Some fire ecologists tell us what we are experiencing is “the new normal.” Bullshit. There's nothing normal about our western wildfire nightmare.
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If you have not read the introductory article Rearranging the Deck Chairs on Our Titanic, Click here to be taken to it. It is short but contains important contextual pieces that accompany this article.
Enjoying the wildfire smoke?
Environmental zealots have been blowing their smoke – propaganda actually - up your arse for more than 40 years. How do you like it so far?
The result is the worst wildfire crisis in American history.
Time to #resistwildfire.
This winter, I’ll be channeling my considerable anger into a book in which I explain how we can do this together. We go to press next spring.
These damned fires are destroying our forests and watersheds, our fish and wildlife habitat, our timber and tourist economies and our lifestyle.
The hundreds of millions of tons of smoke these fires are pouring into our atmosphere are laced with chemicals that are known to cause lung cancer and heart disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the young and old and those with allergies, asthma, heart disease or lung ailments stay indoors on the worst days.
Last spring, I wrote an editorial in which I suggested that the wildfire smoke we are inhaling is the easy equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. You can find that editorial here. No one questioned my assertion. I doubt they will. This morning’s headlines include the news that smoke from California’s wildfires has reached New York City. Scientists are also predicting smaller newborns and more emergency room visits.
We are becoming like canaries in coal mines. Today, the yellowish air here in Dalton Gardens, Idaho is putrid. Visibility is less than a quarter-mile. We have been inhaling air we can see for more than a month, and we haven’t seen the sun for more than a week.
The same zealots that drove a stake into the heart of the rural west’s family-owned sawmills some 20 years ago are now driving the same bloody stake into the heart of the very tourism sector we were told would thrive just as soon as all the loggers and lumbermen were run out of town.
Some fire ecologists tell us what we are experiencing is “the new normal.”
Bullshit. There’s nothing normal about our western nightmare.
Our crisis could have been averted had Congress and our federal resource management agencies mustered the courage and foresight to face down the environmental zealots that have been blowing smoke up our collective arse for more than 40 years.
The result has been a death sentence for at least half the nation’s 190 million-acre federal forest estate. These acres, untended and neglected, are now ready to burn or soon will be – and this doesn’t count the millions of acres lost in catastrophic wildfires over the last 20 years.
We can’t “save” forests by locking them away in no-management reserves. But that is precisely what Congress has been doing since the early 1970s at the behest of zealots, litigators, malcontents and misfits whose various belief systems are so bizarre that they defy rational explanation.
Dig up a copy of Playing God in Yellowstone, Alston Chase’s riveting 1987 treatise in which he exposes environmentalism’s catechism. He had been hired by several leading environmental groups to write a book glorifying the work they’d done to protect Yellowstone Park from exploitation. His research proved the opposite to be true: environmentalism was destroying Yellowstone.
When I interviewed Chase in 1990, I asked him what the lesson was in “Playing God.” Here is what he told me:
“The lesson is that there is no such thing as leaving nature alone. People are part of nature. We do not have the option of choosing not to be stewards of the land. We must master the art and science of good stewardship. Environmentalists do not understand that the only way to preserve nature is to manage nature.”
I also asked Chase if he had any idea how our nation’s historic conservation ethic had been so easily corrupted by environmental zealots.
“Environmentalism increasingly reflects urban perspectives,’ he said. “As people move to cities, they become infatuated with fantasies of land untouched by humans. This demographic shift is revealed through ongoing debates about endangered species, grazing, water rights, private property, mining and logging. And it is partly a healthy trend. But this urbanization of environmental values also signals the loss of a rural way of life and the disappearance of hands on experience with nature. The irony is that as popular concern for preservation increases, public understanding about how to achieve it declines.”
Chase wrote a syndicated newspaper column for several years after “Playing God” was published, but he stopped after discovering that numerous unethical editors were changing words and phrases in his manuscripts to reflect their own views.
No surprise here. The news media’s attempt to frighten and misinform the public continues at several of the country’s largest newspapers, including the New York Times and Washington Post, but elsewhere coverage of the West’s wildfire crisis has been solid. The Wall Street Journal and Investor’s Business Daily have done some exceptionally good reporting. Likewise, reporters and editorial writers at most of the West’s rural dailies and weeklies are asking the right questions.
