Wildfires Caused By Bad Environmental Policy Are Causing California Forests To Be Net CO2 Emitters

Guest essay by Chuck DeVore

The Camp Fire in Butte County as seen by satellite.

In the past two years, wildfires scorched 2.9 million acres in California, including five of the state’s 20 deadliest fires killing 131 people.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown grimly warned that because of man-made climate change, these destructive wildfires are the “new abnormal” that threaten “our whole way of life.”

Newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom’s rhetoric has been more balanced.

As with Brown before him, Newsom blames climate change for the fires, saying during the campaign last September that,

“The science is clear — increased fire threat due to climate change is becoming a fact of life in our state. Drier, longer summers combined with unpredictable wet winters have created dangerous fire conditions.”

Claiming that climate change causes wildfires naturally leads to a demand for action, with Newsom promising an aggressive progressive pushback against the Trump Administration’s effort to cut red tape regarding vehicle mileage standards, power plant carbon dioxide emissions, and oil and gas extraction.

That’s politics. Governing often dictates practicality. Here Newsom appears set to do more to combat wildfires than the tentative half-measures signed into law by Brown. Newsom is calling for improved wildfire surveillance and warning systems, better urban planning, and helping property owners clear brush.

Regarding reducing the fuel load, in an interview four months ago, Newsom said that there are “Hundreds of millions of dead trees” in the state and that it cost his father $35,000 to clear “a small little patch of dead trees” on his property.

Newsom didn’t admit it, but the outrageous cost to remove a few dead trees from private land is a consequence of California’s Byzantine environmental regulatory patchwork.

This is California’s big secret: it’s not climate change that’s burning up the forests, killing people, and destroying hundreds of homes; it’s decades of environmental mismanagement that has created a tinderbox of unharvested timber, dead trees, and thick underbrush.

This dangerous situation attracted attention from President Donald Trump who, during the height of California’s wildfires last year insistedthat “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.”

The irony is that forest management is so bad on public lands that a new report, ordered by the California legislature in 2010, shows that the [portion] of California’s National Forests protected from timber harvesting is now a net contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide due to fires and trees killed by insects and disease.

Every year about 3.8 billion board feet of new timber grows in the Golden State, capturing almost one metric ton of CO2 per acre in the productive timberland areas. Trees grow until they die, burn, or get harvested. If harvesting declines, tree mortality and fires increase. It’s the tyranny of math.

In the early 1990s, a series of restrictions were placed on logging in the West to protect the Spotted Owl. As it turned out, nature was more complicated than expected, with owl numbers continuing to decline—even after the California timber harvest plummeted—due to predation from other raptors.

In the meantime, the harvest fell below the growth rate in the 1990s, to about 1.5 billion board feet per year over the past decade. The tree harvest on federal lands is now one-tenth of what it was in 1988, President Reagan’s last full year in office.

The California forest report draft concludes by observing that the “Current flux [of CO2] may not be sustainable without forest management!” while citing the challenge of “Aging of forests on federal lands.”

Unlike much of the American South and East, California has a distinct wet season, with Pacific storms rolling in by November or December and wrapping up by March. In even the wettest years (2016-17 was the wettest in 122 years) much of California is bone-dry by late fall. Thus, it isn’t climate change that sets the conditions for fires—it’s California’s natural weather pattern. Comparing acres burned in wildfires to weather and tree harvest data, there appears to be little link to climate—but a big connection to the growing forest fuel load, especially on government land.

Which brings us back to policy. If federal and state environmental policies continue to make it difficult and costly to harvest timber and manage the fuel load, then the wildfires will continue and they will be bigger and deadlier. This will, in due course, cause some politicians to blame the fires on climate change.

In the meantime, the timber harvest infrastructure is less than one-third of what it was 30 years ago, meaning that even if politicians were sincere in wanting to manage the public forests, there few people remaining to manage them.


