The Unelected Tyrants Who Burned Down the Golden State

If this seems like an unfair title, it isn’t, though some of these tyrants were appointed by elected politicians. And all of these tyrants rely on laws that were passed by elected politicians. But while there is plenty of blame to go around, tyranny is what Californians have endured. A tyrannical system is entirely to blame for apocalyptic fires that are wiping out California’s forests, fouling the air, and killing everything in their path. 

So who are these unelected tyrants?

We can start with federal and state bureaucrats. Principal among them are the careerist ideologues who dominate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, abetted by the fanatics who run California’s Air Resources Board, along with dozens of other federal and state agencies. Joining them outside of government to assist in the incineration of California’s precious ecosystems are the lobbyists and litigants representing powerful environmentalist nonprofits such as the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.

So numerous they escape individual accountability, these tyrants collectively have made it nearly impossible to engage in logging, forest thinning, or controlled burns. The policies, regulations, and judgments these tyrants relentlessly advocate and ruthlessly enforce are the reason California’s fires in recent years have been cataclysmic. 

As a consequence, after more than a century of increasingly effective suppression of natural fires, California’s forests are now overgrown tinderboxes. They’re either going to get cleared out mechanically, or they’re going to burn like hell.

Opposing this tyranny does not signify a lack of concern for our natural environment, even though the tyrants routinely make the accusation. If you’ve ever been stirred by the sight of a California condor soaring above the wave-battered cliffs of Big Sur, you should thank an environmentalist. Most Californians agree that the condor, along with other species, was worth saving. But if the entire Ventana Wilderness is incinerated, condor habitat no longer exists. Similarly, if the entire Feather River watershed is reduced to cinder, hundreds of square miles of owl habitat will no longer exist.

By now, one may hope, most honest environmentalists know that when it comes to forest management, they’ve blown it. To paraphrase an old adage, they burned down the forest to save the trees. Maybe now they’ll help push for genuine, far-reaching, and swift reform. Then again, a lot of power and money can be had in perpetuating conflict. And recent actions by California Governor Gavin Newsom offer zero indication that help could be forthcoming from politicians. Newsom’s reaction to the ongoing inferno in California is to ban gasoline-powered cars, and declare that he has “no more patience for climate deniers.”

Let’s settle the climate “denier” issue straight away. If California’s summers are getting hotter, dryer, and lasting longer, then everything these unelected tyrants have been doing has been even more misguided, not less. And comprehensive regulatory reform and relief to start properly managing California’s forests is more urgently needed, not less. 

So enough about the climate. Acknowledging climate change, regardless of its cause or trajectory, makes the case for forest management reform stronger, not weaker.

It is a great irony that alarm over climate change is used to justify endless proposals that call for urgent and unprecedented actions across all aspects of public policy, yet it cannot stimulate a swift and effective response to California’s burning forests. So what steps can be taken to quickly mitigate the damage of these catastrophic fires? And what ongoing steps can be taken to prevent them in the future?

In preparing this report, expert opinions were solicited from leaders in the timber, cattle, and biomass industries, professional foresters, and political representatives. All of them were in general agreement on the steps to be summarized here. None of them wanted to be quoted directly. The ire of the tyrants is real, and if you’re in these businesses, the power they wield is to be feared.

How to Revive California’s Forests

For about 20 million years, California’s forests endured countless droughts, some lasting centuries. Natural fires, started by lightning and very frequent in the Sierras, were essential to keep forest ecosystems healthy. In Yosemite, for example, meadows used to cover most of the valley floor, because while forests constantly encroached, periodic fires would wipe them out, allowing the meadows to return. Across millennia, fire-driven successions of this sort played out in cycles throughout California’s ecosystems.

Also for the last 20 million years or so, climate change has been the norm. To put this century’s warming into some sort of context, Giant Sequoias once grew on the shores of Mono Lake. For at least the past few centuries, forest ecosystems have been marching into higher latitudes. In the Sierra Foothills, the oaks have invaded the pine habitat, and the pine, in turn, has invaded the higher elevation stands of fir. 

Today, it is mismanagement, not climate change, that is the primary threat to California’s forests.

