FUEL MANAGEMENT SHACKLED BY ENVIRONMENTAL DOCTRINE
Ed Ehlers, Executive Director of Associated California Loggers
The need for fuel management in much of the nation’s forests is obvious. What’s also becoming obvious is that public policy makers have failed to muster the will to make things happen at the needed pace and scale. Politicians frequently champion the need for fuel management and healthy forests, but support impediments that create little chance that something actually will be done. In California, for instance, there is little political commitment to preventing forest fires through fuel reduction and management. Much posturing, yes, but an unwillingness to improve the economic feasibility that’s needed to get the job done at the scale needed. In the meantime, the public’s interest in and fear of wildfires is waning, accelerated by the Environmental Industry’s chants of forestry nonsense.
At the root of the matter is the publicly stated doctrine of the Sierra Club and its ilk that timber not be cut on public lands. They’d like to include private forests as well. Their doctrine is easily seen in endless litigation to block projects. Arecent example is the challenge to a fuel management project by the Idaho Conservation League, which judged the project to be “...just an excuse for a timber sale”. Clearly their objective is to frustrate the hard-won Congressional and Presidential policies of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.
California has an extensive history of fostering fire prevention efforts, but restricting their utility. In 1994 the Legislature approved an exemption from some Timber Harvest Plan (permit) paperwork for projects that created “fire safe” conditions around structures, but specifically declined to permit the cutting of additional trees when necessary to help pay for the desired fire safe work. They also added fifteen operating requirements ranging from where to keep paperwork to equipment limitations.
The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has now issued a fire safe regulation that the clearance area around structures be expanded from 30 to 100 feet, but provided no accompanying cost relief to help make a project happen. There’s been no reduction or elimination of costs and no sign that control agencies will facilitate projects to help achieve project efficiencies.
In 2004, California’s Board of Forestry and the Legislature made another stab at encouraging fuel management. The result is the ability to use an “Emergency Notice” feature of state law and regulation that permits immediate work after fire and insect attacks. Unfortunately they added more than twenty-five restrictions, including a limit on cutting trees over 18 inches in stump diameter and added a fifteen- day wait before work can start. All this, even though the infamous Southern California fires of 2003 were still fresh in everyone’s minds.
The political correctness that’s rampant in California and other western states is also, of course, counterproductive. It creates a reluctance among loggers to equip or re-equip to handle the mix of work involved in a bona fide fuel management operation. The inability to provide an even flow of material also makes it difficult to establish new end products such as ethanol and bio-diesel.
California’s approach to “facilitating” fuel reduction is generally viewed as an insult to loggers. Regulations tend to tell loggers how to do their work and generally assume that they need special supervision. The facts don’t bear this out. Logger performance is exceptionally good even considering the complexity of the rules in California. The most recent report from the Department of Forestry indicates that only about a dozen misdemeanor citations are issued annually to loggers in California, while loggers produce the equivalent of more than 350,000 loads of logs.
One of the major problems with fuel management projects is the cost versus the revenue they can generate. Dealing with this characteristic runs afoul of the underlying political impediment in California; the aversion to cutting trees by the Environmental Industry and its Legislative followers. They are unwilling to acknowledge there is often a need to sell some logs to make a viable or affordable project. As a result, governmental actions taken to date have not caused a landslide of activity or significant inroads into the fuel management problem. What’s needed is for the Legislature and the Regulators to create a short project
preparation process so projects can be put together to provide a continuous stream of work, a quick work start, fewer moves, economies of scale and volumes of products that are attractive to the market when there is one. Beyond a sensible
process, the greatest need is to reduce the amount of political and judicial meddling in projects.
When you look at the acreage of forest needing treatment, the commonly used restrictions, fragmented land ownership, and the poor understanding of forestry and fire among urban fringe landowners, you’ll see the regulatory system is not up to the job of supporting work on the scale needed. Of course, legislators and bureaucrats also have to stop listening to the forestry nonsense from the Environmental Industry. This is probably the most difficult task in any attempt to make wide spread fuel reduction and management a reality.