How nice it would be if they were getting honest answers.
“The new normal” isn’t an answer. It’s an admission of failure in the face of plainly visible evidence that has been piling up for 50 years.
Nor is “climate change” a credible answer.
Two thousand years of climate data, gathered from soil samples, burnt tree roots and petrified tree rings, reveal that our western climate runs in 175 to 350-year warming and cooling cycles, with mini-cycles imbedded in many longer-term patterns, most recently the cooling cycle that occurred here in the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s and 1940s.
The resulting surge in growth in shade-tolerant tree species – most notably white fir - contributed significantly to the overstocking problem we see in most western national forests. Google “Tree Ring Research” at the University of Arizona for a series of informative reports on western climate cycles.
The crisis we face in western national forests has certainly been exacerbated by the current warming cycle, but we must not surrender to the ridiculous idea that what we are experiencing is normal. Remember, 40 years ago the same folks who now blame this crisis on “climate change” were predicting the “the next Ice Age.”
A few year ago, my friend Tom Bonnicksen, who is a fine PhD forest ecologist, calculated that just one California wildfire had belched so much smoke into the atmosphere that mitigating the damage to air quality would have required that every vehicle in California be garaged for one year!
How can we profess so much concern for atmospheric carbon loading while continuing to whistle past our wildfire graveyard?
The crisis facing us is a direct result of neglect, mismanagement, no management, political opportunism, environmental zealotry and woefully underfunded federal forestry budgets approved by past and present members of Congress who have no idea how much it costs to own, protect and manage 190 million acres.
For Fiscal 2018, Congress allocated $25.78 per acre to each of these acres. By contrast, Julia and I invest between $3,000 and $4,000 annually in the heavily treed acre that surrounds our home and office. Dollars for new trees and shrubs, pruning, fertilization, weed control, mowing and watering.
The Forest Service’s $4.9 billion annual budget should be closer to $19 billion, though our colleague, veteran Forest Service retiree, Michael Rains, with whom we recently completed a five-part interview, thinks $12 billion would do it. Maybe he’s right, but I’m not so sure given the enormous post-fire reforestation backlog facing the agency. Many of America’s Tree Farmers invest from $70 to $100 per acre annually – four times what Congress allocates to our federal forest estate.
We are only half-way through the 2018 wildfire season, and the Forest Service has already spent more than half its $4.9 billion appropriation on wildfires. The much heralded “fire funding fix” doesn’t kick in for another two years.
In the interim, thinning projects designed to restore natural resiliency in at-risk forests that hold far too many trees for the carrying capacity of the land will be shelved. There is no money, and those who would otherwise be doing this work are on fire lines.
Again, this crisis is a direct result of mismanagement, no management, political opportunism, environmental zealotry and a lack of adequate funding for federal agencies responsible for managing and protecting federal forests.
Kudos to Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL team leader, for having the political courage to publicly condemn the environmental zealots who live among us, and for saying publicly that the destruction he saw on his recent tour of fire-ravaged Redding, California, was as bad as anything he saw in any war zone he occupied.
“We have been held hostage by environmental groups that sue and sue, lawsuits after lawsuit, that prevent us from managing our forests,” Zinke told business analysist, Neil Cavuto, in an August 16 interview.
Zinke also told Cavuto there is “no dispute” that the climate is changing or that temperatures are increasing, exacerbating drought conditions and leaving us with longer and longer wildfire seasons.
“But you can’t ignore the condition of the forest itself,” Zinke declared. “Too many dead and dying trees and too much fuel. Active management is better stewardship, rather than sitting there year after year wasting billions of dollars.
Several Forest Service chiefs have made the same argument before House and Senate committees and subcommittees in recent years, but Congress has yet to get serious about dealing with the underlying causes, not least the loss of the Forest Service’s forestry culture and the encroachment of its fire culture – the billion dollar industry that has, of necessity, taken its place on the front lines of some of the largest forest fires in history. I have no quarrel with this industry, or its state-of-the-art aviation assets, but I am deeply concerned about the loss of the Forest Service’s legendary forestry culture.
Frankly, there aren’t many American universities that still teach forestry’s fundamentals. Most chase federal research dollars that don’t have much to do with the time-honored practice of growing, tending, harvesting and replanting trees. Over the last 30 years, billions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted on politically motivated research designed by zealots to support their anti-forestry legislative agenda.