Chuck DeVore is VP of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former California legislator

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56 thoughts on “Wildfires Caused By Bad Environmental Policy Are Causing California Forests To Be Net CO2 Emitters

  1. Drier, longer summers combined with unpredictable wet winters have created dangerous fire conditions.”…

    ….that sound you just heard….was my head exploding

    • It’s called a “Mediterranean Climate”.

      Hot dry summers alternating with cooler, wetter winters.
      California, South-Eastern Australia, Spain, Greece….. it is the normal climate for the world’s most fire-prone environments.

      What is so “unpredictable” about that?
      Almost as predictable as politicians ducking, weaving and dodging to avoid responsibility for their own decisions.

      • Is there any chance that CO2 fertilization effects could be leading to increased fuel loading? Plant growth increase of a few percent compounded over decades would be more than enough to make wildfire conditions a lot worse.

  2. Not to mention the self-indulgent habits of all their elite citizenry.

    If I gave a @#$#%% about C02, I would be concerned, as opposed to just offended by their hypocrisy.

  3. More research needs to be done on the liberal brain; MRIs, etc. What makes them think the way they do? Is the urge for them to tax/spend a congenital disease? Why do they have this innate need to blame something (anything-e.g. Global Warming, even Climate) for their own failures? Why do they have the need to control everybody else, and then refuse to adhere to their own demands (hypocrisy) Why are they so apparently opposed to God of the Bible?

    • You’re saying that believing in Satan is better than believing in CO2. Makes for more rational decisions. You may be right.

      • No – not saying that.
        But since you brought up Satan, allow me to elucidate on Satan and his inferior position. Satan does indeed exist. God created him, along with all the other angels, but choosing to go against his creator, Satan and 1/3 of all the angels, who were fooled by Satan and chose to follow Satan, were cast out of Heaven. Many people are mistaken in a belief that Satan is God’s opposite equal – this is classically false. God has no equal; God created Satan, and has allowed Satan to be the prince of this world, for a time, which includes now; we live in a fallen world – thus sin of all kinds. Each human is imbued with sin from birth. Only Jesus – the perfect son of God in human form – and who is God – is without sin. Jesus, God the son, has been given all power and authority by God the Father. True heartfelt individual belief that Jesus died on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for all sin washes away one’s own sin before God; this reconciles us back to God with forever lasting life with God. God knows Satan, Satan knows God.
        The most rational decision is to believe in God.

    • If California had a rational forestry policy, 10’s of thousands of good paying jobs and $10’s of billions worth of additional commerce could be added to the California economy through a thriving lumber industry…

      Well managed forest with a network of forestry roads, wildfire breaks, and millions of tons of underbrush removal could could be in place to greatly reduce the extent and frequency of wildfires.

      Of course California is not rational, and has Leftist irrational and commerce-destroying EPA rules which hurt the economy and ironically damage the forest environment.

      Like with most Leftist policies, the intent of their actions is the complete opposite of the actual effect.

      When will people learn Leftism never works?

      • When I was 25 I was sure I was righteous and the left hand path was the only way to wisdom. I did no research that challenged what University taught me.

        Then I grew up, worked physical labor, became a father, and began reading. It took many years to change my mind, but logic prevailed.

        At this point I genuinely believe collectivism and low IQ/emotional immaturity are related. It also appears that these people genuinely despise competition and hierarchies. I’m still working to connect some missing dots. Something though is genuinely anti human, almost like a built in self destruct mechanism..
        Maybe the universe built in a way to keep the dominant, intelligent species responsible for it’s own population control. Why else the self hatred?

      • Maine is over 90 percent private land, with relatively few timber regulations and yet the timber industry there is still a shadow of its former self. The reality is that paper has been replaced by e-mail and wood products have been replaced with plastic, concrete, and steel. I recently had to replace my old wood siding and I used hardie siding instead. Competition has done far more damage to the timber industry than environmental regulations.

