Congressman’s proposed forest-saving legislation exposed as a lie
Environmentalists and forest ecologists are on edge over a congressional bill that’s being promoted as a remedy for ailing forests, but appears to be a gift package for logging interests.
The legislation comes from Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove), chairman of the powerful Federal Lands Subcommittee, a politician known for strident pro-industry positions and a defiant denial of science—from climate change to wildlife ecology.
The way McClintock tells it, his bill will help dying forests. He places the cause for forests’ plight not only on the drought that has plagued California and the Western United States, but also on environmental regulations that limit logging.
Forests have become overgrown, he points out, with trees now scrapping for elbow room, water and sunlight. He frequently quotes what he refers to as an adage that he probably coined himself: “Excess timber comes out of the forest one way or the other. It is either carried out, or it burns out.”
Indeed, trees are hurting in the Sierra Nevada and throughout parts of the West. In the Sierra alone, more than 100 million conifers have died since the beginning of the drought, in 2012. Nationwide, the number is 6.3 billion. These dead trees have already contributed to a dramatic increase in wildfires.
McClintock says his bill will fix that.
“Under the status quo, we have lost hundreds of square miles of endangered species habitat to fire,” McClintock wrote in a statement emailed to N&R.
His solution? Bring on the chainsaws.
The idea comes with his House Resolution 865, the Emergency Forest Restoration Act, which died in 2016 and was reintroduced about a year ago. The bill would give states a “categorical exclusion” from the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, a law, along with the Endangered Species Act, that McClintock has railed against.
Critics say McClintock’s bill ignores science and caters to the timber industry while generally ignoring the interests of voters.
Jessica Morse, who is challenging McClintock in the primary election, blames him for deeper-rooted issues that have hamstrung forest managers and ultimately harmed the state’s forests.
“The underfunding of the Forest Service is the problem,” she said. “They’ve been hit by the budget cuts that Tom McClintock voted for.”
The U.S. Forest Service has long employed two fuel-reduction strategies, thinning forests so that wildfires are not able to spread or intensify beyond firefighters’ ability to control them. In one tactic, dry brush is cleared by teams on the ground to prevent sparks from jumping, small trees that burn readily are removed, and branches that enable fires to reach into forest canopies are pruned. Prescribed burns achieve the same result. Cuts to the USFS budget have reduced both of these practices.
In the place of these surgical practices, McClintock’s forest bill would amend NEPA to allow potentially large logging sales on public land with virtually no public oversight or environmental review, so long as a governor declares an insect or disease outbreak to be an emergency.
“This creates the potential for a state governor to declare a state of emergency over insect or disease issues, which are often a natural part of a healthy forest, and the public would have no say in it,” said Justin Augustine, an Oakland-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, who has been closely watching McClintock’s forest bill.
Chad Hanson, an ecologist and the director of the John Muir Project, a conservation and advocacy group, said McClintock’s bill is based on so many fallacies and myths promoted by the logging industry “that it doesn’t even pass the laugh test.”
“Don’t be fooled. He wants to clear-cut, and not just small trees but old-growth trees, too,” Hanson said.
According to research published in 2015 by the National Academy of Sciences, there were fewer large trees and more small trees in California forests in the early 2000s than there were in the 1930s. The author, Patrick McIntyre, a former California Department of Fish and Wildlife ecologist, says total forest biomass—a basic metric of living material often used to gauge ecological productivity—is down as a result. Further reducing biomass by cutting down forests populated by insect-killed trees would be harmful, he says.
McIntyre, now a plant ecologist with the Virginia-based NatureServe, said dead trees play valuable roles in forest ecology, providing food and habitat for a range of organisms. While he does not oppose some logging in the damaged forests McClintock purports to be concerned about, McIntyre says the bill goes too far.
Working with scientists Curtis Bradley and Dominick DellaSala, Hanson published a study in the journal Ecosphere in 2016 that found that logging does not reduce fire intensity, as logging proponents often say. Hanson and his colleagues studied 1,500 wildfires that occurred between 1984 and 2014 across 20 million acres of the American West. What they found goes counter to the story McClintock is pedaling, that decreased logging causes more fires.
In science-speak: “Burn severity tended to be higher in areas with lower levels of protection status,” McIntyre reports. Which is to say: If we want to save trees, we must protect forests—not create a loophole big enough for a logging truck to drive through.
Hanson explains that logging activity can increase fire intensity through several mechanisms. For one, he said, loggers tend to leave behind piles of highly flammable branches and trimmings. Also, the material they remove—tree trunks—are the least combustible part of a forest. Finally, logging opens the canopy and allows sunlight to generate very flammable, low-lying shrubbery while also making the forest floor hotter and drier.
“The false notion that more logging will reduce fire risk and intensity is at the core of the McClintock bill, and it’s absolutely bogus,” he said.
Jens Stevens, a post-doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley, agrees with one element of McClintock’s claims—that the state’s forests are overgrown. Stevens believes California’s forests need to be mechanically thinned and then, where safe and feasible, treated with prescribed burns.
McClintock insists his bill will help forests by expediting beneficial logging projects.
“The intent is to reduce paperwork, delay and cost,” he explained. He added that his bill would restrict intensive environmental analyses to “proposed actions that truly have the potential to cause significant environmental effects.”
His attempt with his so-called Emergency Forest Restoration Act is part of a career-spanning mission to defeat what he colorfully described on the floor of the U.S. House as “the nihilistic vision of the environmental left: increasingly severe government-induced shortages … and a permanently declining quality of life for our children, who will be required to stretch and ration every drop of water and every watt of electricity in their bleak and dimly lit homes.”
As chair of the federal lands committee, McClintock is one of the most powerful anti-environmental forces in Washington, with power over not only the public lands in his district (including Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe National Park) but also similar jewels in all 50 states.
This latest logging bill is one of many he has introduced aimed at getting timber-cutters back in the woods.
Hanson noted that McClintock’s stance on climate change is evident in his forest bill. “Climate science is telling us we need to sequester carbon, that reducing fossil fuel use isn’t enough,” he said. “We have to be protecting forests, and McClintock is proposing we do the opposite.”
Augustine said he expects the Emergency Forest Restoration Act to fail because it may be too drastic a proposal to gain congressional approval. However, he suspects some of the bill’s components could be attached as riders to other bills that have broader bipartisan support.
Morse warned that McClintock’s flawed forest-management strategies could have long-lasting impacts. A better plan to help the state’s trees: “More funding for fire prevention.”
“If you make a wrong move with forest management, it can have consequences that can last decades,” she said. “Our watersheds and our water supplies could be affected.”