Sep 26, 2015

Restoring Sound Forest Management

American Loggers Council Annual Meeting

Eureka, California

September 26, 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Thank you for your invitation to join you here in Eureka for the American Loggers Council Annual Meeting.  “Eureka” of course is the motto of California, taken from the Greek, meaning, “I have found it.”  It’s an appropriate motto for California, which became an economic powerhouse of the nation – indeed, of the world – based on its immense bounty of natural resources. 

Thanks to the foresight of our pioneers, we set aside vast tracts of land – in the words of the original Yosemite Charter – “for public use, resort and recreation…for all time.” 

More than a century ago, we created the National Forests based on founder Gifford Pinchot’s maxim: “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”

In the view of these visionaries, preserving these resources for future generations did not mean closing them to the current generation.  Rather, it meant managing them for the sustained and on-going benefit of the nation.

For our national forests, this meant good stewardship of the public lands.  The emerging science of forestry offered us principles of sound forest management with which to assure healthy, thriving and resilient forests in perpetuity.

These practices prevented vegetation and wildlife from overgrowing the ability of the land to support them.  Not only did this assure robust and healthy forests capable of resisting fire, disease and pestilence, it also supported a prosperous economy.  The sale of excess timber provided a steady stream of revenues to the treasury which could, in turn, be used to further improve, protect and manage the public lands.

But 45 years ago, we replaced these sound management practices with what can only be described as a policy of benign neglect.  In 1970, Congress adopted the National Environmental Policy Act and in 1973 the Endangered Species Act, that opened a floodgate of ponderous and  Byzantine policies, regulations and lawsuits, with the explicit promise to “save the environment” from the predations of mankind.

After 45 years of these policies, I believe we are entitled to ask, “How is the forest environment doing?”  The answer is damning.  According to every scrap of evidence submitted to our sub-committee by a wide spectrum of forest experts, these laws have not only failed to improve the forest environment – they have catastrophically harmed that environment.

The harvest of surplus timber from our national forests has dropped more than 80 percent in those years, while acreage destroyed by forest fire has increased proportionally.  Wildlife habitats these laws were supposed to preserve are being systematically incinerated as forests become choked with dry tinder – precisely because these same laws prevent us from thinning.  Precipitation that once flowed to riparian habitats now evaporates in overgrown canopies or is quickly claimed in the fierce competition of densely packed vegetation.  We have lost vast tracts of national forests to beetle infestations and disease as weakened trees can no longer resist their attacks.  As these trees die and cannot legally be removed, they provide the fuel for the ultimate round of destruction: catastrophic wildfire.

The U.S. Forest Service reports that in the Tahoe Basin in my district, there is now four times the vegetation density as normal under proper forest management, and trees that once had room to grow and thrive now fight for their lives against other trees trying to occupy the same ground.

Revenues that our forest management agencies once produced – and that facilitated our forest stewardship – have all but dried up.  Some years we actually lose money on timber sales because of wildly expensive environmental reviews and restrictions.

This has devastated mountain communities that once thrived from the forest economy.  Precious resources that could have been used to further benefit the forests must now be diverted for fire suppression.  Economic support programs like Secure Rural Schools and Payments in Lieu of Taxes divert billions more from forest management in order to replace the tax revenues lost to these communities because of these policies. 

Not only can we no longer manage lands to prevent fire, we cannot even salvage dead timber once fire has destroyed it.  Salvage after a fire must first undergo a full year of environmental reviews while the fire-killed timber loses half its value.  Litigation often runs out the clock on what time remains to get any value from these losses – resulting in vast tracts of forest left to decay.

Scrub-brush – not new trees – takes first claim of our fire-killed forests left to neglect.  Within a few years, five to eight feet of dry tinder accumulates where mighty pines and cedars once grew.  Then the dead, dry trees begin toppling over, forming a perfect fire-stack for a second-generation fire.

Appeals, lawsuits and especially the threat of lawsuits has paralyzed and demoralized the Forest Service and created perverse incentives to ‘do nothing.’ Our forests once had well maintained timber roads and small timber crews dotted the mountains.  When a fire broke out, it was a simple matter to move equipment to the source of the fire and stop it.  Now fire often explodes out of control before firefighters can reach it. 