        • You can’t compare the situation in Maine where essentially all of the commercial forest land is privately owned, to that in the west where essentially all forest land is under federal control. Apples and orangutans.

          It is a FACT that the incomprehensible maze of “environmental” regulations, fomented by a deadly cabal of “envronmental” ngo’s, a science challenged public, and progressive leftist politicians (who are also scientifically brain-dead…) has essentially shut down timber harvest across the western US. Add to that the dumping of below cost Canadian timber, and you end up with once thriving towns and counties in the west being economically strangled, and competing with each other for the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment.

          And, do not be misled about Maine. The “enviros” have made repeated attempts to ban clearcutting there, so far failing, but coming closer each time. Environmental regulations also make it more and more difficult to compete in a commodity market, paper, now dominated by huge mills in southeast Asia and South America. Those who manage capital are just not going to invest in aging infrastructure.

          • Comparing the response of the timber industry the two vastly different situations is exactly the point. Everyone is pointing fingers at public lands and environmental policies for the death of the timber industry, but Maine is low on both but the timber industry is still failing. Therefore, something else is killing the timber industry (IE capitalism). It is simple logic…

          • I pointed out to you how the situations in Maine (private forest land) and the west (federally “managed” forest land) were different, and similar. However, the “enviros” have been complicit in both areas, attacking a legal, viable industry. As well in the west, we are talking mostly sawtimber (with pulpwood residual), while in Maine we are talking mostly pulpwood.

          • @Dave.

            Your “logic” ignores that fact that government regulation is a significant factor. Whether it directly prevents timber harvesting on public land, or indirectly through increased regulatory costs and prohibitions that reduce profitability.

            It is *not* logical to claim that because regulation isn’t the only factor, therefore it is an insignificant factor.

          • Exactly. As I pointed out, but Dave conveniently chose to ignore, the incomprehensible maze of often conflicting laws, DRIVEN BY THE ENVIROS, that “govern” federally “managed” forests has resulted in the near total shutdown of these forests.

            Congress made this mess, beholden to the green idiots, and only Congress can fix it. I’m not optimistic.

  4. When you have – as I have – dug your hands into soil reduced to the consistency and biological diversity of sterilised sand, you may understand part of the effect of intense fire under dry conditions. Such fire burns everything. Mulch, roots and humous, as well as the majority of fuel above the surface.

    Mild, frequent fire when the soil is still relatively moist, burns neither standing timber, nor the majority of biological material within the soil itself.

    Why is this so hard to see?

    That is before we even start to examine the other benefits to both risk management and the ecosystem.

    • Good points.
      Don’t know why. It’s inexplicable.
      The only thing I can figure is that it (falsely) gives them a reason to blame something else, in this case CO2, so that they think: 1) it hides their own failures 2) it gives them reason to blame global warming and/or climate change 3) both 1&2 in turn allow them a path to coercive tax/spend, more gov’t and more control over free people’s lives – their apparent true goal in all this. They can’t stand America and our Constitution… They claim they love it, but they want to “change” it.

      • @Bob Greene.

        I assume that you understand the difference between total fuel, and available fuel.?
        If not, total fuel is everything combustible. Available fuel is that which will burn under the conditions existing at any particular time.

        A high total fuel is not a problem if it has to high a moisture content to burn, or does not exist in the form that will carry a fire.

        This is where the carbon-catastrophe brigade ignore their own doctrine. We can have massive long-term carbon tie-up in the soil and as timber, but only if we accept the short-term carbon cycle involved in fuel management burning. To use the old cliche, they are being “penny-wise and pound-foolish”

        I want to see fuelmanaged from a fire hazard reduction viewpoint, so I get impatient with the panic-merchants when the6 cannot even accept the implications of their own doctrine.

  5. …shows that the potion of California’s National Forests protected from timber harvesting…

    Sounds like magical thinking to me. (or a typo)

  6. It is well documented that for tens of thousands of years before Europeans settled in Australia, the native Aboriginal tribes regularly and systematically conducted cool burns of the country they curated, and depended upon for sustenance.

