Nick SmithWe’re the Forestry Experts.
We Should Speak up About Wildfires

By Nick Smith
Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities

The 153,000-acre Camp Fire last November brought unspeakable tragedy to the town of Paradise, California. The fire brought unprecedented national attention to forest management and the dangerous conditions on our public lands. It also revealed how little politicians and the media understand forestry. The resulting debate should remind us the need to tell our stories and share our knowledge on how best to prevent such catastrophes in the future.

Miscommunication

As the Camp Fire raged, President Donald Trump famously fired off a series of tweets scolding California’s Democratic leadership over forest mismanagement and past policy failures. During his visit to Paradise after the fire, Trump recalled meeting with Finland’s president, remarking how the Finns spend a lot of time “raking” the forest floor to keep it “clean.”

Those of us working in forestry understood he may have been thinking of the need to reduce fuel loads to help prevent stand-replacing wildfires. As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke later said, “Proper management of our forests, to include small prescribed burns, mechanical thinning, and other techniques, will improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfires, while also helping curb the carbon emissions. The intensity and range of these fires indicate we can no longer ignore proper forest management.” But in today’s hyper-partisan and polarized environment, people focus more on the messenger than the message itself.

Instead of serving as a call to action, the president’s tweets and comments became fodder for political pundits and late-night talk show hosts. Trump’s political enemies seized on his remarks and ignored the statements of others with expertise in the area, including not only Secretary Zinke but also Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California) and Governor Jerry Brown (D-California). People were too busy making fun of the president to focus on the real issues. Suddenly pundits and comedians became forestry experts.

The Farm Bill

The Camp Fire brought new momentum to passing forest management reforms in the Farm Bill. The White House got behind efforts to urge Congress to act. Yet anti-forestry politicians and powerful environmental groups worked to misinterpret the president’s comments and mislead the public about exactly what these efforts were trying to achieve.

During negotiations, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) called efforts to improve the Farm Bill an attempt to promote the “crass, cynical, and unaccountable logging of the public’s national forests.” Over 700,000 acres burned in Oregon this year, but that didn’t stop Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) from saying forest management reforms would bring us “back to authorizing clear cuts on a massive scale with basically no environmental review.”

The truth is these reforms do not mandate logging. Rather, they are intended to give federal land managers the ability to act more quickly to treat the forests at greatest risk of catastrophic wildfire. Those treatments could include one or more forest management tools, whether it’s logging, thinning, or prescribed fire, that are determined to be appropriate for a landscape. The reforms also seek to provide reasonable alternatives to the obstruction and litigation that have stymied the management of our federal forests for decades.

Unfortunately, partisan politics and pressure from special interests scuttled efforts to include strong forest management reforms in the Farm Bill. The final version included some positive provisions, including the expansion of the federal “Good Neighbor Authority” law to allow tribes and counties to partner with the U.S. Forest Service on forest management activities. Yet the Farm Bill failed to fix the fundamental problems with our broken system of federal land management. After this Congress is finished, it will still take the federal government too long to catch up on the treatments our forests really need.

Making Progress and Telling Our Story

Congress’ failure to reform federal forest management doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made. According to the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, the U.S. Forest Service sold just more than 3.196 Billion Board Feet (BBF) this fiscal year. This is up about 10 percent from the amount sold the previous year. It is the first time since Fiscal Year 1997 that the Forest Service has sold more than 3 BBF of timber.

On Dec. 21, President Trump signed an Executive Order “promoting the active management of America’s forests to improve conditions and reduce wildfire risks.” The order directs agencies to use all tools available to increase management activities. It sets 2019 timber production goals of 600 mmbf for the Department of Interior and 3.8 bbf for the Department of Agriculture.

This year will bring new opportunities to educate lawmakers on the need for forest management to reduce the risks of wildfire. We must explain the role of the forest products industry in ensuring healthier forests and economic growth in rural America. We need to be active in the debate and not allow our opponents to define us or our intentions. If we take the time to educate policymakers and the media about forestry, good outcomes will follow.

Nick Smith is Executive Director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a grassroots organization advocating for better management of our federally owned forests.

TimberWest November/December 2013
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