Why Forest Fire Policy Is a Hot Mess

And how we might be able to fix it

Smoke from the Camp Fire over the Butte Creek on Honey Run Road in Paradise, CA, on November 9. Photo: Ray Chavez/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images

What Smokey Bear Got Wrong

Smokey Bear was the furry icon for a cultural movement that, while well-intended, eventually inadvertently led to the destruction of homes and human life. (And, yes, it’s “Smokey Bear,” not “Smokey the Bear.” But, regardless, he was wrong — or at least unhelpful.)

Humans are the main cause of forest fires.

It wasn’t until the mid- to late 1900s that we began to realize what Native Americans had known long before: Fire suppression doesn’t work. In fact, the very steps we were taking to protect our forests and the property surrounding them were the same steps that led to their destruction. This effect has become known as the “Smokey Bear Effect.”

Chart: Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment/California EPA
Chart: Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment/California EPA

Fire suppression is bad because nature actually needs fires.

Fire is also beneficial in culling invasive species that are well-adapted to the environmental conditions otherwise, but are incapable of rebounding after a fire. For example, wood ash is a stellar natural fertilizer and it can act as a liming agent that improves regrowth of small plants. Compounding this effect, fire removes the upper leaf canopy that permits rain and sunshine to reach the forest floor, further providing nourishment to the plants on the forest floor.

Yes, Climate Change Is Part of the Problem

Climate change is hitting California hard. Recent droughts, while not entirely attributable to climate change, have left landscapes parched, and the dryness can turn a previously lush forest into a landscape of mega-matchsticks. Below is a graphic from the California EPA report on the severity of droughts going back to 1985.

The Palmer Drought Severity Index is a universally used indicator evaluating dryness based on a combination of temperature and dryness. Chart: Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment/California EPA

The Problem with President Trump’s Response

While President Donald Trump retreated from this statement in later tweets, he eventually doubled down on the sentiment that inept California land management was to blame and that climate change played no part. He even reiterated his conspiracy theory that climate change isn’t real.

The majority of government-managed forest is under the executive agencies of the USFS and the DOI — each of which have been subject to President Trump’s policy decisions.

But the truth is, 57 percent of California’s forestland is federally owned and managed. This means the management of these forests is under federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, which work under president-appointed leadership. Of the other 43 percent of forestland, 40 percent is privately owned by timber companies or Native American tribes. The final 3 percent is either state or local agency owned.

Fixing the Problems

Clearly, the problem here is complex. What are the solutions?

1. More Prescribed Burns

Prescribed burns reduce the amount of fuel available for a wildfire, thereby weakening it or slowing it, if not entirely preventing it. Prescribed burning has benefits that simple forest clearing does not, as the ecological effects of fire are unique and essential to landscapes.

2. More Accommodating Regulations

California has relatively strict air quality standards that stem from their environmentally conscious legislature. While these standards are beneficial to the state’s environment, they can create a hindrance to planning and carrying out organized burns. These regulations should be relaxed to allow for better burn planning. Additionally, technology and ecosystem modeling should be used to determine when and where prescribed burns may be used to cause the least amount of adverse effects to air quality.

3. Better Interagency Communication

Interagency communication has always been the bane of good environmental policy. Managers of Californian wildlands are not exempt from this. The majority of California’s forestland is owned federally by the DOI, the USFS, or private interests, and these different agencies inevitably have different goals and beliefs of what “good” management looks like.

4. Expanding the Timber and Biomass Markets

This answer is the traditionally conservative one and it attempts to harness the power of the private sector to solve a public problem. The solution is valid, but imperfect. Proponents argue that if timber and biomass companies are granted greater latitude in their deforestation activities, they will reduce the presence of fire-fuel and will do so at no cost to taxpayers.

5. Educate Californians—Both Officials and Citizens

Currently, some Californian environmental groups outright oppose prescribed fire and logging on principle, which makes forward political movement on forest management difficult. By better educating Californians about the environmental and public health benefits of prescribed burns and smart timber harvest, citizen pressure will shift to account for a more comprehensive view of forest policy.

The Takeaway

The history of forest fire management is a storied one, and the current state of land management cannot be understood without historical context. Equally important to the historical view is the future. As climate change continues contributing to mass environmental disasters across the world, the human race will have to face the reality in increasingly gruesome, horrific manners.

Our responses to these threats cannot be simple.

While we can’t ever repent for the suffering the developed world’s pollution has imposed, we have a chance to recognize that the time to mitigate climate change is now. This requires acknowledging that the brash brand of “leadership” our current president embodies is unhelpful to progress. Smoke screens of blame and misdirection compromise our nation’s responses to deadly threats and cause real damage to communities.

I write about politics, food, and the environment. My goal is to improve the world through policy. Email me at hi@benchapman.us (https://www.benchapman.us)

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