Since the early 1970s, environmental zealots have also sponsored a well-funded campaign designed to discourage high school students from considering careers in forestry – shaming the sons and daughters of loggers who wanted to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers. Small wonder that there aren’t many young men and women in the Forest Service today who understand forestry’s fundamentals.
Here at Evergreen, the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Group has been our gold standard for 32 years, yet many in the Forest Service have never heard of FIA, even though it routinely monitors growth, mortality and harvest in survey plots from coast to coast, some designated nearly 100 years ago.
You would think the Forest Service’s next generation would have FIA’s data sets at their fingertips, or at least stored in their laptops, but they don’t. We’ll have much more to say about FIA and its contributions to science-based forestry in a series of essays we will publish in the months ahead.
The point I want to stress here is that hiring and training a new cadre of foresters with an affinity for land and a capacity for judgement will take years. It is vital that we provide them with the tools and money they will need to jumpstart natural resiliency in forests that today aren’t able to fend off the insect and disease infestations that are the root cause of our wildfire crisis.
Praise is due the quite diverse memberships of the west’s numerous and congressionally-blessed forest collaborative groups: conservationists, hunters, wilderness advocates, fishers, lumbermen, skiers, snowmobilers, loggers, back country riders, hikers, boaters of all stripes, campers, RV and ATV enthusiasts and resort owners. The often-contentious restoration projects these groups have willingly embraced have helped steady the Forest Service during what has been the most demoralizing and discouraging period in its 113-year history.
The Forest Service has not helped itself in its own tortured interpretations of plainly written and well-intended environmental laws. Even worse are the layers of conflicting rules and regulations written and rewritten over the last 30 years that continue to undermine original congressional intent.
Unwinding this mess will require something akin to the Marshall Plan – our nation’s $12-billion-dollar contribution to rebuilding Europe’s economies after World War II. More than $100 billion in today’s dollars.
Hundreds of Forest Service retirees, representing thousands of years of cumulative management experience, have weighed in with advice and counsel, detailing steps the agency and Congress must take to avoid ecological collapse in forests that will not survive the next 30 years without a significant increase in both thinning and prescribed fire.
Nature doesn’t give a damn about our economic and environmental needs. The only way we can get what we want from our forests is to manage them – tend them as conscientiously as we would a fine garden.
Zealots ran most of the west’s loggers and lumbermen out of our national forests years ago, but we have continued to battle wildfire because the public doesn’t want to lose these forests. To reduce the wildfire risk, the public must voice its strong support for congressional funding for  a perpetual thinning program spanning millions of at-risk acres and  the use of prescribed fire to clean up more than 40 years of accumulated woody debris – fuel for the next fire.
The loss of capacity required to remove small diameter trees from our dying national forests, then transform them into useful building materials, has not gone unnoticed. The Nature Conservancy- possibly the most politically influential conservation group in the nation - is actively searching for a lumberman willing to partner with them in the construction and operation of such a sawmill in central Washington. Presumably, it would source its logs from the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest. Mortality in central and eastern Washington national forests exceeds net growth by a wide margin.
I admire the Conservancy’s foresight but doubt that they will find anyone willing to risk $125 million in such a venture until the federal government steps forward with a 20-year contract that includes enough annual log volume to keep the mill running until the capital investment is recovered. Cue the serial litigators.
The damage done by environmental zealots is spirit-shattering. Millions of acres leveled by catastrophic wildfire, fish and wildlife habitat incinerated, watersheds ruined, firefighter lives lost, homes and businesses reduced to ashen ruin, families bankrupted, livelihoods crushed by federal court rulings that defy science and logic, storefronts boarded up, research results rigged, congressional intent sabotaged, college curricula corrupted, smoke choking us to death, hope lost.
Hardly a day passes that I don’t silently recite something that PhD wildlife biologist, Alan Houston, said to me more than 20 years ago:
“When we leave forests to nature, as so many people today seem to want to do, we get whatever Nature serves up, which can be pretty devastating at times, but with forestry we have options, and a degree of predictability not found in Nature.”
What have we saved that wildfire is not destroying?
Congress can’t allow this to continue.