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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Outside View: Clear-cutting forests won’t solve California’s wildfire problem

The Sacremento Bee

Now nearly everyone, it seems, is in favor of more “forest management” to reduce fuel for California’s record wildfires.

But there is a big difference between clearing overgrown brush and thinning dead trees, and neither is the same as clear-cutting acres of pristine forest. Those distinctions matter a lot as state and federal officials scramble to prevent more wildfires from charring huge swaths of the state.

It’s a no-brainer to trim tinder-dry brush, which only needs a spark to turn into a wind-whipped inferno. Very selective thinning of trees and carefully planned burns also make sense. Clear-cutting does not.

California’s forests are far more than fuel for fires. Properly managed, they provide habitat for wildlife, clean carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and are essential to watershed quality, especially in the Sierra Nevada.

In clear-cutting, an extreme form of logging, all trees in an area are cut down, then herbicides applied before new seedlings are planted. That might be the most efficient and lucrative method for timber companies, but it is certainly not environmentally sound. Live, old-growth trees are the most resistant to fire and disease. And before cutting live trees, there are plenty of dead trees across California – more than 129 million – to harvest first.

However, those crucial differences aren’t on the minds of President Donald Trump and his allies.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, surveying fire damage near Redding recently, called for culling more trees from national forests and slammed environmental groups for blocking timber harvesting. Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, whose district stretches from Lake Tahoe to Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Park, is repeating his longstanding arguments that forests are too thick with trees and that conservation rules are too strict.

In part, they were both defending the president, who tweeted that California’s wildfires are being “made so much worse” by “bad environmental laws,” adding: “Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!”

So conservation groups are right to sound the alarm about what Trump and his minions might do under the cover of the state’s wildfire crisis.

After all, this is an administration that is very friendly to logging, mining, cattle and other industries, all of which want to exploit federal lands. To make sure the Trump team doesn’t go too far, we need to keep some level of environmental review of logging projects.

For instance, the U.S. Forest Service is moving to allow commercial logging of thousands of healthy pine trees – for the first time in decades – across 2,800 acres in the Los Padres National Forest north of Los Angeles. The agency doubled the annual timber production target from 200,000 cubic feet of wood last year to 400,000 this year, and is moving ahead without first conducting formal environmental impact reviews of the potential damage to wildlife, including the federally endangered California condor.

The Forest Service justifies its plan by saying the area is overgrown and a fire danger, and that it includes creating a firebreak 12 miles long and as much as a half-mile wide, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Of course, we’d take the administration more seriously if its own budget requests for 2018 and 2019 hadn’t called for tens of millions of dollars to be cut from what the Forest Service and Interior Department planned for tree clearing and other forest management.

It also would help their case if Trump officials took climate change more seriously. Wrapping up a tour of Redding on Monday, Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue tried their best to sidestep the issue, focusing on thinning forests.

Zinke’s department oversees the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, while Perdue’s department manages the Forest Service. Together they oversee much of the 46 million acres of federal land in California, more than 40 percent of the state’s total area.

As for state lands, Gov. Jerry Brown allocated $90 million more in the 2018-19 budget for forest management. A special joint legislative committee on wildfires focused Tuesday on forest policy. Senate Republican leaders Patricia Bates and Jim Nielsen say the Legislature should put off a huge fight over changing liability laws for PG&E and other utilities for wildfire damage and instead focus the rest of this session on more immediate issues, including “fixing laws and regulations that have led to a proliferation of unmanaged forests and unprecedented levels of fuel.”

Think tanks such as the Public Policy Institute of California and Little Hoover Commission are also urging more extensive tree cutting, particularly in the 10 million forested acres in the Sierra Nevada, where millions of trees have been killed by drought and beetles.

But whether it’s good for California depends on how it’s done.

Yes, the state and the federal government must do more to prevent major wildfires. Besides death and destruction, they can churn out enough greenhouse gases to wipe out advances from cleaner cars and other measures.

But we should also pay attention to water and wildlife habit, and to climate change, which will make wildfires worse in the long run. Cutting down lots of healthy trees isn’t part of the solution.

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