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Using Urban Fires To Push USFS Tree Thinning Legislation

November 1,2017-

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Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley has been trying for months to get Congress to enact legislation that would allow the Forest Service to approve thinning more trees in the Sierra.

Now the horrific firestorms that hit the northern Bay Area around Santa Rosa that wiped out thousands of homes and commercial buildings may have lit a fire under Congress to do something.

“Anything to change the US Forest Service’s passive management of our forests will move us in the right direction” believes Worthey, who worked for years in the lumber business.

”It seems the Santa Rosa calamity has galvanized lawmakers” says Worthley. The Dinuba supervisor worries that those millions of dead trees in the Sierra will light up one day soon like matchsticks before anything can be done.

The U.S. Forest Service has estimated that since 2010, more than 102 million trees, stressed by both drought and beetles, have died including 24 million in Fresno and Tulare Counties.

Advocates like Worthley say Congressman Bruce Westerman’s bill, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, relating to forest management, wildfire suppression and timber production on public lands – has a good chance of passing. The bill is also backed by local congressman Kevin McCarthy.

Westerman has described the bill as an attempt “to make our federal forests healthy again through sound science and management.” It aims to fix federal forests that have “become overgrown, disease and bug infested, fire-prone thickets partially due to no active forestry management….” The bill will “better allow the [United States] Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to utilize tools to immediately reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire, insect and disease infestation and damage to state, municipal and personal property.”

The Forest Service has spent a record $2.4 billion battling forest fires across the West. But it is the state’s unprecedented urban fires that leaders today highlight.

Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy says the bill makes needed changes “to keep our forests healthy and less susceptible to the types of fires that ravaged our state this month.” Some 43 people perished in that Santa Rosa fires.

The bill would allow faster approval for tree thinning that now must go though a lengthy review under Forest Service rules.

Just how the thinning will be done is the $64 question.

Worthley has pointed to the fact that it is illegal to export logs from Forest Service lands in California – a way to pare down the huge inventory of trees that could still have some value even though they’re dead. The prohibition was actually encouraged by the lumber industry here several decades ago lobbying to protect their interests.

Now it is in the way. It is not clear this bill can help with that.

A state survey of the extent of tree mortality shows Fresno County with about 1.9 million trees on Forest Service land and in Tulare County – 1.2 million trees are on federal land out of 1.7 million dead trees countywide.

How To Thin?

Forest ecologists suggest fire suppression over the years has helped increase the density of our forests.

Add in the drought, bugs and rising temps due to global warming and you end up with this forest of match sticks. One observer called it “ the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — heat waves, extreme droughts, insect plagues, and massive wildfires — all linked to climate change.”

It is not just Forest Service lands with a problem.In Sequoia National Park the unprecedented die-off between 5000 to 6000 feet elevation is evident. ”We have lost 50 to 75% of our big pines” says NPS scientist Nate Stephenson who has been working in Sequoia as an ecologist since 1979.

Stephenson says there are options for dealing with the situation

He recently told a reporter about options.“One of the most important is forest thinning, a process in which small trees and brush are removed, either mechanically or through controlled burning. Thinning not only reduces a forest’s potential flammability but also its drought stress by decreasing competition for water and soil nutrients among the trees that remain. However, the need for such efforts is so vast, scientists note, that land managers must perform triage, deciding where in the landscape to ration their limited funds.”

As for dead trees Stephenson says once the big pines die” they rapidly lose value” and are decayed and on the ground within 8 years. Any  harvest of dead trees will have to happen soon.

One story about dead Sierra trees locally is news that a company last year sought to open a plant in Porterville to harvest dead trees to make animal bedding but could not get timely approval and in the end- threw up their hands. It would seem projects like this deserve to get streamlined approval from the USFS when time is of the essence.

One option among the dead trees is to do smaller prescribed burns before they fall to the ground when a hotter fire could damage the soil fears Stephenson.

Stephenson says the 2015 Rough Fire offered some hope for advocates of regular prescribed burns. The Rough Fire entered the park where prescribed burns had been carried out over the years in the Grant Grove Grant area. Unlike the Forest Service land where there was a wipe-out of 150,000 acres, the damage around Grant Grove was comparatively minimal.

Few Sequoias were killed in that fire or in the multi-year drought for that matter.

“Unlike many of big pines – our giant Sequoias mostly shrugged off the drought” says Stephenson. Now after this past wet winter, Sequoias – like the rest of us in the Central Valley – “are less stressed.”

As for critics of the pending bill in Congress, a letter to the House Natural Resource Committee signed by 40 environmental groups said the bill would “severely undermine” the public’s right to input. The groups called the bill an “overwhelming assault on public lands and environmental laws.” They fear the bill that could be heard this week in the House focuses more on accelerated commercial logging and road building than “resilient forests”.

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