The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Burning Lies: The Truth about California Fires

The managing editor at the Foundation for Economic Education’s website, Jon Miltimore, wrote a little diatribe about the horrible California wildfires, fires that actually plague the West Coast in general, not just California. But California-bashing is a favorite hobby of conservatives, even if they have to stretch the facts along the way.

Miltimore’s credentials as listed are that he mainly writes for a horrible collection of conservative sites including the cult-run Epoch Times, the Washington Times—another cult-owned publication, The Daily Caller and rather the horrible The Federalist.

Of late I was wondering why FEE has resorted to awful conservative pieces so often. Militmore may explain it. Over the years FEE has vacillated from being primarily libertarian to being horrendously conservative depending on who they hire and who has control. One problem of libertarians letting conservatives in the front door is they take over the second they can. Yet, sadly, conservative groups never seem to evolve and suddenly admit they were wrong about the war on drugs, marriage equality or Black Lives Matter. It isn’t they don’t evolve, but when they do they end up sounding more like the Daily Stormer than Ayn Rand!

FEE has vacillated widely over the years from when I started reading them in the 1960s. I even wrote for them during one of their libertarian periods. With their “editor’s” credentials I now see why they have once again started sounding so terribly Republican.

Miltimore’s article makes three claims as it repeatedly speaks of the “California wildfires.” Now, the term “California fires” can mean one of two things. One is that California is responsible for the fires in the ways we speak of “John Wayne Gacy’s victims” and another is they are fires in California. One implies California as a state is responsible for the fires and the other implies they are victims of the fires.

Jon Miltimore’s little diatribe is of the former kind, implying the whole problem is with California itself. This isn’t his first foray into California bashing. He previously claimed: “California’s megafires stem largely from decades-long mismanagement of its forests.”

In his new piece, which lifts heavily from his first piece and rewrites it, he mentions “California’s fires” eight times. The other times he mentions fires but doesn’t imply ownership or responsibility. In both articles he speaks of California policies as being responsible — a favorite claim made by Trump, the favored candidate of the sites for whom he writes.

Miltimore notes at the end “evidence suggests California’s wildfires stem largely from government mismanagement,” but the problem is throughout his article he implies the government doing the mismanagement is California’s. He makes no other mention of any government other than a comparison of California’s state government to the state government of the Theocratic Republic of Texas.

I know California-bashing gives conservatives tiny thrills down below but the problem is California doesn’t set the policies for the overwhelming amount of forests in the state.That is what makes Mr. Miltimore’s diatribe a diatribe. He started with a false premise and then builds on it. As Ayn Rand would say, “check your premises.”

The state of California manages 2%-3% of all forestland in the state, about 20 times that is managed by the federal government under the control of the Trump Administration for the last four years. Allow me to quote the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources site:

Of the approximately 33 million acres of forest in California, federal agencies (including the USDA Forest Service and USDI Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service) own and manage 19 million acres (57%). State and local agencies including CalFire, local open space, park and water districts and land trusts own another 3%. 40% of California’s forestland is owned by families, Native American tribes, or companies. Industrial timber companies own 5 million acres (14%). 9 million acres are owned by individuals with nearly 90% of these owners having less than 50 acres of forest land.

Not once does this FEE article mention the federal government manages most forestland in California. That is a particularly odd oversight for a libertarian to make, but understandable from conservatives who are often more interested in bashing “libtards” than being factual.

The simple fact is while the forests may be located in California, they don’t belong to California. If you want to whine about management why leave out who is doing the managing? Of course, it all depends on the motive for the article. Is one trying to explain wildfires in California or is one primarily engaging in California bashing?

To talk about federal management of the land would partially point a finger at Trump and his administration, which would be a problem for someone who is paid to write for Trump-cheerleading publications.

Miltimore’s article mentions California almost three dozen times without mentioning the federal government or it’s policies once! Yet, the bulk of the problem is federal ownership. It isn’t that California has bad policies for the forests, as his article overwhelmingly implies, it’s California has almost no control over forestland policy. That’s under federal control.

California’s misfortune is that fires on federal land don’t stay on federal land and then spread through residential districts and private forestland. The National Interagency Fire Center found about two-thirds of all land that burned in the wildfires in California, Washington and Oregon were on federal land and one third spread to private land and state-owned land. There is no question these lands are overgrown and thus liable to go up in flames. But the policies in question cover federal land, outside the state’s jurisdiction, and have been in place for 100 years.

It may make conservatives all tingly to blame California “libtards” but it isn’t honest. Of course, honest implies consistent with facts and today’s conservatives are not on speaking terms with facts.

Miltimore closes with a favorite comparison of conservatives — comparing Texas to California, usually unfairly or dishonestly. This, I suspect, really shows Miltimore’s agenda. California is bashed for having wildfires although the federal government owns 58% of the forests and the state owns only 3%. He then invokes Texas to show how awful California is.

He writes:

“The Lone Star state actually has more forest area than the Golden State and higher temperatures. Yet government data show they’ve had far fewer megafires. From 1997–2019 Texas had about one third the number of megablazes (fires larger than 100,000 acres) that California did.”

But, according to Texas Almanac, 91.6% of the forestland in Texas is privately owned and only 7% is under federal control. Now, for a libertarian that would be significant as it implies federal ownership may be the problem. This is the central fact in the debate about wildfires and Mr. Militimore’s article chastises “60 Minutes” for ignoring “3 inconvenient facts” while he ignores the elephant in the room. Forestland in Texas is privately owned and most in California is federally owned. You would think a libertarian would pounce on that fact.

Militmore mentions the ownership once but leaves out the most important aspect of that fact. He wrote:

From 1997–2019 Texas had about one third the number of megablazes (fires larger than 100,000 acres) that California did.

What could explain these results? Perhaps the fact that 95 percent of Texas’s land mass is privately owned and authorities have embraced burning policies that allow fire to do its natural work.

Miltimore’s article makes it sound as if this is California state policy at work when it’s federal policy and California can do nothing about it. Several times Miltimore references “government policy” but his context ALWAYS implies it is the policies of the state government at issue. Not once does he mention whose policies actually dominate. The way he presents the situation there is Texas with sane policies and California with horrible policies. That is a false analogy. The issue is Texans have ownership over most forestland in their state while Californians don’t due to federal owernship. It’s not the “libtards” in the California legislature responsible, right now it’s the Trump administration that has left the over-grow policies in place to focus on photo-ops for a malignant narcissist.

It would appear to me that a libertarian would have the incentive to point out the federal ownership issue is a central problem. A conservative, on the other hand, would want to California bash while praising the theocratic Republic of Texas, and that is what Militimore does. He leaves out the core fact on which the whole debate is based and instead engages in cheap and misleading California bashing.

The real difference isn’t California versus Texas, it’s that a large majority of forestland is owned by the federal government in California while almost none of the forest in Texas is similarly owned. That is the fact at the core of this discussion but it’s an “inconvenient” fact in some circles and thus ignored.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.