    They used managed fire as a hunting and sustainability tactic.

    While the “progressive” current custodians of the Australian bush (ie Greens-dominated local municipal councils) are very eager to pronounce the sanctity of “the noble savage” meme, they curiously reject the proven provenance of the Aborigines’ managed cool burns conducted regularly. Go figure.

    • As did Native Americans. Most Mediterranian climate plants are fire adapted, so having fairly frequent fires is the norm.
      Add in the theology of the greens, that if it serves the interests of people, it must be bad, so timber harvesting is sinful.

  7. No forests fires in New York City, to break boredom the NYPD arresting the Green New Deal protesters. What is going on? I thought AOCortez was the city’s “boss in charge”

    • She isn’t that popular after the Amazon HQ2 fiasco. That was an epiphany wake-up call for many dozing New Yorkers.

  8. The forests will eventually shed their timber, either when harvested as lumber or in a fire.

    In the EU, burning wood for heat is considered CO2-neutral since the wood will be replaced by new plantings. Of course that takes decades, but still. By that logic, timber harvesting should earn CO2 credits because the wood remains as other products. Yet… opposition.

    I suppose greenies are opposed to timber harvesting for the same reason they oppose nuclear power and GMO’s. They’re irrational and anti-science.

  9. The “enviros” have “won.” This is the inevitable result of shutting down the forests of the west, the OVERWHELMING proportion of which are under federal forest “management.” As a retired forester and one who has some experience digging line, doing dry mop-up, and working several large complex fires, the changes in western forests I’ve observed since the passage of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 have exacerbated the problems of wildland fire. Almost no logging now for 25 years has resulted in a tremendous buildup of fuels, against a backdrop of shutting down access by closing thousands of miles of good, usable roads, yield more and larger fires, some of which burn buildings and homes.

  10. “It’s the tyranny of math.”

    Well, when you are a true progressive, 2+2 can equal 5. Just ask Orwell how that’s done.
    1984 is not the warning it should be, rather it’s the Progressive’s instruction manual.

    On the issues of thinning forests on federal lands, much or the recent problem has been on chaparral ecosystem state-controlled lands, such as the 2018 Woosley Fire around Thousand Oaks. This chaparral ecosystem has always been dominated by naturally caused fires (lightning). Harvesting timber is not an issue in the chaparral ecosystem – it is active fire suppression. Fire suppression since the turn of the 20th century was practiced to “protect” homes and infrastructure, and the sensible use of controlled burns sometimes got away from the burn-controllers. The resulting uncontrolled wildfire that then could be the basis of human blame (political blame games) and legal action by hungry lawyers representing victims and their families. So even sensible controlled burns were largely eliminated due to California’s litigation environment.

    So this problem of wildfires in Clifornia’s chaparral lands will not be fixed until prescribed burns can be undertaken on large scale. And that is not doable until California’s litigation environment changes. And good luck with that (giving prescribed burners some limited immunity when the occasional burn gets away) due to the Cal Bar’s heavy influence in Sacramento.

    • And, “thinning” isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially in the mountainous west. One of the basics: you usually need to be able to pay your way out of the woods. Thinning in mountainous terrain is problematic = expensive, so across the landscape it’s really not a viable solution. On the contrary, most of the valuable timber species growing in the west are shade intolerant, and even age management by clearcutting makes the most sense. At worst CC is genetically neutral, as opposed to thinning which, because of economic constraints, often results in high grading, or dysgenic selection.

    • We definitely need to stop blaming the trees. While a spectacular picture of a crown fire makes good news, most of the worst wildfires in the west are spread by dry brush and undergrowth. These lighter fuels are also easier to blow around as they burn which creates the “firebrands” that are what burn houses down. We could clearcut every acre of forest and it would only cause the brush to grow faster and the wildfire problem to be worse.

