Can California’s Forests Survive Extreme Environmentalism?
Earlier this summer, an environmentalist group that calls itself the John Muir Project, joined by a few other like-minded state and local organizations, sued the U.S. Forest Service. The transgression: a proposal to thin 13,000 acres of forest near Big Bear Lake, in the heart of California’s San Bernardino Mountains.
You would think they’d learn. One of the most devastating fires in California history raged through the San Bernardino Mountains nearly 20 years ago. The Old Fire, as it is now known, burned over 90,000 acres, destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and businesses, and forced the evacuation of more than 70,000 people.
Time passes. Forests regenerate. And if you choose to suppress natural fires, you either reduce forests through logging, grazing, controlled burns, and mechanical thinning, or you wait until they’re overgrown tinderboxes and then watch them burn to the ground in catastrophic “superfires.” And that is the apparent preference of California’s environmentalist lobby.
Critics opposing the forest-thinning project around Big Bear Lake contend the introduction of big machines to remove excess trees and understorage is harmful to the forest ecosystems, and less effective than simply creating defensible 100-foot perimeters around homes in the forest. They even contend that removing trees makes wildfires burn and spread faster.
This assertion, contradicting the experience of professional forest managers, should be debunked in court. Notwithstanding the problem of property owners in California’s forests themselves having difficulty obtaining permits to thin trees and understorage around their homes, ample evidence exists that mechanical thinning is effective. We also have ample evidence that a superfire can hop a 100-foot “safety perimeter” as if it isn’t even there.
Southern California Edison (SCE) owns 20,000 acres of forest around Shaver Lake, located in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. SCE practices what is known as total ecosystem management—and it works. In the summer of 2021, when the Creek Fire burned an almost-unthinkable 550 square miles in those mountains, the 30-square-mile island of SCE-managed forest around Shaver Lake emerged unscathed. The reason: for decades, SCE has engaged in timber operations that it defines as “uneven age management, single-tree selection,” whereby the trees to be harvested are designated in advance, in what remains a profitable logging enterprise. Controlled burns are also a key part of SCE’s total ecosystem management, but these burns are safe only when the areas to be burned are well-managed with logging and thinning.
The practice of uneven age management could be used in riparian canyons, or in areas where valuable stands of old-growth trees merit preservation. The alternative, a policy of hands-off preservation, has been disastrous. Tree density in the Sierra Nevada is currently around 300 per acre, whereas historically, a healthy forest would have had only around 60 trees per acre. Clearly, this number varies depending on forest type, altitude, and other factors, but overall, California’s forests, especially on federal lands, contain about five times the normal tree density. The result is trees that cannot compete for adequate moisture and nutrients, far less rain percolating into springs and aquifers, disease and infestation of the weakened trees—and fire.
This alternative—manage the forest or suffer fires that destroy the forest entirely—cannot be emphasized enough. East-west topography turned the Feather River Canyon, along with many other canyons along the Sierra Nevada, into wind tunnels that drove fires rapidly up and down the watershed. Yet these riparian areas have been among the most fiercely defended against any logging, and these efforts made those fires all the worse. The choice going forward should not be difficult. Logging and forest thinning cannot possibly harm a watershed as much as parched forests burning down to the soil, wiping out everything.
Even clear-cutting, now done on a 60- to 100-year cycle, does more good than harm to forests. Converting 1 percent or 2 percent of forest back into meadow each year can open up areas where it is easier for owls to hunt prey. Also, during a clear cut, the needles and branches are stripped off the trees and left to rejuvenate the soil. The runoff is managed as well, via contour-tilling that follows the topography of the hillsides. Rain percolates into the furrows, which is also where the replacement trees are planted. In forests managed by Sierra Pacific Industries, California’s largest logging company, owl counts are higher than in California’s federally managed forests.
Now more than ever, responsible, large-scale logging operations are a prerequisite to competent wildfire and wildlife management. Forests in California today are too overgrown to be safely returned to their historical tree densities merely by allowing natural fires to burn. In an overgrown forest, natural fires turn into superfires, decimating the ecosystem and the wildlife and requiring much more time to recover.
California’s 33 million acres of forests generate about 8 billion board feet of natural growth per year. Up until 100 years ago, natural fires were started by lightning, or natives would burn off an equivalent amount. Up until the 1980s, California’s timber industry removed 5 billion board feet per year (down from nearly 6 billion board feet through the 1960s), but starting around that time regulations increasingly hostile to the industry have reduced the annual harvest to 1.5 billion board feet. At the same time, overregulation has made it almost impossible for property owners or even state and federal land managers to do any controlled burns or mechanical thinning. Grazing of cattle, goats, and sheep also helped keep undergrowth down, but this, too, has been regulated nearly out of existence.
Tree density in California’s forests is on average about five times what it was for the last 20 million years. Trees are stressed because there isn’t enough space, soil nutrients, light, or water for so many. That’s why they are less healthy and, in many cases, prey to bark beetle infestations and other diseases. This is also why our forests are tinderboxes and our wildfires so intense.
Excessive tree density is an objective fact. But instead of rewriting all these counterproductive regulations, our politicians and the special interests backing them bloviate about “climate change,” while doing little or nothing that might actually help the forests. Abetting them at every turn are “environmentalists,” whose well-intentioned but misguided lobbying and litigation have done more to decimate California’s forests than nature and the changing climate ever could.
This article was originally published in City Journal.
Edward Ring is a senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).