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Wildfires bring renewed calls for thinning forests
AgAlert, California Farm Bureau Federation by Kevin Hecteman 9/1/21
The 2021 fire season threatens to overtake 2020—the worst fire year in recorded state history. Mike Albrecht can only look on in wonder.
"We're all slow learners," said Albrecht, a registered professional forester and licensed timber operator in Tuolumne County. "We have been talking about this for decades—decades—and warning about this, and saying, hey, we need to be much more proactive in getting our forest thinned out."
Now calls for better forest management are echoing widely as devastating fires rage again in California timberlands. State legislation to mitigate wildfire danger is being introduced as federal efforts languish. New approaches are being discussed for thinning forests and salvaging timber.
Albrecht said he wants to see more forest remedies but not a repeat of mistakes of the past. Rather than thinning forests, he said, California thinned out sawmills and biomass plants.
"In 1985, we had 150 sawmills in the state," Albrecht said. "Now we've got about 28. Half our biomass plants have been shut down. We've lost our markets. We're in a real fix right now because we have not taken action 20 to 30 years ago."
Tuolumne County is "blessed" with two sawmills, two biomass plants, a wood-shavings plant and bark plant, he said.
"We've got a good timber infrastructure here," Albrecht said. "You go south of us, and there's really nothing in the whole rest of the state" outside of one sawmill in Porterville, he added.
By Aug. 23, wildfires had burned 1.76 million acres in California, according to Cal Fire. By that date last year, 1.63 million acres had been scorched; the year would end with 4.2 million acres burned. About 57% of California's forestland is under federal jurisdiction; most of the rest is privately owned.
At this point, Albrecht said, there's no guarantee 2022 won't be as bad or worse.
"We cannot make sure of that, because the constant is the fuel loading, the fire hazard year after year," Albrecht said. "It doesn't change because we're not doing anything at the pace and scale that we need to to thin our forests out. We're really at the mercy right now of the drought that we're in."
The hazardous conditions have led the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region to close half a dozen national forests to the public from Aug. 19 through Sept. 6. The order covers the following: Klamath National Forest; Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit; Lassen National Forest; Mendocino National Forest; Modoc National Forest; Plumas National Forest; Shasta-Trinity National Forest; Six Rivers National Forest; and Tahoe National Forest.
Timber operators and ranchers with authorization to conduct nonrecreational operations such as timber harvesting and livestock grazing are exempt from the closure.
"Fires are running very quickly due to the drought conditions, dry fuels, and winds," Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien said in a statement on the closure. "This makes initial attack and containment very difficult and is even more challenging with strained resources who are battling more than 100 large fires across the country."
Albrecht said improving the situation will require action on several fronts.
"We have to encourage more local—and when I say local, more California—markets for timber products," he said. "California's importing about 75% to 80% of all its wood products from other states and other countries. We need more markets for wood products, instead of less markets and shutting things down. To get that, we need to see the government recognize that, do some things that they've done in the past for the biomass industry."
That includes accelerated depreciation schedules, energy tax credits, incentives to build—but not grants, he added.
"We don't need grants and money," Albrecht said. "We need the government to say they recognize that we need some more markets."
Another need, he said, is for regulatory changes such as expediting reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"We're protecting single species around the forest and losing the whole habitat," Albrecht said. "We need to step back from that and say, hey, what we're doing isn't working. We cannot put all these areas off limits for the spotted owl, or for a certain type of plant, or a certain other type of critter, and lose everything because we're not going in there to get the job done. We've got to step back and look at things much differently."
When the smoke finally does settle, Albrecht says Forest Service data indicate there will be 6 billion to 7 billion board-feet of salvage timber, on top of 8 billion to 9 billion board-feet waiting to be logged after the 2020 fires.
"The national forest sells 3 billion board-feet in the whole country every year," Albrecht said. "We've got four to five times, six times as much as going to be sold in the whole country to try to salvage here in California. We don't have the markets to do it."
Legislation aimed at helping the situation is moving at the state level but stalled at the federal level.
In Sacramento, a bill authored by Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, cleared a Senate committee last week and awaits further action.
Assembly Bill 9 seeks to create a Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program in the Department of Conservation and add the job of Community Wildfire Preparedness and Mitigation within the office of the state fire marshal, which would then take on Cal Fire's fire-preparedness and mitigation missions.
In Washington, D.C., a bill was introduced in the Senate last year by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Steve Daines, R-Montana.
The bill, S. 4431, would have directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture, parent agency of the Forest Service, to choose three forest landscapes where projects aimed at reducing wildfire risk would be carried out. The bill also sought to expedite placement of wildfire detection equipment and exempt certain forest-management activities from environmental review requirements. The bill was last heard in a Senate committee in September 2020.
(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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