This steadily deteriorating situation is forcing managers to raid forest treatment and fire prevention funds to pay for the growing costs for wildfire suppression, creating a fiscal death spiral – the more we raid prevention funds the more wildfires we have; the more wildfires we have, the more we raid prevention funds. 

I visited the command center for the King Fire in my district on the day firefighters feared we would lose the entire communities of Georgetown and Foresthill.  One firefighter, with tears in his eyes, came up to me and said, “Congressman, I can’t even get to this fire on the ground.  We used to have good timber roads throughout the forest – we could get to the fire and put it out.  All I can do now is drop stuff from the air and pray the wind shifts.”

The wind did shift, saving the homes of hundreds of Georgetown and Foresthill families, but that fire nevertheless destroyed 150 square miles of our precious forests.

Last month, I toured the aftermath of that fire.  It was a remarkable sight from the air.  You can vividly see the property line separating the federal lands from the privately owned and managed lands of Sierra Pacific Industries.  On the federal side there is complete devastation – it’s as if a giant had planted 30 foot black toothpicks one next to another as far as you can see.  It is a scene of complete devastation – until you reach the SPI property line.  The moment the fire hit SPI’s well-managed land, it began to break up into smaller patches that could finally be extinguished.    

A year after the fire, those fire-killed patches on the SPI lands have been completely salvaged and crews are beginning to plant new trees before brush can claim the ground.  Meanwhile, the federal lands sit abandoned and forsaken.  Today, the dead federal timber has already lost much of its value and most of it will probably never be salvaged. 

Just a few short years from now, the private lands will once again be green, growing, thriving young forests, while the public lands will be scrub brush, dead trees and bark beetles. 

A few weeks ago I visited the command center for the Rough Fire that has destroyed almost 250 square miles of the Stanislaus forest in my district.  The fire fighters there wanted to impress one thing on me: fire breaks matter and forest management matters.  Where the fire reached properly thinned and managed acreage, it slowed enough for firefighters to extinguish it.  But there wasn’t nearly enough such ground.

Ironically, our private forest lands are conspicuously healthier than the public lands precisely because they are freed from so many of the laws that are tying the hands of our public foresters.  These policies may be making environmental law firms rich, but they are killing our national forests. 

Eric Hofer once observed that every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and degenerates into a racket.  That is the story of the environmental movement – organized to address some very real problems but that gradually crossed the line from sound public policy to ideological extremism.

So here we are today.  The U.S. Forest Service manages a land area the size of the state of Texas – about ten percent of all the lands in the United States.  Because of our current laws, between one fourth and one third of this land – about the size of New York and Pennsylvania combined – has been declared at risk of catastrophic wildfire, and yet the agency this year expects to treat less than three percent of that acreage.  Last year, the forest service estimated that 851,000 acres of fire-destroyed forests needed to be replanted. 

We’re told we don’t have the funds.  But you know the economics of forest management better than anyone.  The excess timber on these public lands – if allowed to be carried out of the forests before it burns out – can generate more than enough funds not only to clean out and protect our forests, but also to replant the acreage we have lost, assure a perpetual resource for future generations, restore a vibrant and prosperous economy to our forested regions, generate a bounty of tax revenues for state and local governments in these regions, and provide a positive cash flow to the U.S. Treasury.

We’re told just to leave nature alone and it will take care of itself.  But Thomas Hobbes was right when he said that life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short.  A century ago, we made a sound decision to preserve our forests so that they are available for future generations.  That decision REQUIRES that we manage them properly.  In a state of nature, fire takes out overgrown vegetation, devastating wildlife habitats and in the case of catastrophic fires, requiring a century or more for the forest to grow back. 

In my district alone over the last three years, we have lost more than a THOUSAND SQUARE MILES of Sierra Forest – a thousand square miles of a national treasure that our government had a solemn responsibility to protect.

Leaving our forests to nature to reclaim means losing them to our children, their children, and their children after them.  This is not responsible stewardship of our public lands.  It makes a mockery of our vows to preserve them for future generations. 

