were consulted for this article were in agreement that despite the antagonistic rhetoric, and notwithstanding the misplaced “climate crisis” scapegoating and fear mongering, state officials are working with federal agencies on practical solutions. But it isn’t easy to reverse a century of forest mismanagement overnight.
While a consensus has quietly formed that forest thinning absolutely is necessary going forward, California’s timber industry has atrophied to a fraction of what had been its capacity even up until the early 1990s. While fire suppression was ongoing and, overall, was increasing in its effectiveness, environmentalist restrictions put more and more timber out of reach.
The capacity of California’s timber industry is now nowhere near the size required to deliver the scale and pace of timber thinning needed to restore health to the forests and safety to communities in proximity to the forests. And in most cases, controlled burns are too risky until some of the timber and underbrush is first thinned.
In order to address the challenge of thinning California’s forests, there are several steps that have to be taken simultaneously—and soon. Environmental regulations need to be rewritten. Rules and conditions governing timber exports need to be revised or scrapped. Enabling financing such as revolving lines of credit, and long-term harvesting contracts need to be offered. The process to acquire timber harvesting permits needs serious streamlining. Investments need to be made in sawmills and chippers, along with electric power plants running on biomass. Finding laborers to assist with forest thinning is a challenge that might be met by employing some of California’s homeless population.
Biomass power plants could be a big part of the solution. Running on wood chips from biomass that has no value as lumber, they can be sited close to their fuel source, the national forests. Because there will be dozens of them in a decentralized network, they can feed continuous, distributed power into the grid in the same wooded areas where power is most likely to be cut on days with high fire risk. And there is no reason why the California legislature might not consider these power plants to run on renewable energy, since they are “carbon neutral.”
California has roughly 20 million acres of forest. About half of that is federally owned. Of the other half, about 40 percent, or 4 million acres, is owned by private timber companies. The other 6 million acres are held by private, nonindustrial owners. All of these forested areas need thinning operations. Here are some of the steps that could be taken.
Revise Environmental Rules That Inhibit Active Forest Management
The U.S. Forest Service needs to recognize and admit that in California, between one-half and two-thirds of the vegetation has to be removed before these forests will be returned to a historically “resilient” condition that can resist insects, disease, and wildfire. The unnatural high density of trees and undergrowth, because of a century of successful fire suppression, is destroying the health of forests and making them far more combustible.
In particular, the U.S. Forest Service needs to get away from “single species management,” a practice which often leads to standards and guidelines requiring “no-action” to the vegetation, i.e., no forest thinning. The spotted owl, northern goshawk, and pacific fisher are examples of single species that have the largest impacts on permissible forest management using this system.
“No action” restrictions have led to more than half of California’s national forests left unavailable for active management. But “no action” designations, combined with fire suppression, are fatally undermining these forest ecosystems even before super fires strike. These restrictions must be lifted.
In addition to no-action restrictions, in the national forests where thinning and other active management operations are permitted, they are limited by what times of year they may operate. In many cases these limitations run from the beginning of February through the middle of September. But in most of California’s forests, the weather only permits operations between the middle of May and the end of October. This means that in many thinning projects, the operator is only permitted to work for six weeks a year, from September 15 through October 31.
While restrictions on when and where forests can be thinned may have some sound ecological justifications, they are also making it impossible to actually thin the forests. The ecological costs and benefits have not been properly weighed. Thinning operations need to be allowed to run for several months each year, instead of several weeks each year, and they need to encompass a far greater percentage of forested areas.
Change the Rules and Conditions Governing Timber Exports
The export of raw logs from federal lands in the Western United States is currently prohibited. Lifting this prohibition would help, because sawmill capacity is not capable of handling the increase in volume. With the new thinning programs already in place, logs and undergrowth are being burned or put in landfills.
The trade war with China has stopped much of the flow of California’s wood exports. While even Trump’s critics often agree with him on the necessity to confront China’s abusive trade practices, to the extent there is an opportunity to reauthorize timber exports to China, this will help restore demand for a higher volume of wood products.
Facilitate Investment in the Timber and Biomass Industry
The federal government could set up a revolving loan fund for investors to build sawmills—as well as biomass energy facilities, chippers, and other equipment—that would quickly allow the industry to ramp up operations and capacity.
The federal government also could accelerate granting of long term stewardship contracts whereby qualified companies acquire a minimum 20-year right to extract wood products from federal lands. This would guarantee a steady supply of wood products which, in turn, will make investment viable in logging equipment, mills, and biomass energy facilities.
Make It Easier to Get Permits to Extract Timber and Biomass from Federal Lands
In the ten national forests just within California, the U.S. Forest Service has over 100 vacancies. They need to fill these positions somehow, whether that’s through transfers from other states, offering better compensation packages to attract more applicants, or by hiring private contractors. This staffing shortage is slowing the process for qualified licensed timber operators to get permits to extract wood products.
