Will More Logging Save Western Forests From Wildfires?

Aug 29, 2018
Originally published on August 30, 2018 11:09 am

In Redding, Calif., where the Carr Fire burned more than 200,000 acres and destroyed more than a thousand homes, there's a feeling of desperation. Something has to be done to clear the dense stands of trees and thick brush in the mountains around town, or the next fire will be even worse.

"It's not just global warming," said Ryan Adcock, who grew up here. She was forced to evacuate her home for five days due to the Carr Fire and was taking advantage of a rare smoke free morning walking with her kids along a river front bike path.

"It's not just one thing, there's logging, there are several factors that play into why it's worse now than it's ever been," she says.

There was a time when logging and timber companies ruled Redding. When Bill Oliver moved here in the 1960s to take a job with the U.S. Forest Service, he remembers the valley was lined with timber mill after timber mill.

"That was the major industry between Shasta Lake City, 8 miles north, all the way down to Anderson, 8 miles south of here," Oliver says.

In response to California's deadly wildfires, the Trump administration is calling for more 'active' logging in western forests. They want to open up more public lands to the timber industry, to reduce the fire risk but also revive rural, natural-resource dependent economies.

This is a decades-old debate in the West and by no means a new GOP talking point. But out on the ground, foresters and even some timber industry leaders say what's really needed to mitigate the wildfire threat is a lot more involved — and expensive.

"The picture has changed," says Rich Fairbanks.

Fairbanks managed and fought fires for the U.S. Forest Service for 30 years, largely in southern Oregon and northern California, where many of the West's worst fires have burned so far this year. Fairbanks is now a fire and forest management consultant from his home near Ashland, Ore.

"A lot of senators and congressmen are still thinking we're back in the 1970s," he says.

Indeed, much has changed since the 1970s and 1980s, which marked the height of the timber wars over clear cutting and the spotted owl. Since then, the amount of federal land open to logging has dropped precipitously and a lot of the logging moved to private land. Timber and logging companies themselves have consolidated and mechanized, leaving fewer people necessary to do the work.

A 'sustainable' industry

So, even if more public land was opened back up to logging, retired Forest Service officials like Bill Oliver wonder whether there is enough industry left in the West to process the timber. Oliver, a wildfire scientist, says the forests are dangerously overgrown today due to prior forest management decisions.

"The forests are much too dense because we've tried to keep fire out for about a hundred years," Oliver says.

Oliver says the actual stuff that needs to be cleared out of the woods are the brush and small diameter trees that provide kindling for today's mega fires. Those don't tend to be worth that much to the timber industry. It's the big trees that make the money. This has long been an impediment to joint public-private forest restoration and wildfire mitigation efforts. But there are signs this is changing.

One of the few big players left in northern California's wood products industry is Sierra Pacific Industries. Each of their six mills in the region are being systematically upgraded to handle that smaller diameter wood so it can be turned into commercially viable products like particle board.

The industry sees opportunity, says Dan Tomascheski, vice president of forest resources at the company. But they need reassurances that there will be a lumber supply on public lands for more than just one or two years.

"This can't be a bubble," he says. "This has to be a ramp up and then a sustained program."

The Forest Service says there is a sustainable market — and opportunity — when you consider that upwards of 80 million acres of forest lands nationwide are considered at risk of major fires and in need of treatment. So far only about two million acres of public land have been treated through logging and other thinning projects or prescribed burns, according to the agency.

"We're not talking about just cutting trees to cut trees," says Tomascheski. "We're talking about harvesting timber in a way that produces the fuel breaks and the thinning that we all need."

Environmental appeals

The Trump administration says the biggest thing standing in the way of the fuel load is environmental lawsuits. A bill introduced this month by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., aims to reduce legal appeals and fast track forest management projects on some national forests in the West.

At a recent committee hearing, Daines said there were more than two dozen forest management projects under litigation in Montana alone.

"I can't even see the mountains out of my backdoor in my home which are just a few miles away because of the smoke," Daines said.

The administration's secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, has even referred to some of the groups opposing logging as environmental terrorist organizations, causing an outcry in many corners of the region. Still, in a lot of the West, tensions between environmentalists and logging companies have actually cooled over the past decade.

There are now partnerships and compromises being made on forest health projects from Idaho to California that don't always make the headlines. Dan Tomascheski at Sierra Pacific says his company now regularly talks with some environmental groups that he couldn't imagined working with 20 years ago. "The level of hostility and the fiery dialogue has really diminished," Tomascheski says. He says this is largely due to an understanding among all sides that the status quo in forest management isn't working and the wildfires are only worsening in severity.

People outside of Washington D.C. tend to point their finger at a much less high profile culprit they say is holding up fire mitigation projects: funding.