We are sacrificing our forests on the altar of environmental extremism – a policy that is now destroying 3.6 million acres of federal forest land each year.  Unless we act, we are literally running out of forests to pass on to future generations.

But I sense the tide finally is turning.  The cost of these policies is now becoming graphically clear to the American people.  A new generation is living with the consequence of these policies.  Because this new generation is not emotionally invested in the mistakes of the past, it is beginning to ask some fundamental questions – such as, “Mom, Dad – what were you thinking?”

The first step toward restoring sound forest management to our public lands has already been taken by the House in the form of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, HR 2647.  Its principle author is Congressman Bruce Westerman, himself a professional forester schooled at Yale University, which the founder of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, did so much to shape.

It seeks to provide the Forest Service with immediate reforms that require no new regulations, rules, planning or mapping.  Instead, it builds on existing authorities from the 2014 Farm Bill.

It requires forest managers to consider the cost of no-action alternatives.  It streamlines fire and disease prevention programs by providing categorical exclusions from NEPA for forest treatment and salvage operations.  It sets a 90-day time limit on environmental studies for salvage sales, assuring that fire-killed timber can be quickly removed to create both revenues and room so that we can restore fire-damaged lands.  It protects forest managers from frivolous lawsuits by requiring litigants to post bonds.  It prevents restraining orders from running out the clock on time-sensitive projects.

It permanently fixes the fire borrowing problem by amending the Stafford Act to allow wildfire costs that exceed the budget to be paid for by the Disaster Relief Fund.   

HR 2647 passed the House in July, and we now await action in the Senate.  And, as you know, the Senate is a different institution.  It is, as Jefferson said, “The saucer in which the hot tea of the House is left to cool.”  Under the current Senate rules, it takes six Democrats to defy their leaders and cross party lines just to consider a bill.  But I have high hope and even an expectation that this growing crisis will produce the votes from western state Democrats to adopt this legislation so we can get it to the President.

And in 483 days, I am confident that we will have a president who will sign it.

When we are successful – and I fervently believe it is a question not WHEN and not IF – I believe other legislation can quickly follow that will produce a renaissance of forest management. 

When Gifford Pinchot founded the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, his vision was of an agency that welcomed the American people to their public lands; and that worked cooperatively with local communities to maximize the sustainable use and enjoyment of our resources.  His policy was to manage our forests “for the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the long run.”  

Pinchot gave a series of lectures at the Yale School of Forestry from 1910 to 1915, in which he propounded maxims for the (quote) “Behavior of Foresters in Public Office.” 

Among them: 

A public official is there to serve the public and not run them.

Public support of acts affecting public rights is absolutely required.

It is more trouble to consult the public than to ignore them, but that is what you are hired for.

Find out in advance what the public will stand for.  If it is right and they won’t stand for it, postpone action and educate them.

Get rid of an attitude of personal arrogance or pride of attainment or superior knowledge.

Don’t try any sly or foxy politics.  A forester is not a politician.

The land management policies of the environmental left – policies of benign neglect and “look, but don’t touch” -- are the antithesis of the American vision of public lands managed well for the public good.  Our objective is not only to restore sound forest management practices to our national forests, but to restore public access and enjoyment of the public lands and to restore the federal government as a good neighbor to those communities directly impacted by its policies.

To do so, we must confront the environmental left on its own ground – hold it accountable for the disastrous environmental damage it has wrought upon our national forests and the tragic economic damage it has caused to thousands of hard-working families in our mountain communities.  We must hold them accountable for the elitist and exclusionary policies that seek to deny the public’s right to the use, resort and recreation of their own lands.  We must educate the public that there is a better way.

I see a day in the not-so-distant future when we can again manage our federal public lands just as carefully as private owners manage their own land – constantly tending to its health and vitality; removing excess timber to promote healthy forests and a thriving economy.  Our forests are not being struck down by mysterious acts of God, but by specific and breathtakingly foolish acts of government.  We can change that the moment we summon the political will to do so – and necessity now demands it.

And for that reason, I feel confident in predicting that The Golden Age of our Federal Forests is ahead of us – not behind us.


Tom McClintock
Tom`s Blog