California fires highlight need for proper forest management

California fires highlight need for proper forest management
© Getty Images

That the wildfire in northern California is 98 percent contained is welcome news, as is the fact that some of the more than 1,600 firefighters who fought the fire are being allowed to return home. Reports put the toll from this fire at 85 people confirmed dead and approximately 475 missing; more than 153,000 acres burned, and as many as 14,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Whatever the cause of the fire — utility error, a changing climate, or some other factor — reducing the amount of fuels that cause fires such as this one to burn out of control must be a central focus of future management plans.

Recently, the Mackinac Center worked with the Bozeman, Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) to publish “Conflict to Collaboration,” which considers many forest management issues. Our paper describes how a confusing mix of private property rights claims, environmental interests and historical uses are conflicting with a growing list of complex state and federal regulations. Where these various interests collide, national forest management often gets stopped by regulatory hurdles that federal forest service employees have labeled the “process predicament.”

ADVERTISEMENT

There is a way around this confusion, however. Collaborative management efforts now in use can help to resolve the conflicts that stop management activities on federal lands.

In the case of the Camp Fire — as in many other cases — dead and dying trees on federal land, as well as dense shrubs and grasses, threaten adjacent state and private land. During dry seasons, this unmanaged land becomes an extreme fire hazard and can be an entry point for disease and insect infestations. “If human managers cannot or will not reduce fuel loads in federal forests,” the report concludes, “then age, wildfire, disease and pest infestations will do it for them, often with substantial costs for both national forest budgets and adjacent property owners.”

The current fire, with the tragic loss of life and massive destruction of public and private property that it has caused, stands as a stark and horrific testament to that fact.

Faced with this complex, expensive and difficult situation, even the outgoing California governor, Jerry Brown, backed August legislation that would allow private landowners to cut trees of up to 36 inches in diameter and build temporary roads to help thin out the state’s overgrown forests.

Unfortunately, however, there still exists a flawed notion that even properly managed harvesting of the nation’s forests is somehow inherently damaging. Not surprisingly, many environmental groups oppose the measure, claiming it was an attempt to open up these lands to logging interests.

Even if these claims were accurate, opening up a portion of the state’s forested land in that manner could not possibly have had more of an environmental impact than allowing hundreds of thousands of acres to be damaged, or even effectively sanitized by the intense fires now torching the state.

In truth, the logging interests under attack are typically small landowners on properties that are 300 acres or less, and they seek to protect their land, property and lives by reducing real, present fire hazards. Furthermore, actual logging interests that might seek to operate are fully constrained by federal and state regulations that require them to prepare detailed pre- and post-harvest plans, to harvest responsibly, and manage and reforest harvested areas when they are finished.

Our report describes collaborative management techniques, such as the Good Neighbor Authority, that could help to reduce dangerous situations. Under the Good Neighbor Authority program, federal managers constrained by limited staffs, budgets and time are allowed to partner with state governments to address the backlog of essential forest and watershed management activities. Through this program, state foresters can work within federal guidelines to hire local forest contractors to complete much-needed spacing and thinning operations.

Local contractors find work, the forests are better managed and healthier, and adjacent private and state land is protected from the threat of disease, insect infestations and stand-leveling fires.

Jason Hayes is the director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan.