More than half of California’s roughly 105 million acres are owned by the federal and state governments. It is on these sprawling parcels that the wildfires tend to rage before devouring private land, homes, and businesses.
Public lands “have proved far more vulnerable to forest fires than properties owned by private groups,” Hoover Institution scholar Richard Epstein wrote in California’s Forest Fire Tragedy. “Private lands are managed with the goals of conservation and production. The management of public lands has been buffeted by legislative schemes driven by strong ideological commitments.”
The loudest voices assign blame for the fires to man-made climate change. But the human activity primarily responsible for the destructive spread of wildfires is public policy favoring burned timber over harvested timber. While maybe well-intended, laws inspired by the 1970s environmentalist movement, which is determined to make sure saw blades and trees never meet, have stoked the furnaces.
Rep. Tom McClintock, one of the few Republicans remaining in California’s congressional delegation, explained during a House floor speech last fall that “excess timber comes out of the forest one way or the other. It is either carried out, or it burns out. But it comes out.”
When excess timber was harvested in another era, he added, “we had healthy, resilient forests and we had thriving prosperous communities.” Timber sales from federal lands, said McClintock, generated revenue for local California communities and created thousands of jobs.
Given the extensive fire coverage in the media, it would be easy to believe we’re living in unprecedented times. Yet the number of all U.S. wildfires has remained “roughly constant” since the 1970s, a 2015 Reason Foundation policy brief tells us. What has increased, and sharply every year over the past three decades, is the area burned by wildfires. The average size of each wildfire more than doubled over that period.
The report’s author, Julian Morris, says “climatic factors cannot explain the pattern of fires observed over the past century.” Then there has to be another cause. Though it’s politically incorrect to agree with President Trump, he wasn’t wrong when he tweeted about the “gross mismanagement of the forests” being a factor in the fires.
Proper management of forests has to include tree-thinning, though not clear-cutting, and controlled-burns on public lands, as well as the removal of dead, diseased, and already-burned trees, which is oddly not allowed. Those 129 million dead trees in the state that can’t be hauled out are kindling to feed the next fires.
Of course forests aren’t the only acreage burning in California. Fires in Southern California roar through scrub brush, driven by hot Santa Ana winds, especially in areas where the brush has not been appropriately cleared. In many cases, brushy areas are scorched by fires that began in government-controlled forests.
“Wildfires have no boundaries,” Cal Fire Deputy Director Mike Mohler told PRI.
While state and national policymakers have been busy for decades searching out still another source of man-made pollution to eliminate, they have allowed a natural source to grow into a nearly uncontrollable monster. Maybe they’ve been distracted. As California and federal officials have taken “immense” steps “to stop, for example, tailpipe emissions,” says Epstein, both have been slow to rethink logging policy and other management strategies. The result has been a wave of wildfires that have produced far more pollution in California than automobile exhaust.
Policy changes are desperately needed, but as long as policymakers are able to get away with blaming the problem on climate change, and focus their thinking on what to do after lives and property have been destroyed, California will continue to be consumed by fire.
— Written by J. Frank Bullitt
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