Mega Wildfires Force New Approach
In this strident political atmosphere, bipartisan support is rare, but the risk of mega wildfires has created it. We will explore that, and what city folks, especially those in the East, need to understand about wildfires and what it is like to live next to public lands, on this addition of Gist Say’n.
Here we are in mid-October, as D.C. implodes over politics, and hurricanes like Michael batter the east coast, wildfires in our western states are still raging and go mostly under-reported. The total number of acres already burned this year is over 8 million, and there are around 30 large fires still burning in 10 western states including one megafire in Oregon.
So here's the gist:
How our forests have been managed for the past several decades isn't working.
It doesn't matter what you think about climate change. We can't change the weather fast enough to save our forests.
If you've never lived next to public lands, it’s hard to appreciate the impact it has on those who do live there.
Left to its own devices, nature's solution will continue to be catastrophic for the West.
A plan to change forest management is now in place, but our thinking needs to change as well.
Bipartisan Support for New Plan
In August, the Department of Agriculture announced a new strategy for the United States Forest Service. There is hope that the new policy will mitigate the impact that catastrophic wildfires, invasive species, insect and disease epidemics, and droughts currently have on the nation's forests. The stewardship plan rolled out August 16th was deemed historic for its new approach to have the US Forest Service develop greater partnerships with both public and private landowners. It also has bipartisan support from Western senators.
“These are not your grandfather’s fires, they are bigger, they are hotter, they are more powerful," said Senator Ron Wyden, a democratic from Oregon, at the announcement of the new plan in D.C.,"Last year we had one fire leap the Columbia River, which was unheard of because rivers in effect are fire breaks, so it is really important that we stake out some new ground here.”
One reason he and his Washington state counterpart, Senator Maria Cantwell, are willing to work with the Trump administration on this is because even their constituents within urban areas are now feeling the effects from the wildfires. The traditionally beautiful blue summer skies of the Northwest are now often blotted out by smoke.
“In the West, we are creating clean air refugees who are traipsing from place to place just trying to find breathable air,” Senator Wyden said. “That is what we are seeing today, a real game plan for reducing the 80-million acres of hazardous fuels that constitutes the backlog on forest service lands, that is what this is all about.”
Democratic Senator Cantwell also spoke at the unveiling press conference.
”We are here today because a few months ago the U.S. Congress gave the Secretary of Agriculture and the Forest Service new tools to help fight fires. The advent of that has now been that they have now come up with a new vision of how they are implementing those tools. And It couldn’t come at a more important time," Cantwell said. "We’ve lost tens of thousands of homes in just the last year and wildfires have killed 43 people. So we needed the new tools, and we certainly need the new vision, and we need further cooperation by all entities.”
According to Cantwell, we are spending more than two billion a year on fire suppression. Just last year in Washington state she says the Colville tribe lost more than two billion dollars worth of the timber on its tribal lands.
She agrees there must be a plan to deal with the catastrophic nature of what the West now faces, especially since it will only get worse with climate change. She says it's not just about reducing the bill on fire suppression, it is also about reducing the loss of revenue from timber assets.
Republican Senator Steve Daines agrees. His state of Montana lost 1.4 million acres of forest to fires last year and 100’s of thousands already this year. Daines said he is excited that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, understands that the people who live out West should have a greater say when it comes to forest management in their area.
“We will never eliminate the risk of wildfire, but we can reduce that risk, and we can reduce that severity through better proactive timber management techniques,” said Senator Daines. “As we say out in Montana, either we are going to manage our forests, or our forests are going to manage us, and right now out in the west the forests are managing us.”
In D.C’s current climate it is unusual for Senators to agree on anything across party lines. For decades people living in the East have impacted the environment, both political and actual, that people in the West have lived in. However, they haven’t had to, as the saying goes, eat their own dog food.
By that I mean, they can demand to leave the forests untouched, and when things go wrong, they don’t have to live with the daily reality. It's taken several decades, but people in western cities who think the same way are now starting to feel some impact. The beautiful blue skies have been blotted out, residents breathe smoke all summer long, and the costs are ever rising. People on the east coast doesn't have to deal with those consequences, but they do have to help pay the growing bill.
