Already, here in August, nearly 1 million acres of California land has burned as a result of wildfires. During all of 2017—a year that included three of the eight most destructive fires on record—total acreage was about 1.2 million.
We certainly face a crisis: With numbing regularity, California has set records for the largest wildfires in recorded history; innocent civilians and brave firefighters have died; billions of dollars’ worth of property has been lost; our environment has been scarred and our much-touted success in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions has been negated.
What makes this even sadder is that we know what to do to help prevent wildfires. We know how to manage forests and rural land to assure healthy forests, watersheds and communities.
But important management tools, including forest thinning, livestock grazing and controlled burns, have become unavailable because of ineffective land-management policies. A decades-long emphasis on fire suppression, timber harvest limitations and additional restrictions on grazing have tied the hands of both public and private land managers.
People who are concerned about recurring, catastrophic wildfires should also be concerned about current management practices and policies that hinder private and public responses to the wildfire crisis in California and throughout the West.
Accepting as the “new normal” the fact that Californians are losing their homes, livelihoods, loved ones and millions of acres of forestlands represents nothing less than an admission of defeat. We can and must do better.
Certainly, we face challenges earlier generations did not. We have warmer temperatures, a larger population of people living in or near our forested areas, a siege of drought that has lifted only temporarily. It has taken decades to arrive at this point and it will take time to reverse the situation. But we must act to whittle away at our forest crisis as much as we can, as soon as we can.
To make our forests and watersheds truly sustainable and to reduce the wildfire threat, we must use every tool available: timber harvest, grazing, forest thinning, controlled burns and more. And we must be more efficient as we take action, by finding ways to cut regulatory red tape and reduce the costs of forest treatments.
One of the more discouraging aspects of the current crisis has been how efforts to discuss reasonable alternatives to current forest management have at times become drowned out by partisan rancor.
When Interior Secretary Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Perdue visited the state last week to inspect wildfire damage, some reporters seemed more interested in playing “gotcha” about the climate-change debate. And after the Cabinet secretaries mentioned the need to thin forests to reduce the fire threat, one editorial cartoonist depicted Zinke as a crazed logger brandishing a giant chainsaw in front of a vast field of stumps and declaring, “No forests, no forest fires.”
That sort of posturing doesn’t get us anywhere. No one is talking about clear-cutting forests or allowing overgrazing. We get it: Blue state California wants to cooperate as little as possible with the administration in Washington. But this is no mere philosophical debate. Peoples’ lives and jobs are at stake.
Our water supply is at stake, too. Because current land management practices have allowed more trees and plants per acre than is healthy, we have overgrown forests that take up more water, rather than allowing it to run off into streams, rivers and aquifers.
We have to do better and, again, we know what to do.
The California Farm Bureau Federation and the 12 other state Farm Bureaus in the West have reached out to secretaries Zinke and Perdue, outlining specific steps their federal agencies could and should take to restore balance to land management. CFBF also works closely with state agencies, pursuing the same goal.
We refuse to accept the status quo as part of the “new normal.” We must pursue a humane response that employs solutions to diminish human suffering and renew our natural resources.
Decades of poor land management have resulted in unhealthy levels of plants and trees that leave forests increasingly prone to catastrophic fire. But thoughtful, sophisticated, scientifically based strategies can help our forests better withstand the threat.
State and federal elected leaders and the agencies they oversee must focus on cooperation and move away from the myth that “no management” is a sound policy. Otherwise, we face year after year of destruction to our homes, our businesses and our forests.
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.
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