In a speech before the U.S. Congress last September, Republican Tom McClintock summarized the series of mistakes that are destroying California’s forests. McClintock’s sprawling 4th Congressional District covers 12,800 square miles, and encompasses most of the Northern Sierra Nevada mountain range. His constituency bears the brunt of the misguided green tyranny emanating from Washington, D.C. and Sacramento. Here’s some of what McClintock said:

Excess timber comes out of the forest in only two ways—it is either carried out or it burns out. For most of the 20th century, we carried it out. It’s called “logging.” Every year, U.S. Forest Service foresters would mark off excess timber and then we auctioned it off to lumber companies who paid us to remove it, funding both local communities and the forest service. We auctioned grazing contracts on our grasslands. The result: healthy forests, fewer fires and a thriving economy. But beginning in the 1970s, we began imposing environmental laws that have made the management of our lands all but impossible. Draconian restrictions on logging, grazing, prescribed burns and herbicide use on public lands have made modern land management endlessly time-consuming and ultimately cost-prohibitive. A single tree thinning plan typically takes four years and more than 800 pages of analysis. The costs of this process exceed the value of timber—turning land maintenance from a revenue-generating activity to a revenue-consuming one.

When it comes to carrying out timber, California used to do a pretty good job. In the 1950s the average timber harvest in California was around 6 billion board feet per year. The precipitous drop in harvest volume came in the 1990s. The industry started that decade taking out not quite 5 billion board feet, and by 2000 the annual harvest had dropped to just over 2 billion board feet. Today, only about 1.5 billion board feet per year come out of California’s forests as harvested timber.

Reviving California’s Timber Industry

What McClintock describes as a working balance up until the 1990s needs to be restored. In order to achieve a sustainable balance between natural growth and timber removals, California’s timber industry needs to triple in size. If federal legislation were to guarantee a long-term right for timber companies to harvest trees on federal land, investment would follow.

The following map shows the locations of California’s 29 remaining sawmills, along with the locations of eight more that are inactive. In addition, there are 112 sites in California where sawmills once operated. In most cases, these vacant sites of former mills are located in ideal areas to rebuild a mill and resume operations. 

The economics of reviving California’s timber industry are compelling. A modern sawmill with a capacity of 100 million board feet per year requires an investment of $100 million. Operating at a profit, it would create 640 full-time jobs. Constructing 30 of these sawmills would create roughly 20,000 jobs in direct employment of loggers, haulers, and mill workers, along with thousands of additional jobs in the communities where they are located.

The ecological impact of logging again in California’s state and federal forests will not become the catastrophe the environmentalists and regulators have suggested as their pretext to destroy the logging industry. Especially now, with decades of accumulated experience, we know that logging does more good than harm to forest ecosystems. There is evidence to prove this.

In forests managed by Sierra Pacific, for example, owl counts are higher than in California’s federally managed forests. Even clear-cutting, because it is done on a 60 to 100-year cycle, does more good than harm to the forests. By converting one or two percent of the forest back into meadow each year, areas are opened up where it is easier for owls to hunt prey. Also, during a clear cut, the needles and branches are stripped off the trees and left to rejuvenate the soil. The runoff is managed as well, via contour tilling which follows the topography of the hillsides. Rain percolates into the furrows, which is also where the replacement trees are planted.

While clear-cutting would not destroy most ecosystems, since it is only performed on one to two percent of the land in any given year, there are other types of logging that can be used in areas deemed more ecologically sensitive. Southern California Edison owns 20,000 acres of forest around Shaver Lake in Southern California where the utility practices what is called total ecosystem management.

When the Creek Fire burned, earlier this year, an almost unthinkable 550 square miles in Southern California, the 30 square-mile island of SCE-managed forest around Shaver Lake was unscathed. The reason is that for decades, Edison has been engaged in timber operations the company defines as “uneven age management, single-tree selection,” whereby the trees to be harvested are individually designated in advance, in what remains a profitable logging enterprise. Controlled burns are also an essential part of SCE’s total ecosystem management, but these burns are only safe when the areas to be burned are caught up on logging and thinning.

