Rep. Tom McClintock attacks American wilderness with a Big Lie

The Emergency Forest Restoration Act, pitched by its sponsor as a forest-saving effort, called ‘absolutely bogus’

Illustration by Sarah Hansel

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.

Environmentalists and forest ecologists are on edge—or maybe just rolling their eyes— 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. In 2010, the Los Angeles Times called McClintock “California’s preeminent member of the don’t-confuse-me-with-facts caucus.”

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 SN&R.

His solution? Bring on the chainsaws.

Clear-cut the forest to save the trees?

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 who will decide in June if McClintock will stay in Congress.

Jessica Morse, who will be challenging McClintock in the 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, which evidence has shown were practiced by the indigenous peoples of California, 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. “It’s ludicrous because in the process they’d be destroying wildlife habitat.”

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.” Hanson called McClintock’s bill “an anti-science timber grab.”

“He wants to allow clear-cutting to ostensibly save forests,” Hanson said. “Don’t be fooled. He wants to clear-cut, and not just small trees but old-growth trees, too.”

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, including fungi, insects and birds. The black-backed woodpecker, McIntyre pointed out, is a rare bird once proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act that relies almost entirely on dead trees—often those killed by fire.

While he does not oppose some logging in the damaged forests McClintock purports to be concerned about, McIntyre says the bill goes too far.

“Going into a situation without any environmental review and removing those trees could have some unintended negative consequences,” McIntyre said.

Illustration by Sarah Hansel

Hanson says McClintock is propagating a false narrative, and one that has been widely repeated by media for many years. 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.

Slash piles and trash talk

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, however, believes California’s forests need more fires, not more logging. He said California’s forests need to be mechanically thinned and then, where safe and feasible, treated with prescribed burns.

McClintock’s proposed solution, Stevens says, steps too far.

“Exempting forest management projects from environmental review is not the answer,” he said.

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.”

McClintock has a reputation as a troglodyte among environmentalists, who dislike him not only for his policies but for the Trump-like way he has long fought for them: by misrepresenting the truth and spewing divisive, amped-up rhetoric (albeit with more sophistication than his friend in the White House).

He blamed the shortages hurting his agricultural constituents on “the environmental left’s pet project, the Delta smelt,” when the shortage was provably due to drought and century-old water rights in the Central Valley.

His attempt with his so-called Emergency Forest Restoration Act subverts two of the pillars of environmental protection: NEPA and the Endangered Species 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, Lake Tahoe National Park and the Emigrant Wilderness) but similar jewels in all 50 states.

While old dams are being decommissioned in many states to help fish, he sponsored legislation that would facilitate the construction of new ones. Last year, he drafted a controversial bill that aims to amend the Wilderness Act so that mountain bikes would be allowed in wilderness areas—a bill opposed by not only the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, but also the International Mountain Bikers Association.

This latest logging bill is one of many he has introduced aimed at getting timber-cutters back in the woods.

The League of Conservation Voters ranked McClintock at rock bottom for his stance on environmental issues, with a 4 percent lifetime score and score of zero for 2017.

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. It’s unconscionable.”

Morse warned that McClintock is playing with fire, so to speak, with flawed forest management strategies that could have long-lasting impacts.

“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.”

Morse says she has a better plan to help the state’s trees: “More funding for fire prevention.”

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.

Hanson says the logging industry continues to promote what he says is a false narrative strategically spun by the logging industry and the Forest Service. McClintock, he says, is telling the same story.

“McClintock is trying to scare people,” McIntyre said, “so he can loosen environmental restrictions and increase logging.”