"The biggest enemy of good forest management, especially fire management, is budget cuts," says forest management consultant Rich Armstrong.

Armstrong says it takes money to plan and implement the kinds of landscape level forest restoration projects that are needed. But the government has cut the budget for wildfire mitigation and other forest programs, while diverting much of the remaining funding to pay to fight wildfires.

At Sierra Pacific, Dan Tomascheski sees the effects of this on the ground.

"The Forest Service has lost quite a bit of expertise in all of the disciplines of hydrology, road engineering, wildlife biology etcetera," he says. "They've lost a lot of the funding for those positions and they need to regain some of that expertise."

Congress recently passed a bi-partisan fix creating a separate fund to pay for wildfire suppression, though that won't take effect until next year at the earliest.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Trump administration wants more logging in western forests. They believe that will help prevent deadly wildfires. But foresters and timber industry leaders say what's really needed to mitigate the wildfire threat is a lot more involved and expensive. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In Redding, Calif., where the Carr Fire burned more than a thousand homes, there's a feeling of desperation that something has to be done to clear the dense stands of trees and thick brush in the mountains around town, or the next fire will be even worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR PASSING)

SIEGLER: Ryan Adcock is taking advantage of the first relatively smoke-free morning in three weeks, out walking with her kids along a riverfront bike path.

RYAN ADCOCK: I mean, it's not just global warming. It's not just one thing.

SIEGLER: Adcock's home was spared by the fire, though she was evacuated for five days.

ADCOCK: There's logging. There's several different factors that play into why it's worse now than it ever has been.

SIEGLER: There was a time when logging and timber companies ruled western towns like this. Bill Oliver moved here in the 1960s to take a job with the U.S. Forest Service.

BILL OLIVER: That was the major industry between Shasta Lake City, which is 8 miles north, all the way down to Anderson, 8 miles south of here, where it's just mill after mill.

SIEGLER: Then came the timber wars over clear-cutting. The amount of logging on public land dropped significantly. And the timber industry also mechanized and mills consolidated. So now, even if you did open back up all the land, there isn't much industry left to process all the wood. Oliver is a retired federal wildfire scientist. He says the forests are dangerously overgrown.

OLIVER: The forests are much too dense because we've tried to keep fire out for about 100 years.

SIEGLER: Oliver says the actual stuff that needs to be cleared out of the woods - the brush, the small-diameter trees - it's not worth that much to the timber industry. It's the big trees that make the money. This has long been a challenge when it comes to forest and fire projects, but there are signs things are changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MECHANICAL EQUIPMENT WHIRRING)

SIEGLER: Many of the remaining mills in northern California are owned by Sierra Pacific Industries. At this one near Redding, fir and pine trees roll down a giant conveyor belt headed for a saw the size of a small car.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD ROLLING)

SIEGLER: The company's forester, Dan Tomascheski, says each of their six California mills are now being systematically upgraded to handle that smaller-diameter wood that's a fire risk so it can be turned into commercially viable products, like particleboard.

DAN TOMASCHESKI: The industry is certainly capable and willing to do that. They just need to be reassured that that supply is going to be there for more than just one or two years. This can't just be a bubble. This has to be kind of a ramp up and then a sustained program.

SIEGLER: The Forest Service says there is a sustainable supply if you consider that 80 million acres of public land nationwide is under threat of major wildfires. But so far, only about 2 million acres have been treated through thinning, timber sales or prescribed burns.

The Trump administration says the biggest thing standing in the way of reducing the fuel load is environmental lawsuits. But people on the ground fighting the fires point the finger at a much less high-profile culprit - funding.

RICH FAIRBANKS: The biggest enemy of good forest management, especially fire management, is budget cuts.

SIEGLER: Rich Armstrong fought fires for 30 years from his home base in southern Oregon, where he's now a forest management consultant. He says it takes money to plan and implement the kind of landscape-level forest restoration projects that are needed.

FAIRBANKS: The government's really letting us down here. That's all there is to it. The government's letting us down.

SIEGLER: For the past two decades, the government has cut the budgets for these programs and diverted a lot of the funding that was left to pay for fighting fires.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD ROLLING)

SIEGLER: Dan Tomascheski at Sierra Pacific sees the effects of this on the ground.

TOMASCHESKI: The Forest Service has lost quite a bit of expertise in all of the disciplines of hydrology, road engineering, wildlife biology, et cetera. They've lost a lot of the funding for those positions. And they need to regain some of that expertise.

SIEGLER: Congress did recently pass a bipartisan fix creating a separate fund to pay for wildfire suppression, though that won't take effect until next year at the earliest. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Redding, Calif.

[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, as in a previous Web version of this report, Rich Fairbanks is incorrectly identified as Rich Armstrong.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.