The practice of uneven age management could be utilized in riparian canyons, or in areas where valuable stands of old-growth merit preservation. The alternative, a policy of hands-off preservation, has been disastrous. Tree density in the Sierra Nevada is currently around 300 per acre, whereas historically, a healthy forest would only have had around 60 trees per acre. Clearly this number varies depending on forest type, altitude, and other factors. Overall, however, California’s forests, especially on federal lands, contain about five times the normal tree density. The result is trees that cannot compete for adequate moisture and nutrients, much less rain percolating into springs and aquifers, disease and infestation of the weakened trees, and fire.

The choice before us—thin the overgrown forests or suffer fires that destroy the forests entirely—cannot be emphasized enough. In the Feather River Canyon, along with many other canyons along the Sierra Nevada, the east-west topography turned them into wind tunnels that drove fires rapidly up and down the watershed. Yet these riparian areas have been among the most fiercely defended against any logging, which made those fires all the worse. The choice going forward should not be difficult. Logging and forest thinning cannot possibly harm a watershed as much as parched forests burning down to the soil, wiping out everything.

Growing California’s Biomass Power Industry

If removing trees with timber operations is essential to return California’s forests to a sustainable, lower density of trees per acre, mechanical removal of shrub and undergrowth is an essential corollary, especially in areas that are not clear cut. Fortunately, California has already developed the infrastructure to do this. In fact, California’s biomass industry used to be bigger than it is today, and can be quickly expanded.

The next map shows the locations of 22 active biomass power plants in California, generating just over a half-gigawatt of continuous electric power. That’s one percent of California’s electricity draw at peak demand; not a lot, but enough to matter. Also shown on the map are the locations (blue highlighted) of idle biomass plants. Mostly developed in the 1980s and ’90s, at the peak there were 60 biomass power plants in California, but with the advent of cheaper natural gas and cheaper solar power, most of them were shut down.

At a fully amortized wholesale cost estimated somewhere between 12 cents and 14 cents per kilowatt-hour, biomass power plants cannot compete with most other forms of energy. But this price is not so far out of reach that it could not be subsidized using funds currently being allocated to other forms of renewables infrastructure or climate change mitigation. The numbers could work.

If, for example, biomass power capacity in California were roughly doubled to 1 gigawatt of continuous output, a six cents per kilowatt-hour subsidy would cost about $500 million per year. This must be compared to the annual cost of wildfires, which easily exceeds a billion per year. It also must be compared to the amount of money being thrown around on projects far less urgent than rescuing California’s forest ecosystems, such as the California High-Speed Rail project, which has already consumed billions. And if this entire subsidy of $500 million per year were spread into the utility bills of all Californians, it would only amount to about a 1.5 percent increase.

Will the Unelected Tyrants Relent? 

The logic of these steps seems impeccable. Thin the forests. Restore them to ecological health. Adopt time-tested modern logging practices and revive the timber industry. Build biomass power plants on the perimeter of the forests. Prevent ridiculous, costly, horrific, tragic wildfires. Help the economy.

But these steps have been known for decades, and yet nothing has been done. Every time policymakers were close to a consensus on forest thinning, government bureaucrats obstructed the process and environmentalists sued to stop the process. And they won. Time and time again. And now we have this: millions of acres of scorched earth, air so foul that people couldn’t leave their homes for weeks, and wildlife habitat that in some cases likely will never recover. If this failure in policy doesn’t leave Californians livid, nothing will.

The forest management policies currently adopted in California have not only ruined the environment they were designed to supposedly protect. They have destroyed California’s timber industry, neglected its biomass industry, and are systematically turning mountain communities into ghost towns. This is tyranny, and perhaps even worse—it is tyranny that lacks either benevolence or wisdom.

If the goal was to have a healthy forest ecosystem, that was violated, as these forests burned to the ground and most of the remaining tracts of unburned forest are overgrown and dying. If the goal was to do anything in the name of fighting climate change and its impact on the forests, and do it with urgency, that too was violated, because everything they did was wrong. Even now, instead of urgent and far-reaching changes to forest management policies, we get more electric car mandates. That was the urgent response.

