Recall this discussion at the first presidential debate? This turned into one of Donald Trump’s more surprising moments, in which he exhibited preparation on a key piece of policy before facing off against Joe Biden. Moderator Chris Wallace wanted to introduce climate change into the debate, and used the forest fires on the West Coast to frame the question. Trump pushed back against the idea that climate change was responsible, and instead blamed bad forest management for the crisis:
WALLACE: OK. The forest fires in the west are raging now. They have burned millions of acres. They have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. When state officials there blame the fires on climate change, Mr. President, you said I don’t think the science knows.
Over your four years you have pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. You have rolled back a number of Obama environmental records. What do you believe about the science of climate change and what will you do in the next four years to confront it?
TRUMP: I want crystal clean water and air. I want beautiful clean air. We have now the lowest carbon. If you look at our numbers right now, we are doing phenomenally. But I haven’t destroyed our businesses. Our businesses aren’t put out of commission.
If you look at the Paris Accord, it was a disaster from our stand point. And people are actually very happy about what’s going on because our businesses are doing well. As far as the fires are concerned, you need forest management. In addition to everything else; the forest floors are loaded up with trees, dead trees that are years old and they’re like leaves and everything else.
You drop a cigarette in there, the whole forest burns down. You’ve got to have forest management, you’ve got to have cuts …
I also think we have to do better management of our forest. Every year I get the call California is burning. California is burning. If that was cleaned — if that were — if you have forest management, good forest management, you wouldn’t be getting those calls.
You know in Europe they live — they have forest cities — they’re called forest cities. They maintain their forest, they manage their forest. I was with the head of major country. It’s a forest city.
He said, sir, we have trees that are far more — they — they ignite much easier than California. There shouldn’t be that problem. I spoke with the governor about it. I’m getting along very well with the governor. But I said, you know, at some point you can’t every year have hundreds of thousands of acres of land just burn to the ground. That’s burning down because of a lack of management.
Biden actually avoided the forest-management issue in his answer, as the two of them got caught up in a testy exchange over the Green New Deal instead. Instead, media outlets and pundits rushed to fill the gap by declaring this a form of climate-change denial.
On that score, kudos to NBC News, which pointed out the obvious today. While tipping its cap to climate change, NBC noted that wildfires go back at least centuries in California. And they also point out that forest-management experts have been raising the same alarm as Trump did, for decades:
For decades, federal, state and local agencies have prioritized fire suppression over prevention, pouring billions of dollars into hiring and training firefighters, buying and maintaining firefighting equipment and educating the public on fire safety.
But as climate change continues to fuel dry conditions in the American West, many experts say it’s long past time to shift the focus back to managing healthy forests that can better withstand fire and add to a more sustainable future.
“Fires have always been part of our ecosystem,” said Mike Rogers, a former Angeles National Forest supervisor and board member of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees. “Forest management is a lot like gardening. You have to keep the forest open and thin.” …
Long before the country’s founding, Spanish explorers documented wildland fires in California. In 1542, conquistador Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed along the coast and noticed smoke billowing up from what is now known as the Los Angeles Basin. He called it “la baya de los fumos,” or “the bay of smoke.”
Part of the problem is a rush to extinguish nature fires, which has long been part of the ecosystem. That creates a denser forest not just of trees but also of brush, which dries out into virtual tinder. A century ago, NBC News notes, the Stanislaus National Forest had 19 trees per acre; it is now 260 trees per acre. That creates a density that guarantees any fire will turn into an inferno that makes suppression virtually impossible until everything burns. “When a fire starts in there,” Rogers told NBC News, “it’s unstoppable.”
It’s that data that makes clear that this isn’t a climate-change issue. It’s a forest-management issue, one that would benefit from properly balanced logging as well as more robust culling. Even if one adopted the Green New Deal tomorrow as penance for our global-warming sins, the accumulation of fuel in the forests would still exist, and the wildfires would be just as out of control. Without adequate management, the forests will burn, and as people move closer to them, so will their homes.
But who’s to blame for that? To some extent the states, but mostly it’s the federal government, at least out West:
Firstly, most forest in California, Oregon and Washington isn’t the responsibility of the state authorities – in fact, their share of forest land is small.
In California state, the federal government owns nearly 58% of the 33 million acres of forest, according to the state governor’s office. The state itself owns just three per cent, with the rest owned by private individuals or companies or Native American groups.
There’s a similar picture in Oregon, with significant proportions of forest land in federal rather than state hands, as well as under private ownership.
And in Washington state, only 12% of forest land is in the hands of the state authorities, with 43% federally-owned and 36% in private hands.
Federal agencies like the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks Service are responsible for the upkeep of federally-owned land, and as far as private forest land is concerned, it’s up to the owners to manage these areas.
So in the end, this goes back to the federal agencies, at least in significant proportion. Trump may be right that this is a forest-management issue, but it’s his administration that should be setting the policies for it. If funding from Congress, existing regulation, or a combination of those is blocking or slowing proper management techniques, then Trump needs to take action to fix that. Getting the answer right is only the beginning of solving the problem.