In the scramble to evacuate all of South Lake Tahoe in late August, there was a palpable fear among fleeing residents that the destructive Caldor Fire could raze one of the largest communities in the Tahoe basin. Thankfully, after firefighters mounted a massive defense, South Lake Tahoe was spared.
Cal Fire officials and forest managers credited previous forest treatment projects that had helped slow the fire’s spread and gave crews precious time to strengthen their lines and protect thousands of threatened properties.
California desperately needs to thin more of its forestland and reduce fire risks so there are more success stories like Tahoe and fewer like Paradise or Greenville. Protecting our communities and sacred wilderness is vital for California’s future, and that requires expedited projects and sustained investment to remove dry, accumulated undergrowth that turns our forests into tinderboxes.
Doing that work has not been easy, and it’s certainly not a simple fix. California is improving regulations to encourage more prescribed burning, a technique widely used by Indigenous tribes for centuries where dry fuels such as dead trees, trunks and overgrown shrubs are deliberately burned and cleared. The U.S. Forest Service, which has long resisted the tactic, has started changing course and permitting more prescribed fires.
When coupled with intentional forest thinning in certain fire-prone areas, California has a chance to meaningfully influence the behavior of wildfires and give firefighters a better chance to control their spread.
Century-old forest management practices by the Forest Service, Cal Fire and the logging industry have led to intense standoffs in recent decades among environmentalists, scientists and fire experts who believe we have managed our forests under a profit motive, not resiliency.
They are not necessarily wrong. As The Bee’s Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler noted in a recent story about this conflict, “much of the sturdy old-growth was cut down, and what grew back in its place were dense stands of small trees and brush,” they wrote. “The stage was set for an era of catastrophic fires like the sorts California is experiencing every summer.”
In addition to fighting fires instead of controlling them, the Forest Service allowed logging companies to decimate California forests for much of the 20th century, with little concern about the ecological harm they were causing. This gave environmentalists all the ammunition they needed to question the motives of an agency that oversees millions of acres of California forestland.
But now is the time for the environmental left to stand down. California’s forests are in terrible shape after decades of unchecked commercial logging and aggressive fire suppression. Conditions have only gotten worse as climate change dries our forests and reduces rainfall, aiding recent record-breaking megafires that threaten populated areas and wipe out entire habitats.
By weaponizing federal protections — such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act — to obstruct or outright kill various wildfire prevention projects, environmentalists imperil the very ecosystems they wish to protect.
Organizations like the John Muir Project, Conservation Congress and other allied groups have been accused by leading experts of spreading “agenda-driven science” that promotes specific unsupported narratives and avoids data to back up their litigious claims. At least 111 scientists have co-authored at least 41 scientific papers to rebut their dubious methods, The Bee reported, an extraordinary sign of how problematic these groups have become. Some of their disputed claims have caused the courts to delay important fire prevention projects.
As our expertise on forest management evolves, so too must the methods employed by these environmental organizations.
Clear-cutting forestland is no longer the go-to approach, and environmentalists need to acknowledge that forest management is being done more intentionally in the 21st century. California cannot afford delays on vital treatment projects when there is a broader consensus in the scientific community that they can be done effectively and with the ecosystem’s best interests in mind.
Environmental organizations may have good intentions but their agenda is jeopardizing essential prevention projects that can lessen the damage of future wildfires. Prolonged smoke production harms public health, causes soil erosion, degrades the water supply, destroys cultural and natural resources, increases greenhouse gas emissions and reduces carbon storage. We have to do what’s necessary to change how megafires behave.
Managing the fire risk in California’s forests requires thoughtful, focused action, but stopping or delaying the work altogether is not an option anymore.