So California’s ruling elites, starting with Gavin Newsom among the politicians, and Ramon Cruz, the Sierra Club’s new president, can prove they care about the environment by sitting down with representatives from California’s timber industry, along with the unelected state and federal regulators to devise a plan.

Or they can continue to bloviate about “climate change,” unconcerned that climate change only makes it more urgent that California revive its timber and biomass industries.


About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

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15 responses to “The Unelected Tyrants Who Burned Down the Golden State”

  1. 10-29-20 0300 hr

    Mr. Ring,
    This issue could well be one of the fundamental issues leading a political revolution in California that is badly needed. It unites north and south in this state. Too many acres are moonscape – too many people have died. And P.G.& E. still hasn’t fixed their transmission lines. The entire Feather River watershed is mostly burned. It’s time for proper management.
    Don Blake Oroville California

    • No problem, Gov Ahole is going to solve the fire problem right after he solves the homeless problem. P.S. Piglosi is going to franchise a chain of Super Ice cream shops, right after she cleans up the crap in her district.

    • There is no changing the mentality of the west of the I-5 voters. They couldn’t care less.

  2. Edward Ring sez: “The forest management policies currently adopted in California have not only ruined the environment they were designed to supposedly protect. They have destroyed California’s timber industry, neglected its biomass industry, and are systematically turning mountain communities into ghost towns. This is tyranny, and perhaps even worse—it is tyranny that lacks either benevolence or wisdom.”

    Sounds like an analogy for progressive policies in just about any field you can name.

  3. There are so many factors responsible for the increase in California’s wildfires, and perhaps global warming is one of them. However, as Mr. Ring points out, that would mean increased management of forests is necessary rather than a continuation of the failed hands-off approach.

    One thing that global warming alarmists rarely mention is that increased atmospheric CO2 is causing plants to grow much faster. Doubling CO2 levels ( which is projected within 30-40 years) causes plants to grow 25-30% faster. This could have a positive impact on growing food, but will increase the rate of carbon fixation into forests dramatically, and thus further increase the importance of preventing fires that produce massive CO2 releases into the atmosphere. We must prepare now for the projected forest overgrowth with hands-on management policies that allow our forests to continue to function as stabilizers of atmospheric CO2.

    • All true, and additionally-it is no longer legal to clear fire breaks around houses and power lines.
      Also-as many have pointed out-the climate is always changing. There are large cosmic influences that dwarf our contributions. why has the temp. on Mars risen too?

  4. This is one of the more intelligent articles on”so-called” climate change I’ve read in a while. As far as I’m concerned climate change, or the cloud walking flower sniffing liberals view of it, DOES NOT EXIST!
    The earths climate changes from time to time and from place to place of its own accord. The BS belief that human activity has much to do with it is pure and utter nonsense. Cow farts do not raise temperatures world wide. California’s idiotic rules and regulations have done more damage to California and the surrounding states and areas than all the logging in the world. Lack of proper forest management and the lack of logging in general has added to much of the destruction and loss of life throughout the state. This could go on forever so I’ll just close here.
    MAGA A /KAG 2020

  5. My born on date of 1959 in the Republic of California is my proof to my Fellow Americans of i have a clue when the state became Commiefornia, it was clear this was the date to We The PEOPLE
    When evil became all CAPITALS.
    The election of ODUMBASS ,at 8:30 PST wannabe McStain quit the field in the Potus Race because the Secretary of State confirm the vote for a DONKEY ,on this ballot was GAY MARRIAGE
    Gay marriage was defeated at the ballot box overwhelmingly, and my point is it took the State 3 day to official state this FACT 3 days to count the Vote . It was Huge the margin of Voters to NOT give GAYS a marriage certificate.
    Simple if it takes 3 days to count such a Large turn out the vote to confirm odumbass could not have been correct and this is just a simple fact They being the Donkeys in our face proved they are in control of counting our votes an the results THEY deem are LIES ,THIS IS COMMUNISM and the date that is where we the people can now understand why our FEDCOAT government also is in the grips of EVIL .
    Current events the turn out is easy to see an hear in Commiefornia for TRUMP ,the turnout for the DONKEYS is a joke in every state , the Madness of Covid is not what is keeping The hyphenated americans from turning out they participate in society it is they understand they are able to steal the vote count and they Laugh at how easy it is to be evil in our state and the why is simple so many SHEEP who hope feel want it to be somebody else to Fight for their FREEDOM LIBERTY and Their Pursuit of Happiness
    Soon the light will go out and the contest will begin in ever state of the democracy the INFAMOUS THEY have created . Americans will get our say FEAR GOD and take your own part .