      • Some of what you say is right, but the evidence on clearcutting is, ahem, clear. We had a bad fire near us on the Kootenai NF in 2017, started in a “roadless area,” control efforts hindered for nearly 3 weeks because closed and destroyed roads had to be reopened, and that eventually blew out, destroying more than 40 structures including 11 homes in the small Amish community of West Kootenai.

        During the summer of 2018, I drove past the fire area, observing that old harvest units (clearcuts) were still green, while the decadent forest surrounding it had burned. I’ve seen aerial photos that show the same thing.

        While it is not the whole story, the data are clear. When logging was going steadily (WELL under the annual allowable cut, btw…) on western forests “managed” by the federal government, the acres burned were much lower.

        • I have more personal experience with drier climates like California, Nevada, and Utah. The explosive fire growth that causes fires like the ones seen last summer in California is spread almost exclusively by the lighter fuels. This is what makes them so devastating and dangerous. A few years back I saw a fire hit the small community of Swall Meadows in California. It was an area that was 95% sage brush and it destroyed the entire community in a matter of hours. These fires move so fast that there is barely any time for evacuations (as we saw this fall in the Camp Fire tragedy).

          • I’m not familiar with the ecology of those areas, but in ours (south-eastern Australia) a sufficiently high fire frequency will kill scrub/brush before it matures enough to flower and seed. It is then replaced with a grassy understory or a grassy heath.

            One of the benefits of that kind of understory is that it dries out relatively quickly, which means that it can be burnt under benign conditions. This is one reason why indigenous people burnt deliberately and frequently – almost as often as any fuels would burn. Natural ignitions aren’t frequent enough.

  11. The Greens oppose everything, not because they arte irrational which they are, but for the greater cause, to destroy the economy so that their solution to fix everything is finally accepted. So what is that, well its the new version of Communism of course, but this time it will work perfectly.

    MJE

  12. These wildfires release a tremendous amount of energy. What about harvesting some of the fuels and burning them in power plants? Seems like a 2 birds, 1 stone situation to me…

    • Gotta be able to pay your way out of the woods. Moving bulky biomass many miles by truck to a power generation station is almost always a losing proposition.

      • The deadly “camp fire” is currently at a cost of about $16 billion. I admit that on it’s own this scheme would not a huge money maker but when you add in the costs of fire suppression and fire damages power generation could pay for itself many times over. You could also build power stations close to the fuels they use and maybe even create mobile generating stations.

        • It’s not that simple. You just can’t balance off fire suppression and monetary damage costs to the costs of a biomass generation system. And from what I’ve read, the local power company has significant liability for the Camp Fire. Who will carry the costs, losing money for years, of a biomass power generation system?

          • If the biomass generation system saves lives and property and reduces fire suppression costs why can’t you include that in the cost benefit analysis? It seems like you are being intentionally myopic.

          • If the biomass generation system reduces fire suppression costs and saves lives and saves property why can’t that be included in a cost benefit analysis? As far as who would pay for such a scheme, perhaps setting aside money from increasing fire suppression efforts. Also, while I doubt that generating electricity from forest biomass would bring many profits, it could be somewhere near or just below break even. And, if you include the external benefits of reduced fire danger and producing electricity from a “sustainable” source then it seems like a worthwhile enterprise to me.

          • I was in the business. Trust me, it ain’t that simple. The only way to do this would be with other people’s money…

          • Prescribed burns emit high levels of pollutants and are therefore very unpopular with the public. If we can burn the fuels in a combustion chamber to reduce pollutants and also generate electricity, how is that not a win, win situation?

          • Depends on what your land-management objectives are.

            If you want to treat biomass simply as a crop, and fire prention as a law-mowing exercise, then you can justify using heavy machinery for rapid and efficient removal of low-value material.

            OTOH, if your objectives include preserving the ecology of the area, then proper use of fire is far less damaging.

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