President Donald Trump wants the federal government to do more this year to prevent wildfires on public lands, including about 20 percent more logging on national forests.
But environmentalists argue that expanding logging could do more harm than good. And forestry experts say the president’s push in a December executive order for more “active management” of public lands — a concept most agree is a good idea — won’t get far unless Congress pays for it.
With the number of devastating fires expected to increase as the climate grows warmer and drier, experts and states want to see more federal investment in projects that could avert massive blazes.
Most forestry experts, including many environmentalists, say protecting communities from fire requires land managers to cut down problem trees, brush and saplings, and set prescribed burns that restore fire’s natural role in forest ecology.
Due to the rising costs of fighting fires, however, the U.S. Forest Service lacks money and staff necessary for projects that could make future fires less severe.
“The non-fire staffing in the agency has been gutted because our budget stayed flat, but the cost of wildfire had increased so greatly,” said Melissa Baumann, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees’ Forest Service Council, the union that represents Forest Service workers.
Even though reducing the risk of dangerous fires is an agency priority, she said, “our workers are reporting that they can’t get their work done.” From 1998 to 2015, according to the agency, the number of Forest Service employees focused on non-fire activities, such as timber sales, dropped by 39 percent to 11,000 people.
The Forest Service is trying to work more closely with states to prioritize and manage projects that could lower fire danger, such as by allowing state agencies to perform mitigation work on federal land. State foresters support the move, because wildfires and forest health problems cross political boundaries. But Baumann said the shift also reflects the agency’s struggle to complete non-firefighting work.
After Trump’s executive order, the Democratic governors of California, Oregon and Washington sent a letter imploring him to double the investment made in managing federal forests in their states.
“We all must acknowledge that without significant additional federal investment, these partnerships have too little impact on changing the catastrophic reality of wildfire season on the West Coast,” the governors wrote.
Some conservative experts disagree that funding is a major problem for federal agencies. “They can find ways to work this out. There’s enough money in the budget,” said Robert “R.J.” Smith, a distinguished fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank.
The Forest Service makes money on timber sales, he said, so that piece of Trump's order would be paid for by logging companies. Convincing environmentalists not to litigate timber sales and thinning projects could be the bigger problem, he said.
The president’s budget proposal, typically released this month, will show whether Trump will ask Congress for money to back up the goals he outlined in his order. The order was released the day before a partial government shutdown halted forestry activities on public lands for over a month.
Ramping Up Logging
Trump has pointed to forest management as a solution to the disastrous wildfires that swept across the country last year, particularly in California.
“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” he tweeted in November, two days after the Camp Fire began. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
But environmentalists and many experts say the president’s tweets and public statements oversimplify both the problem and the solution. “There’s a lot more to this than cutting down trees,” said Jim Furnish, who retired in 2002 after serving as deputy chief of the Forest Service.
Trump’s executive order directed agencies to try to meet acre and volume targets for reducing trees and other biomass on public lands this year, including in areas where such work would help protect the water supply. Overall, the order called for 2 million acres of treatments on Interior Department land and over 6 million acres of treatments on Forest Service land.
The order also asked agencies to offer over 3.8 billion board feet of timber for harvest, mostly on Forest Service land. In contrast, the Forest Service sold nearly 3.2 billion board feet of timber last year. One board foot of wood is enough to make a 12-by-12-by-1-inch plank.
“For the Forest Service, that’s a really big increase,” said Cassandra Moseley, a forestry expert and associate vice president for research at the University of Oregon. The Obama administration also pushed to increase timber sales, but never by so much in one year, she said.
Reaching those targets won’t be easy. Increasing logging is controversial and dependent on the health of the timber industry, which varies across the country. And less controversial treatments, such as tree thinning and prescribed burns, tend to be expensive and time-consuming.
Some environmentalists say increasing timber sales could increase fire risk.
“I personally think that the timber targets are a really poor indicator for active management,” said Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst at the Wilderness Society, a conservation nonprofit. “The large trees that have the most economic value tend to be the most fire-resistant and important to retain.”
It will be hard to reach the timber sale target without also selling wood from places that aren’t particularly fire-prone, Moseley said.
And the timber industry might not want to buy what the Forest Service offers. Last year, the agency offered — but failed to sell — 559 million board feet of wood in various national forests.
Less controversial activity, such as clearing out brush, is less appealing to timber companies because it doesn’t make as much money. In Arizona, for instance, a huge forest restoration project has run into problems because the brush has little to no commercial value.
“We’re trying to figure out how to attract the right kind of investors here to help us get rid of all this wood,” said Diane Vosick, director of policy and partnerships at the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.
About half the material that needs removal, she said, is biomass — debris too small to be cut into boards. “We talk about it, more often, as being a waste disposal problem,” she said.
The costly nature of tree-thinning work is, for some forest advocates, an argument for increasing timber sales. Timber sales can defray the costs of a fire mitigation project by letting companies also harvest the big trees that keep them in business, said Nick Smith, executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a nonprofit that advocates for more active forest management.
Underfunded and Understaffed
Fire mitigation work typically requires spending public dollars, said Furnish, the former deputy chief. “Most people would argue nowadays that if you’re really going to deal with the fire risk issue you need to spend money,” he said. “You can’t make money reducing fire risk.”
Congress last year created a separate wildfire disaster fund to stop firefighting costs from consuming the Forest Service’s budget. But the fix won’t be implemented until 2020. In the meantime, the agency lacks money and resources for mitigation projects.
Forest Service staff are needed to process planning documents, find contractors, manage contracts and follow up on mechanical treatments — such as tree thinning — with prescribed burns that remove lingering debris, Colorado State University professor Courtney Schultz said.
In her research on local efforts to improve forest management, she’s found lack of capacity both in the timber industry, such as a lack of sufficient sawmills, and at the agency to be the biggest problem. “We heard over and over again that the challenge was finding industry capacity to do the work,” she said. “Challenges also included agency capacity and agency turnover.”
Trump and congressional Republicans want to make it easier for federal officials to speed through paperwork, particularly lengthy environmental reviews. Forest Service officials also are working internally to shorten the environmental review process.
“What the [executive order] does is it sends the message that the Forest Service should be using whatever authorities are available right now to expedite treatments,” said Smith of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities. That’s consistent with where the Forest Service wants to go, he said.
But environmentalists have pushed back against efforts to reduce regulations. During last year’s farm bill negotiations, Democrats successfully blocked Republican efforts to make it easier for Forest Service officials to bypass public review and environmental analysis for certain projects.
Forestry experts say the politicized debate in Washington doesn’t help.
“We do need to streamline — we need to,” said Nick Goulette, executive director of the Watershed Center, a Northern California nonprofit that works on wildfire mitigation. “We also just need more money.” Reducing paperwork means nothing if there still isn’t enough staff, he said.
Goulette said reaching a solution might mean changing the national conversation. While most policymakers agree that more fire mitigation work must happen, they don’t agree on what’s holding projects back, he said. “It’s the political consensus on the breadth and complexity of what’s limiting us” that’s the problem, he said.