Whether you believe the trend of long hot summers is a natural cycle or caused by man, the fact is, it translates into longer fire seasons, which is why western senators can be part of a bipartisan effort.
Climate Change Arguments Don’t Help the Forests
Even if everyone agreed that human-made CO2 emissions are the cause of all climate change, the United States could not change the trend fast enough to keep the West from burning.
The International Energy Agency reports that last year global energy-related carbon emissions rose to a historic high. The IEA says Asian countries are accountable for two-thirds of the worldwide increase in emissions. Most significant economies saw an increase, but China’s emissions rose the most, with a 1.7 percent increase.
Britain, Mexico, Japan, and the United States were the only major economies that experienced declines in their carbon emissions in 2017. According to the IEA, the most significant drop came from the United States, but its 0.5 percent reduction did not even offset China’s increase, let alone the rest of the countries with increased emissions.
The argument that we can save our forests by preventing climate change is, at best, a pipe dream. Even if the United States were to implement more stringent emissions standards, it would not be enough to counter what is happening in China or India. Waiting for these countries to lower their emissions, in the hopes that it will decrease the warming trends currently being experienced in our western summers is foolish.
So, if we can’t cool the weather, what can we do? There is actually a lot, but first, we need to understand the history.
A Crisis Decades in the Making
This crisis has been decades in the making. Just five years after the creation of the forest service a catastrophic blaze, the largest in US history rolled through Idaho and Western Montana. In 1910, a forest the size of Connecticut exploded in flames. With fire and oxygen, it generated tornadoes. Three-million acres burned in just two days. It laid waste to entire towns and killed at least 85 people.
Describing it, one survivor said it was like “the sound of a thousand trains rushing over a thousand steel trestles.” Another compared it to the “roar of Niagara Falls.”
“Not a living thing can be seen for a distance of 20 miles; not a green spot greets the eye where a week before stood one of the finest bodies of white pine timber in the world," wrote a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review, filing from Wardner, Idaho after the Big Burn. "The completeness of the destruction is indescribable … even the fishes in the streams were killed and are seen floating on the water by thousands.”
After this inferno, a policy developed to try and snuff out every forest fire within 48 hours. This policy went against the natural order of evergreen forests in the West, where fire is a vital part of its rejuvenation process. At first, things were kept somewhat in balance because there was a lot of logging taking place on public lands that created open space and removed excess fuel that fires would have.
Then in the late 80’s, environmental groups took issue with the unsightly patchwork of clear-cuts and logging roads that crisscrossed the western landscape. Many of their concerns were valid. There was not enough attention placed on watershed protection, erosion prevention, and the balance of wildlife habitat. For example, the practice of skidding logs up creek beds just because it was the path of least resistance was harmful.
So environmentalists found an adorable, but elusive, mascot that could swing the pendulum back to the way they thought forest used to be. The northern spotted owl was that mascot, and it was used to weaponize The Endangered Species Act.
From there it was a constant battle between those who wanted to lock up all public lands and look at them from afar and those who were trying to make a living off of those lands. By the mid-90s environmental organizations were on a roll, but it was at the expense of tens of thousands a rural Americans who lost their jobs and way of life. They have not forgotten.
The fact that someone on the East Coast could send a single letter and delay or completely block a timber sale that had been in the planning stages for years was something that frustrated not only private citizens but public servants.
Almost 30 years ago the first documentary I ever did was called, “Timber: a Question of Balance.” At this same time, the environmental movement was picking up momentum by using The Endangered Species Act, and the Northern Spotted Owl, to shut down logging on public lands in Washington and Oregon. The tactic was marketed as an effort to save the owls. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really worked out that way, another species of owl are now threatening the Spotted Owls.
For that documentary, I interviewed the Supervisor of the Clearwater National Forest, Ed Schultz. After the interview, he shared some of his frustrations in running a national forest. I remember him showing me a book that was about as thick as a Bible. He explained that it contained all the rules he had to follow in order to plan out the use of the National Forest. He told me it took his people years to plan out each timber sale because they first had to look at what impact it would have on the watershed and various other environmental issues, issues that they should have been examining.
