Cutting to prevent burning?

Assembly bill calls for increase in diameter of trees thinned in Northern California forests

Assemblyman Brian Dahle touts AB 744—which initially dealt with recycling—as a measure to reduce forest fires.

Assemblyman Brian Dahle touts AB 744—which initially dealt with recycling—as a measure to reduce forest fires.

As wildfires continue to ravage California—most notably Yosemite National Park’s Rim Fire, the third largest to ever hit the state—lawmakers rushed through legislation purportedly designed to reduce fuel for future conflagrations.

However, critics say the proposed law—Assembly Bill 744, which as of Wednesday (Sept. 18) awaited Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature—is the latest legislation meant to relax regulations on logging operations under the guise of thinning wildfire fuel. If enacted, AB 744’s main effect would be to increase the diameter of trees allowed to be cut down from 18 to 24 inches in the Sierra Nevada region, which includes sections of 22 counties including Butte, Tehama, Shasta and Yuba, for the next three years. It would also be enacted in all of Trinity, Modoc and Siskiyou counties.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblymen Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) and Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park) and co-sponsored by the North State’s two senators, Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) and Ted Gaines (R-Roseville), originally dealt with recycling beverage containers when it was introduced in February. It was reviewed by state Senate and Assembly committees and passed the Assembly (73-1) in that form.

On Sept. 10, Dahle announced he was introducing amendments to the bill to transform it into the “Forest Fire Prevention Pilot Project Act.” All language regarding recycling was stricken from the bill’s text, and the new version passed the Senate 26-5 on Sept. 12.

“In the past few months we have seen the catastrophic results of forests that are too loaded with forest fuels,” Dahle said in a Sept. 12 press release. “The people of my district have lived in a cloud of smoke, as thousands of acres have burned, destroying lives, property [and] critical animal habitat, [and] ruining our watersheds and wasting valuable resources.

“I introduced AB 744 to address this crisis,” he continued. “It is my hope that this pilot program, to utilize the Forest Fire Prevention Exemption, will give communities the head start they need to avoid a repeat of the terrible fire season we are now suffering through.”

Logging is largely regulated by the Z’berg-Nejedly Forest Practice Act of 1973, which prohibits any logging activity without a timber-harvesting plan prepared by a licensed forester and approved by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In 2005, the Forest Fire Prevention Exemption established the standard of allowing trees 18 inches or less in diameter (measured eight inches from the ground) to be cut down without a harvesting plan to decrease fuel for fires.

AB 744 is a watered-down version of another bill—AB 350—which failed to pass muster with the Assembly’s Committee on Natural Resources in April. The previous bill sought to increase the size of trees allowed to be cut to those 28 inches in diameter.

According to a fact sheet provided by Dahle’s and Gordon’s offices, some organizations that support AB 744 include the California Fire Safe Council, the California Cattlemen’s Association and the Sustainable Forest Action Coalition. Those opposed include the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the California Native Plant Society.

On Sept. 10, before AB 744 passed the state Senate, the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club ran an article in its online newsletter, the Yodeler, criticizing the bill.

Among the Yodeler’s criticisms are that the removal of large trees changes the character of the forest and destroys wildlife habitat, and that large trees aren’t the problem when it comes to forest fires.

“Forest owners can already remove trees 18 inches or smaller in diameter,” it reads. “Small trees and underbrush increase fire risk. Allowing the removal of larger trees will not make us safer.

“Larger trees are fire-resistant. Removing them modifies the forest climate by increasing sunlight, thus raising the temperature and encouraging flammable underbrush to grow.”

The Yodeler also points out that climate change is contributing to increased fire activity, and that logging—specifically clear-cutting—can exacerbate conditions that lead to burns.

Another similarly controversial piece of legislation is currently being considered on the national level. HR 1526, billed as the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, would substantially increase the amount of timber harvested on federal lands. It would also require the federal government to give 25 percent of the money it earns from logging operations to the counties where such operations occur.

HR 1526 has the support of several North State lawmakers, including Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay).

On Tuesday (Sept. 17), McClintock addressed the House of Representatives, extolling the positive impact of logging on fire prevention, and referencing the Rim Fire.

“For generations, we carried the excess timber out of our forests through sound forest management practices, leaving room for the remaining trees to grow healthy and strong,” he said. “We had far less frequent and less intense forest fires, healthy trees that were disease resistant and pest resistant, a healthier watershed and a thriving economy.

“Today, extremist environmental regulations have driven that harvest down by more than 80 percent in the Sierras over the past 30 years.”