It was a remarkable moment last Saturday from the floor of Yosemite Valley. President Barack Obama stopped momentarily during his speech to turn and acknowledge the awesome beauty of Yosemite Falls which towered majestically behind him.
During the 13-minute speech, the president mentioned one of the great achievements of his administration, “protecting over 265 million acres, more than any administration in history.”
The president also spoke about how important it is to preserve our planet for future generations and protect it from the dangers of climate change, which he said is the most serious challenge we face in protecting places like Yosemite.
“Climate change is no longer just a threat, it is already a reality,” he said. “We’re seeing longer, more expensive and more dangerous wildfire seasons.”
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The president likely noticed while flying into Yosemite National Park aboard Marine One that many great swaths of trees appear red from the sky. The devastating four-year drought, record high temperatures every year for the past three, widespread bark beetle infestations and, ultimately, climate change are combining to kill millions of trees in California.
Eight months ago, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, calling it “the worst epidemic of tree mortality in California’s modern history.”
Gov. Brown called on the federal government for urgent action to help remove tens of millions of dead and dying trees that increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires and the danger from falling limbs and trees, to anyone walking among them.
The California Legislature should also do more. Without a healthy forest, we suffer diminished air and water quality for all Californians. And as millions of trees die, the cost of fire suppression soars.
The Forest Service says there are over 66 million dead trees in California, 26 million more than the previous estimate just eight months ago. The estimated cost to remove each dead tree ranges between $200 and $1,000. Therefore, over $10 billion is urgently needed from federal and state coffers to address this epidemic spreading through California’s forests.
HR 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 that provides funds to restore resilience to overgrown fire-prone forests and improve forest management practices, passed the House with bipartisan support last July. Since then, it has been languishing in the Senate due to predictable political dysfunction.
Last August, the Forest Service spent a record $243 million in a single week fighting wildfires. Last year, 52 percent of the Forest Service budget was consumed fighting wildfires, compared to only 16 percent in 1995. The most alarming statistic of 2015 was that 52 wildfires exceeded 40,000 acres, compared to only nine in 2014.
At the height of the 2015 wildfire season, 32,000 firefighters – including members of the National Guard, soldiers on active duty, and firefighters from Australia, New Zealand and Canada – were battling blazes and it still wasn’t enough.
As a result of the skyrocketing cost of firefighting, funds have been “fire borrowed” from restoration and resilience accounts for seven of the past 14 seasons. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he will not authorize such budget transfers this year, setting up a possible showdown with Congress.
Meanwhile, the 2016 wildfire season is off to a fast start. As of May 17, we’ve had five times more acreage burn than at that point in the record-setting 2015 season. This week, there were three wildfires burning in Southern California, having already consumed over 20,000 acres, burned 80 homes and caused the evacuation of several communities. The impacts on air quality are significant.
The president should inform Congress that if they are unable to pass legislation that addresses California’s tree mortality crisis, he will issue an executive order on the escalating emergency. Last year, the Valley Fire in Lake County and the Butte Fire in Calaveras County destroyed over 2,800 structures, burned over 146,000 acres and claimed six lives.
Naturalist John Muir, a strong advocate of the national park concept, once said, “Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” Unfortunately, if we don’t win the battle against climate change and dramatically improve forest management practices, that door might be harder to find in the near future.
Marc Boyd is an educator and businessman living in Arnold. Email: email@example.com.