From An Angry Reader:
Subject: on California’s horrific wildfires Dr. Hanson’s ARTICLE omits 3 important aspects
Dear Dr Hanson,
A friend from Santa Monica pointed out 3 important things that your article omitted. Is her critique something you can consider & respond to?
It’s a mix. He’s a Hoover Institute (sic) guy who writes everything with an ideological slant. Some of the article is right: the building of homes where 19th century engineers and planners didn’t foresee; transfer of funds to social services, and to a far, far, lesser degree, conflicting theories in land management, which by the way, has (sic) been an ongoing argument nationally among forest experts – not just in CA.
What he skips over is that 1) most of the forests are national land, managed by the national forest service. Funds for that was (sic) cut, over decades, entirely by Republican lawmakers in DC. He fails to mention that.
2) Past lumber company policies are part of the problem, not the solution, since they (sic) don’t remove dead trees (he glosses over that). When they did operate in the state, they would clear cut huge swaths of forest of mixed species. When they would replant, they planted trees of all one species — the situation in much of our forested land US-wide. As a result, when that species is attacked, by borer beetles, for instance, there are no trees of other species to block the spread, or to fill in where the dead ones fail. to (sic) make things worse, as global warming takes hold, areas that no longer see a hard freeze have moved farther and farther north and with the warmth, overwintering beetles survive to kill more and more trees. In the past they and their larvae were killed each winter and most trees survived. Not anymore. When you fly over much of the rockies (sic) and further west, you see huge expanses of dead trees – victims of borer beetles. When a fire starts, the dead trees go up like tinder. The forest service lacks ANY funds to clear them out. Most of the funds they have these days goes to fire fighting.
So, blaming CA for all of this (as Trump does) is really dishonest. But Hansen (sic) will never point the finger at his Republican friends, it’s always, liberals, environmentalists, etc..
Finally, 3) the southern fire wasn’t in forest land – all scrub and brush.
Dear Not Really Angry Reader Marty MD, and his anonymous critic,
I am afraid your anonymous friend/critic is sorely mistaken, given that, in a fit of projection, she “writes everything with an ideological slant.”
It is also quite difficult to follow her argument because it is grammatically and syntactically incoherent, but I will try to list her errors in the order she makes them:
She knows that, while 60 percent or so of California forests consists of federal lands, state policy partners with federal practice, especially so most recently during the 2009-17 years when the Obama administration’s and California’s environmental policies were mostly synchronized. In the same manner, the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project have often merged policies and work in concert, and the state has a great deal of input in federal agendas. Had Gov. Brown insisted on traditional forest disposal of dead trees and clearing of wood and brush from sick forests (he most recently vetoed, for example, a 2016 bill that would have helped), he might well have encountered federal resistance from the Obama administration, but he did not do that, and instead assumed quite rightly that during the drought years Obama’s federal restrictionist policies, and resistance to human landscaped forests, would be identical to his own.
Note well that post factum, a new Brown is suddenly calling for more cutting and harvesting of dead trees in state forests.
At the federal level, funds for forest management were defined in widely different terms, with Democratic representatives promoting non-interventionist policies and Republicans advocating more vigorous cutting and thinning of forests and with greater input from private enterprise.
The author knows that, during and after the drought, timber companies, to the extent any are viable any longer in California, were eager to readjust existing policies so they could more freely enter sick forests to harvest dead and sick trees. And she knows from hundreds of op-eds, newsletters, and public fora that such adjustments met heated opposition from both environmentalists and state authorities, along the lines of the quotation in the article: namely that existing environmental orthodoxy envisioned dead trees as almost exclusively in situ as a natural resource for the forest ecosystem, and in that sense a plus that outweighed traditional concerns that over 100 million unharvested dead and sick trees would pose a disaster waiting to happen—at least as defined in terms of human safety and security.
The author also certainly realizes that any extended hiking deep into the Sierra National Forest, for example, quickly reveals a great variety in species of pines, firs, and cedars, and that diversity is likewise reflected as well in the wide array of dead and sick tree species. If pines are often the most severely affected by beetles and borers, insect damage also still affects firs and to a less extent cedars. While global warming and past forest practice may be long-term considerations that need to be addressed, most acknowledge that contemporary forest orthodoxy discouraged dead and diseased tree removal both by the Obama and Brown administrations—and we are now reaping what we have sowed.
After four years of drought, we experienced a near record year of precipitation, both rain and snow in 2016-7, followed by a near normal year in 2017-8, and very preliminary indications seems to suggest a normal third year in 2018-9.
Had state and local government simply allowed greater private harvesting of dead trees, the fire danger would have decreased substantially. Such a reluctance was again governed by a rigid orthodoxy that relegated lives and property to secondary considerations. And in a similar manner the viability of timber companies and the economic value of harvesting trees were likewise seen as less important considerations.
Not admitting such an obvious truth is both intellectually dishonest and privileges ideology over empiricism. The anonymous author’s case is not helped by puerile ranting like the following: But Hansen (sic) will never point the finger at his Republican friends, it’s always, liberals, environmentalists, etc..”
Finally, despite what the author alleges (e.g., “the southern fire wasn’t in forest land – all scrub and brush.”), nowhere in the article did I ever write that the southern fire was forest land in the manner that I had referenced numerous other forest fires in the state’s eastern mountain ranges (e.g., “When the rarer southerlies took over, some of the smoke from the 100,000-acre Woolsey fire in the canyons of Malibu arrived from 230 miles distant.”).
Nonetheless, as the author also knows, 1) that the vast majority of the approximately 3 million charred state acreage in 2017 and 2018 occurred in state and federal forests, and 2) elsewhere, the state’s reluctance to promote the thinning of dead scrub, brush, and sporadic stands of dead and diseased broadleaf and evergreen trees in coastal range hillsides, whether by scavenging and cleanup crews or by controlled burns and grazing, also increased the dangers of flash fires by ensuring plenty of dry combustible fuels.
No one is calling for mass strip logging or vast controlled burns and unlimited grazing, but rather for a balanced approach of greater harvesting, managed preventative burns, closer cooperation with grazing and timber interests, and greater worry given to human safety and security—which is tragically not state or federal policy in California.
Victor Davis Hanson