Cheap Seats 2018
California Burning - 11/21
By Rich Trzupek
The tragic fires in Northern California provoked predictable responses from the usual suspects. To President Trump, the fires were the inevitable consequence of poor forest management practices by the state of California. To Trump’s opponents, the fires were the result of the theoretical effect mankind is exerting on the earth’s climate that we commonly short-hand as “global warming” these days, or the result of incompetent federal land management, or perhaps both.
It should come as absolutely no surprise that the president came out swinging. “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Trump tweeted last Saturday.
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio fired back: “The reason these wildfires have worsened is because of climate change and a historic drought.” Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters union, complained that most of the state’s forests are managed by the federal government. “The president of the United States is ignorant of the process of forest management and wildfires,” Rice declared.
Another day, another descent into partisan rancor. Ho-hum. One cannot help but wonder what John Muir, the legendary naturalist who founded the Sierra Club and did so much to spur the conservation movement in the United States would think of the way his pioneering work has evolved in modern times. One cannot help but suppose he would be appalled. To Muir, progress had its place in an evolving world. He simply chose to restrain progress when it threatened to distort or destroy remarkable natural wonders. Or, put in terms of one signature issue that would define how Muir approached the intersection of modern civilization and the environment, the Scotsman wasn’t opposed to sheep, he just wanted them in their proper place.
Muir was a lone Scotsman trying to ensure that the grandeur of amazing natural vistas remained in place for future generations to enjoy. He was no zealot. He understood people needed to harvest natural resources in order to survive. He knew, for example, that raising sheep provided a variety of products for people to use and eat, and that sheep needed places to graze. He only objected to sheep grazing in some remarkable places he thought should be preserved in their natural state. He engaged in a fierce battle with Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the US Forest Service in the late 19th century to protect what Muir deemed as sensitive areas from sheep farming, while accepting that sheep had their place in agriculture. Eventually, they figured it out, not to either’s complete satisfaction I suspect, but to the ultimate betterment of the nation.
It would appear that we’ve passed the point where finding such middle ground is possible in the environmental realm and in so many other areas of contention. I can’t imagine that Muir would approve.
In fact, regardless of the fact that he expressed his opinion in classically, inelegantly Trumpian terms, the president is correct in at least this: The state of California has been doing an awful job of managing its forests. The degree to which that mismanagement contributed to this later round of wildfires may be called into question, but the fact of the state’s mismanagement itself is beyond doubt. The non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office released a fact sheet entitled “Improving California’s Forest and Watershed Management” in April of this year. In it, they recognized that “…(m)ost of the forests across the state are in an unhealthy condition.” They further stated that overgrown, unhealthy forests resulted in “…increased risk of severe forest fires” and recommended actions to thin California’s many overgrown, unhealthy forests that have developed in the name of environmental puritanism.
And no, this sad situation is not the federal government’s fault. While the feds own the land on which the wildfires occurred, the Bureau of Land Management delegated it’s authority to manage that land – and most of rest of federally-owned forests in California – to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as part of that agency’s State Responsibility Area (SRA) a long time ago.
The fire that consumed Paradise, California occurred in a part of Northern California within the state’s SRA, as is most of the state outside of the deserts in Southern California. Some say these fires started in the high chaparral, a bush-like vegetation that is un-related to forestry management. Perhaps that is the case. Whatever the facts, no one can question that the fires started in a part of the state for which California itself is wholly responsible for fire protection and that California’s irresponsible forest-management practices are sure to lead to more fires in the future. It’s just a matter of time.