Ryan Zinke knew exactly whom to blame for the catastrophic wildfires that have scorched California and the West this year. Touring the scarred neighborhoods of Redding in August, President Donald Trump’s interior secretary blasted “special interest” environmental groups for blocking logging projects he said would have made forests safer.
His words recalled the timber wars of the 1990s, when conservative politicians and out-of-work loggers blamed environmentalists for court rulings and a thicket of regulations that silenced chain saws in many Western forests to protect the spotted owl and other threatened wildlife. Now Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, are calling for more logging.
“For too long, our forest management efforts have been thwarted by lawsuits from misguided, extreme environmentalists,” they wrote recently in a Sacramento Bee opinion piece.
These days, however, the Trump administration’s words ring hollow in many of California’s 30 million acres of forests, an area covering one-third of the state’s land mass. Litigation has largely given way to cooperation. Timber industry officials say they’ve found common ground with environmental groups to thin out overgrown forests and reduce fire hazards.
One such effort is in the Stanislaus National Forest. The Modesto Bee paid a 2016 visit to a research plot near Pinecrest where experts looked for the right mix of logging and controlled burning. They said wildfires tend to burn much less intensely if the landscape is a mosaic of open ground, mid-size timber and denser growth.
That tour included a coalition called Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions, which is concerned with the national park and the national forest next to it.
While forestry project approvals can take years — and hundreds of thousands of acres still need to be thinned — logging advocates say the Trump administration’s argument is outdated in California.
“To me, it represented a lack of understanding of the dynamics of what’s going on here on the ground in California,” said Rich Gordon, president of the California Forestry Association, the state’s primary timber lobbying group.
Scientists say the nation’s century-long practice of fighting all wildfires left California’s woods unnaturally dense with small trees and underbrush — and, ironically, more vulnerable to catastrophic fires. More than 1.3 million acres have burned already this year.
For years, there was little agreement on how to manage the forests better. The logging industry pushed for cutting down large trees, which are more valuable commercially but are also desirable to keep standing because they are more resistant to fire. Environmentalists were suspicious of any major effort to trim the forests, arguing projects were little more than clear cuts and timber sales in disguise.
Nowadays, many scientists, forestry officials and environmentalists agree that some mix of selective logging, clearing and carefully “prescribed” fires is needed to return the forests to some semblance of health.
“There’s sort of a sweet spot,” said Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, Gov. Jerry Brown’s top forestry official.
Not all are on board
Denise Boggs of Conservation Congress in Chico believes some forest thinning can help reduce fire risk, but only in the immediate vicinity of people’s homes. She also says some deliberate “prescribed burns” can be helpful, too.
Beyond that, she’s ready to resist “an unholy alliance between the Forest Service and the timber industry” aimed at extracting large, old-growth, fire-resilient trees.
“I’m not going to apologize for any lawsuit I’ve filed and I’m going to continue to file them if I believe they’re necessary,” Boggs said.
Her suits rarely prevail. Of the 10 she’s filed the past six years, all have been unsuccessful.
Regardless of outcome, Trump administration officials say the mere threat of lawsuits from groups like Boggs’ worsens the volume of red tape, leading to delays in getting projects done.
“Forest Service personnel write longer and more detailed environmental documents anticipating legal challenges,” the agency said in a statement. For instance, it can take the Forest Service two years to study spotted owl habitats before it green-lights a project to remove trees and brush in owl country, said Jim Branham of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that promotes forestry projects.
“That’s all well and good but we’re seeing the King Fire, the Rim Fire — all these fires — destroying numerous owl (habitats),” Branham said. “We’re losing the very habitat that these processes are designed to protect.”
Patrick Koepele will put his environmentalist’s credentials up against anyone’s. He runs the Tuolumne River Trust, which is fighting to keep more water in the state’s rivers, drawing howls of protests from farmers and the Trump administration. Yet he’s advocating for more chainsaws in the woods, through his work with Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions.
The group’s members, who first convened in 2010, were wary about working together — until the disastrous Rim Fire, which burned 250,000 acres in 2013.
“That kind of cemented my sense of the forests in the Sierra as really overgrown,” Koepele said. The group is now planning a project that will thin about 1,000 acres of forest east of Sonora.
“Before I lived in the foothills and became more closely acquainted with forests, I would have been skeptical of something like this,” said Koepele, who moved to Sonora from Davis in 2000. “Now I’ve gotten to see the forests, and spent time with researchers and spent time with some of the loggers.”
Gov. Brown secured $96 million from the Legislature this year to pay for more forest management projects. He also just signed Senate Bill 901, which attempts to shield electric utilities from certain wildfire costs but also relaxes logging restrictions for larger trees on small parcels of privately owned land.
The new law allocates $1 billion over five years, generated by proceeds from the state’s “cap and trade” carbon emissions program, to ramp up forest thinning.
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report.