The EPA needs to streamline the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) application process so it is less expensive and time consuming for qualified companies to get permits to extract timber from federal lands. They can also grant waivers to allow thinning projects to bypass NEPA, or at the least, broaden the allowable exemptions.
Rehabilitate Able-Bodied Homeless Substance Abusers . . .
And put them to work thinning the forests. The California National Guard has set up encampments from which the troops are going into the forests to pick up cut brush. These troops could be redeployed to the southern U.S. border, or they could return to their bases. Instead, able-bodied homeless people, arrested for drug or property crimes, could be brought to these camps to work.
Cal Fire has dozens of camps manned by firefighting crews which are otherwise vacant and could be occupied by homeless people to clear brush from the forests. Cal Fire is also hiring laborers to clear brush, and these laborers could be replaced with homeless people serving sentences for drug and property crimes.
Making California’s Forests Safer Could Be an Economic Engine
California imports around 80 percent of the cut lumber used in its construction industry or sold through retailers to consumers. If there was an assurance of wood supply, which the national forests certainly can offer, investment would be made in expanding mill capacity. Suddenly the money that is being sent to Oregon, Washington and British Columbia to purchase their cut timber would stay here in California, employing thousands of workers in the mills.
As California’s forests are thinned, and kept that way, and the annual supply of wood is permanently increased, in-state demand would become increasingly unable to absorb in-state supply, and the surplus could be exported, earning additional profits and supporting additional jobs. Biomass plants, burning carbon neutral wood chips, could profitably generate safe, affordable, distributed electricity to rural markets, employing additional thousands and delivering returns to private investors.
Less obvious and perhaps less certain, but possibly of enormous benefit, would be the opportunity to offer redeeming work to tens of thousands of homeless people. With only modest reforms to California’s criminal code, or perhaps via a state or federal state of emergency, homeless people convicted of drug or minor property crimes could serve their time working on labor crews thinning the forests.
Cal Fire, the California Department of Corrections, and the California Conservation Corps are all equipped to train and house people to do this work. It might be the best thing that ever happened to thousands of young homeless Californians who, once they are freed from substance abuse, are sane, able bodied people. Thousands might recover their dignity and their future in this manner, at the same time as they help restore health to California’s forests.
Practical Solutions Should Trump Climate Fearmongering
If California’s politicians feel obligated to create a public perception that they are in a permanent state of war with President Trump, that’s just politics. But they’ve been braying about climate change for decades, and far too many of the things they’re doing in the name of fighting climate change are just plain stupid and wasteful. One may hope that reports of behind the scenes cooperation with the Trump Administration on forest management are true. Much needs to be done.
Domestically, California’s insurance commissioner, the woefully unqualified ideologue Ricardo Lara, needs to prove that he’s not simply trying to depopulate California’s rural counties by driving out private fire insurance companies and forcing consumers instead to purchase the far more expensive government-mandated coverage. He needs to allow private insurance companies to use forward looking risk models, instead of forcing them to base their rate increase applications on the past 20 years of fire claim data. Or Lara could admit that there is nothing unique about the deadly firestorms of 2017 and 2018, and that they are not the “new normal.”
Lara also needs to stop preventing private insurers from passing their much higher reinsurance costs on to ratepayers. This is particularly egregious since California’s alternative fire insurance coverage—the FAIR Plan—cost far more than the private insurers will ever charge, and the FAIR insurance plans do pass on reinsurance costs to consumers, and then some.
If Gavin Newsom, and his predecessor Jerry Brown, insist on invoking the climate catastrophe trope at every opportunity, and if they truly believe carbon dioxide emissions constitute a mortal threat to humanity and the planet, then why aren’t they advocating lumber mills and biomass power plants in California?
Wouldn’t producing in-state timber eliminate the CO2 emissions inherent in importing timber from the Pacific Northwest and Canada? Wouldn’t biomass plants generate carbon neutral, renewable energy?
And why aren’t they willing to disclose expert estimates of how much CO2 was emitted in the wild fires of 2017 and 2018? Could it be that the quantity of CO2 belched out from those fires would dwarf the amount generated by California’s economy over the past decade? Imagine if all that carbon, thanks to forest thinning, had instead been sequestered in lumber, or turned into carbon neutral electricity.
And why, one most never forget to ask, aren’t Newsom and Brown trying to keep Diablo Canyon nuclear power station operating if “climate change is real.”
Could it be that Governor Newsom, despite his public posturing, doesn’t really believe in climate change? Should Newsom be “excused” from the conversation? And what about Jerry Brown? California’s forests turned into tinderboxes on his watch, and gigatons of CO2 were expelled in the resultant superfires. Perhaps the “blood” of which he speaks with such