Once they determined how much of an area to log and how to log it, they had to put a public plan in place, the problem was, that plan could be interrupted entirely with one letter sent in protest of the sale. Now mind you, the person posting that letter could be living anywhere in the country. They could be on the East Coast, they didn’t need to have knowledge or expertise about the forest, in fact, they might never have been in Idaho in their lives, and yet their protest could derail years of work by people who went to college to study forester and spent every day working in the environment in question.
Back then he found this incredibly frustrating, and he told me that we were setting ourselves up for disaster. Schultz said new mandates prevented him from managing the forest in a way that would keep it healthy. They blocked him from taking dead and dying timber off of the forest. He couldn't clear out bug infestations, which created even more dead and dying trees, and he couldn't thin things out the way he thought was best.
Instead, to placate environmentalists and the shifting attitude coming out of Washington D.C., the Forest Service began approving fewer and fewer timber sales and started closing down logging roads, that use to be used to fight fires. People working on the ground did not yet share the belief that this was the best way to manage the forest, those people came later.
I have always remembered the prediction he made, that the decisions made then we're setting our forests up for future disaster. He said the time would come, when after a wet spring where there is lots of early growth, followed by a hot, dry summer where the winds pick up, somewhere a spark will ignite, and the Northwest will go up like a tinderbox. He told me it would be like the fire in 1910. He was right. He accurately predicted the megafires we see today.
Megafires burn at least a 100-thousand acres. This year the Carr Fire, in California, alone destroyed more than 1000 homes. According to one insurance analysis company, more than 4.5 million homes in the United States are at risk of being destroyed by wildfire.
Despite this, it is important to remember that not all fire is the enemy, it is a natural part of a healthy forest’s life cycle. It's meant to burn in the understory and clean out all the grass and fuels there, dead leaves, branches, and what-not. A healthy, mature forest can survive small wildfires. Understories burn, and even patches of the overstory are taken out to create future meadows and natural fire breaks so when the next fire comes along it can’t burn too hot.
The trouble is, we screwed up. First, we started suppressing fires. Then we stopped logging. If we are not going to let wildfires take out the excess fuel in the forest, then we needed to do it, but we didn’t. Compared to 150 years ago it's all out of whack.
Paul Hessburg is a Research Landscape Ecologist for the USFS, and he did a great TED Talk on this. In it, he says a future without smoke and fire is not on the table.
We have been so good at replanting our forests and suppressing fires that we now have what he describes as an epidemic of trees. The TED Talk embedded in this article does an excellent job of showing the natural role fires play in keeping a forest healthy.
Hessburg explains that part of the problem we now face is that there have been decades of the continuous buildup of extra fuel in the forest. Millions upon millions of trees are tightly packed and overgrown with underbrush. There are few to no meadows, which act as natural fire breaks, that use to be created by fire or those ugly clearcuts we didn’t like. These open spaces also provide animals places to graze and live.
You couple these conditions with heavy snowfall winters, followed by hot, dry summers and you have an incubator for catastrophic fires. Add a spark and wind, and there is little firefighters can do but watch them burn. The only way to stop devastating wildfires like this is to destroy that incubator before there is ever a spark.
Hessburg says efforts must be made to manage the land so that these conditions don’t exist in the first place. Prescribed thinning, burning, and logging removes tightly packed trees, dead and dying trees, and restores forest health. These activities can also provide good paying jobs for residents in states relegated to being the rest of the country's recreational playgrounds.
Living with Public Land
To save the West, the East needs to understand a few things. One is that many native westerners resent the significant impact outside influences can have on their lives. They believe locking up public land has proven ineffective and places a disproportionate burden on people who live in western states.
These opinions have to do with both perception and reality. It is difficult for people in the eastern United States to fully appreciate what it's like to live somewhere surrounded by public land. On the one hand, it's great that you have beautiful open areas to recreate in, yet on the other hand, this proximity can make it extremely difficult to make a living.
