Managing our public lands needs a dramatic and abrupt change in policyBy: Placer County Supervisor Robert Weygandt
There are things yet to learn about the devastation brought by the Camp Fire but this much we do know. The fire will have destroyed more than 14,000 structures, burned more than 150,000 acres and hundreds are dead or missing.
We know it is the most destructive wildfire in California history.
We know our forests have grown tremendously overcrowded over the past 100 years with some forests containing more than 1,000 trees per acre where 50 would be ideal and a historic norm. We know this condition weakens the overall health of the existing vegetation competing for a fixed water supply. We know this reduces efficient photosynthesis and increases the risk of forest disease.
We know the Camp Fire caused millions to breathe unhealthy air, some for extended periods.
We know the air pollution caused by catastrophic wildfires is horrific, including contributions to climate-changing gases.
We know for over 30 years scientists have predicted that a lack of forest thinning will result in catastrophic wildfires in the west.
Our national politics reflect a horrible emotional divide, so I guess it should have been expected that the Camp Fire would mirror that mood.
Two days after the fire started, President Donald Trump tweeted, "There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, and so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forest. Remedy now or no more Fed payments!"
The next day, Gov. Jerry Brown stated in a press conference, “Managing all the forests in every way we can does not stop climate change. And those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we're now witnessing and will continue to witness.”
As if to emphasize the divide, two journal venues I rely on heavily took opposing sides.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board stated, "Trump is a bully, but he's right about forest management," and "Restoring California's forest to health could take years, but the lesson of these fires is that the feds and the state should drop their political blinders and do it."
NPR, which regularly grades public statements as to whether they are "true, mostly true, mostly falls or false" rated the president’s tweet as, "false."
Vitriol around the politics of climate change is not new and is commonly used to separate people into oversimplified buckets of either "believers" or "deniers" (I encourage you to read, “My Unhappy Life as a Climate Heretic” by Roger Pielke Jr. and “Climate Change Used to Be a Bipartisan Issue” by Justin Worland).
In light of the high-profile conflict between the president and the governor, constituents have asked me, "Aren't our national forests the responsibility of the federal government? Does the state have any role? What about local government?"
The answer is complicated but clearly there are opportunities for all to participate in a solution.
In Placer County, we have launched the Middle Fork Project to help protect the Middle Fork of the American River from fire risk, thanks to an annual funding agreement between Placer County and Placer County Water Agency. Through federal grant applications, organizations are able to perform fuel management activities to reduce fire risk in the forested watershed in the Middle Fork Project area.
The Middle Fork Project is a multi-purpose water supply and hydro-generation project designed to conserve and control waters of the Middle Fork American River, the Rubicon River and several associated tributary streams. The project stores water from rain and snow during the fall and winter months and releases water all year to meet consumptive (municipal, industrial and agricultural) demands within western Placer County, provides recreational experiences, contributes to the natural resource preservation and enhancement of the river and generates power for the California electrical grid. The Middle Fork Project is located in the Middle Fork American River watershed between the areas of Auburn and Foresthill.
Tuolumne County, home to portions of Stanislaus and Yosemite National Forests, is seeing success from their newly-launched “master stewardship agreement” with the U.S. Forest Service. Approved by the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors last December, the project intends to remove 5 million feet of commercial timber and 50,000 tons of biomass.
Without question, local government has the responsibility to make sure that if new communities are developed in high fire risk areas, adequate wild lands management and fire protection funding should be required.
There are individuals and organizations who have worked to find solutions by seeking common ground. In fact, that is the specific mission of both the Sierra Business Council and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy was created through bipartisan legislation in 2004 specifically to funnel more state resources into the region. In addition to the work of these organizations, Minority Assembly Leader Brian Dahle has worked tirelessly across the aisle for better forest management throughout his career, both as a Lassen County supervisor and member of the assembly. Leaders such as Brian are helping to make great strides in the realm of forest management.
Analysis of all information leads me to the conclusion that the scale and scope of the Camp Fire is mostly the result of irresponsible forest management practices perhaps somewhat amplified by climate change.
Thus, management of our public lands needs a dramatic and abrupt change in policy, a departure from nibbling around the edges.
The good news is, there are opportunities.
Obviously, treating all public lands in California will require time and money. Forest treatment costs from $1,000 to $5,000 per acre. There are 45-million acres of federal land in California. It would not be necessary to treat it all but costs could be more than $100 billion. The return on investment is that a treated forest is dramatically less likely to crown and spread uncontrollably, perhaps by as much as 90 percent.
The estimate for building California’s bullet train is $100 billion and more than 40 percent of our climate cap and trade revenues have been directed to it. Air quality engineers estimate that avoiding a catastrophic wildfire reduces the same amount of climate change gasses for half the cost. This kind of critical thinking is one example that might lead to bold new policy discussion.
The federal government should provide its proportional share.
Local government can help bring together disparate parties and assume a managing partner role in specific projects.
Following the closest we've come to nuclear devastation, President John F. Kennedy sought to find common ground with the former USSR, a government philosophy the opposite to that of the United States. With emphasis on our common bonds, President Kennedy stated in a commencement speech at American University in 1963, "We all breathe the same air.” Even if the air is "hazardous" as a result of a catastrophic wildfire.
It is long past due for us to find common ground and put in place a bold and meaningful solution to this vicious risk. To not do so would be public policy negligence of criminal proportion.
Robert Weygandt is the Placer County supervisor for District 2, which covers Lincoln, Sheridan, and the western portions of Rocklin and Roseville. To contact Weygandt, call (530) 889-4010 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.