  6. I stopped reading when you repeatedly asserted that Shaver Lake is in Southern California.
    It’s not. It’s in the Sierras east of Fresno, which happens to be smack dab in the middle of the state.
    Your overall argument is sound, but you need to get basic facts straight.

    • Shaver Lake’s location is closer to the southern border of California than the norther border. If you stopped reading the article after the author described Shaver Lake’s location, which was exactly once, then how do you know the author’s overall argument is sound? Just saying.

  7. Ed,

    It’s not about the climate; it’s about the tyranny.

  8. I agree that those who earn their living from forestry management and timber, logging have a personal stake in ensuring sustainability, however I have witnessed the evils of some of these Big Corporate Timber Companies (Boise Cascade/BC) which profit through unethical and sometimes illegal behavior. A friend in Oregon owns, courtesy of a pioneer ancestor, a beautiful cabin surrounded by pristine wilderness on one side and bordering property owned by BC in the Cascade mountains. Although BC approached them to purchase a stand of old growth, my friend’s family declined the offer. Several months later, they visited the cabin only to find that BC has “erroneously” cut the timber anyways! Lawsuits followed, but I do believe that no amount of money can compensate for flagrant abuse of private property. Shouldn’t managing these forests (well, once they’re clearcut, they’re technically not “forests” which are very diverse, and don’t consist of one type of tree being replanted) include opportunities for individuals to purchase this land? One of the issues facing the West in general is too much government ownership of land! Utah has sued several times to regain control of its property.

    One thing not mentioned here is the rampage of introduced or native pests (mountain pine beetle). I am especially sensitive to issues involving old growth as there is so much financial incentive to cut these trees. I don’t oppose auctions, but lets ensure anyone and everyone has an opportunity to purchase these trees. Furniture makers, individuals or non-profit groups have every right to participate.

  9. I would like to thank Edward Ring for a better-balanced and researched article than most I see on this subject. I lived in California from 1960 until 1992, and in SW Oregon since. I’ve taken a very keen interest in the issues addressed in Mr. Ring’s article above since fighting as an (illegal) volunteer in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. I now live in the middle of a highly flammable landscape, do everything I can to mitigate the danger (including prescribed fire), and keep an ongoing familiarity with hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland, before, during, and after wildfires. The one issue I noticed that Mr. Ring didn’t address is the extreme vulnerability of previously clearcut forest for decades after the replanting, where any fire coming through causes a 100% kill. This can be compared to properly thinned, mixed-age forests where 90% survival is typical. The future problem that grows with every new clearcut is a situation where fire cannot be kept out for the requisite time for the new trees to reach an age where they can resist fire, so each time a fire comes through it resets the clock to zero, requiring replanting with the forlorn hope that *next time* they will survive long enough. Statistics cited for number of acres burned are often misleading: X acres burned doesn’t tell us how many of those acres suffered a 100% kill in former clearcuts, or a 10% kill in nicely managed uneven-age forest. A big part of the problem for the timber industry has been heavy investment over decades in the very expensive specialized machinery for clearcutting which would become obsolete in a selective logging/thinning forest management paradigm. But even if we do what needs to be done to transition away from clearcutting towards uneven-age management and biomass harvesting, the trees themselves are not the primary fuel source in a wildfire, indeed their hulks are usually left standing. It’s the accumulation of down-dead on the forest floor that makes a forest burn so fiercely, and that’s fuel that is of little or no interest in biomass harvesting because it cannot be efficiently collected. The *only* way to deal with such fuels is to burn it off in situ, otherwise known as a controlled burn, which is safe, inexpensive, and effective when done correctly at the right time of year. Unfortunately, in all the lands I’m intimately familiar with I see fuels accumulate for decades until they burn explosively at the worst time of year.