The federal government has always owned a lot of land. Right now it holds about 20 percent, or 640 million acres, out of the 2.27 billion acres that make up the United States. Land disposal used to be used to encourage settlement. It wasn't until the 20th Century that the emphasis shifted to retention. As a result, the federal government owns 61.3 percent of Alaska, and 46.4 percent of the 11 most Western contiguous states. In contrast, the federal government only owns 4.2 percent of the land in the rest of the country.
To put this into perspective, let's look at just one of these Western states. I'm going to choose Idaho because that's where I grew up, and it is a good example. In Idaho, there are 34.5 million acres of public land. It's a pretty big state, but more than 70 percent of it is unavailable for any private ownership, and its use is limited.
Nine percent of it is designated as Wilderness Area, meaning it is off-limits to any mining, logging, or grazing. You can't drive through it. You can't even ride a bicycle through it, because nothing motorized or mechanized is allowed on that 4.8 million acres. You can’t even use a chainsaw to fight fires on it.
Wilderness Areas are not necessarily a bad thing, but again, let’s try to put this in perspective. If you laid all the public land in Idaho over the east, it would cover the entire states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey with a million acres to spare. This means you could also throw in New York City, all five boroughs, because that is just over 70 thousand acres, and you would still have 30-thousand acres left over. Just the acres designated as wilderness would cover the entire state of New Jersey.
Can you imagine that? All right, everyone in New Jersey has got to get out. No roads, no jobs, no houses, no motorcycles, no bikes, you can ride a horse, or you can walk through it, but that's it. In Pennsylvania, you can have some roads, you can travel through it, you can recreate there, ride your motorcycles and your snowmobiles, but you cannot live there, and you most certainly cannot have a business there.
The same would be true for New York. Everyone has got to go somewhere else, every one of the nine million people in New York City would have to get out. Wall Street, gone. The United Nations, gone. The entire island of Manhattan would need to look more or less like Central Park. However, people in other states would get to decide that for sure, as they would also determine what kind of access would be granted to all of the lands in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Yeah, it wouldn't go over so well.
Keep in mind. These are the numbers related to just one Western state. There are ten more, plus Alaska, with similar scenarios. If you can wrap your head around that, then you can start to understand how people in Idaho feel when people on the East Coast, or their representatives, get to dictate how they will live.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, let's drop a bunch of wolves in the middle of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and just watch and see where they end up. My gosh, the people around Cleveland freak out if they see a coyote, I can't imagine what they would do once wolves from Pennsylvania started loping through their backyards.
A lot of times you will hear that people should know better than to build in areas prone to wildfires. Well, when one public entity or another owns more than 70 percent of all land in the state, you aren’t left with many options. That’s a bit like telling coastal states that no one should build anywhere along a coastline.
I know New York is incredible, and DC is wonderful, and Boston is fantastic, and it's tough to believe that anyone would not want to live there, but trust me some people don't. They don't want to live there, they have zero desire to live with you in the city, and you should be thankful for that.
These people want to see the great outdoors every day, that's why they live there, and that's why when left to their own devices they are the best stewards of the land around them. They don't want to destroy that place you might go to, someday, on a one-week trip. They are there every day and must live with the realities.
Right now it costs us two-billion dollars a year to fight fires, last year it was almost three-billion, and hundreds of millions of acres of timber have been devastated. Now, with the destruction of tens of thousands of houses, and smoke that traps people in their homes all summer, it seems lawmakers and people living in urban areas are finally ready to talk about doing something different.
Why should we pay to watch something burn when we could be making money to have a fraction of the area damaged by the wildfires actively managed by state and local entities. Timber sales can make money, that money can be used to pay for the people who manage the forest, it should be a pretty self-sustaining operation.
It's the same concept as having the conservation programs in states paid for by the people who hunt and fish. Their tags, stamps, and licenses all support conservation programs. That's a good thing. What is the point of locking up hundreds of millions of acres only to pay two billion dollars a year to watch it burn?
That is crazy, log part of it, open up those forests, make them healthy, give them back the mosaic look they had a hundred fifty years ago so that when the fires do burn, they don't burn at such intense levels.
But hey, you can agree or disagree, cause I’m Gist Say’n