The 2017-2018 California wildfire season awakened state officials – and others concerned about forest management – to some stark realities. Not only are unmanaged forests hot spots for devastating fires, but smoke from these fires is the nation’s top cause of air pollution.

Sadly, the most obvious, and least costly, solution to the buildup of fuel in unmanaged forests – restoring the logging industry – is hardly on the radar of either state or federal bureaucracies.

Bureaucrats tend to see forest management as a cost to society, rather than an opportunity for revitalizing an industry with a major interest in minimizing the devastation caused by fires. Thus, decades of bureaucratic interference in the timber marketplace has turned a major asset into a massive liability. “Experts” are demanding hundreds of millions of federal and state dollars to combat what industry once did for profit. This is absurd.

Lightning strikes were once the main cause of wildfires, with attendant damage to animal and plant life in forests. Steve Nix, writing at ThoughtCo.com, notes that lightning randomly strikes the Earth about 3 billion times a year and that lightning has caused some of the most notable wildland fire disasters in the U.S.

But Nix also notes that human activity is responsible for nearly 10 times the number of fires in the U.S. as lightning. The chief culprits are tossed cigarettes, improperly tended campfires and other camper-related activities, and, sadly, uncontrolled prescribed burns. Arson, too, plays a role. An Australian study found that 13 percent of vegetation fires were deliberate and another 37 percent suspicious.

CFACT advisor Larry Bell found that, back in 1910, about 3,000 separate wildfires merged into a single inferno that resulted in 92 fatalities and destroyed 3 million acres. He further reports that more forest acreage burned in the dry, hot 1930s than at any time since. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that average annual acreage burned fell to just 162,276 acres between 1960 and 1984; that figure jumped to 670,018 acres between 1985 and 1998.

What changed? For starters, the counterculture unleashed in the 1960s included an emergent, quasi-religious viewpoint shared by many environmentalists that it is immoral for private industry to profit from public forests. Even cleaning out dead trees and harvesting timber to offset the costs was viewed by deep ecologists as an affront to Mother Earth.

Writing in Forbes (July 30, 2018), former California legislator Chuck DeVore (now a Vice President with the Texas Public Policy Foundation) reported that “forest product industry professionals … told me of a worrisome trend started years earlier where both federal and state regulations were making it more and more difficult for them to do their jobs. As a result, timber industry employment gradually collapsed, falling in 2017 to half of what it was 20 years earlier.”

He continued: “As timber harvesting permit fees went up and environmental challenges multiplied … the combustible fuel load in the forest predictably soared. No longer were forest management professionals clearing brush and thinning trees. But [costly publicly funded] fire suppression efforts continued.”

DeVore also cites a 2001 article by wildlife biologist George E. Gruell, who chronicled the history of fires in California forests since the Gold Rush days. Gruell stated that, “increasingly burdensome regulations” slowed, even stopped altogether, entrepreneurial forest management especially on the 60 percent of California forest land managed from Washington. California went from producing enough wood waste to power dozens of electric generating plants statewide to leaving that waste in place to fuel forest fires.

In many places, forest management was shunned by regulators as an unnatural interference with nature (though 80 percent of fires are human caused) and opted against even fire suppression activities. The recent massive fires, however, prompted Governor Jerry Brown in May 2018 to promise massive new funding for tree thinning and prescribed burns. He even promised to authorize taking timber from forests for use in state building projects.

Newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom was not to be outdone. Relying on a report issued in January 2019 by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), Newsom okayed a $50 million “All Emergency Preparedness Campaign” that focuses on community responses to fires and another $20 million in block grants or regional projects to improve forest health and increase fire resiliency.

Notably, NONE of the CAL FIRE report’s 19 primary recommendations includes revising the state’s burdensome regulations to encourage reinvestment by private industry to manage forests for profit, as had been done for the previous century. The panel did recommend suspension of regulatory requirements that would expedite publicly financed fuel reduction projects.

Forest economist Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has lambasted the U.S. Forest Service for spending billions of dollars a year on projects that often do “more harm than good.” O’Toole notes that USFS spending jumped from less than $1 billion in the late 1990s to over $3.5 billion in 2016, with about half that total spent on fire suppression, much of which was formerly done by the private sector as part of profit-making enterprises.

Bell also quotes U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock (R, CA). who stated that 45 years of environmental laws and regulations that have killed the logging industry have “not only failed to improve our forest environment [as promised by lawmakers], but they are literally killed our forests.”

The obvious answer, as it has been with other U.S. industries beset by the regulatory jungle, is to encourage rather than stifle the management of forests both by industry for profit and by local and even state agencies for public use. Washington’s one size fits all approach, which O’Toole condemns, by its very nature exacerbates the problems. And focusing on public expenditures only increases the likelihood of failure.

Once again, we can learn from President Ronald Reagan, who in his 1981 Inaugural Address blurted out these memorable lines: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

 

Author

  • Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with both the Texas and Arkansas Public Policy Foundations, Mr. Flanakin has a Master's in Public Policy from Regent University. During the years he spent reporting on environmental regulation in Texas and nationwide, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas.