Some things in life are hard to understand and explain. The theory of relativity, for example, or the origins of black holes. Other things are easy to grasp, however.
Such as: California’s wildfire woes. In the past five years summer and fall firestorms have killed dozens of people, wiped out homes, businesses and entire communities, torched millions of acres of forestlands, caused billions in property losses, and swept away untold numbers of animals and wildlife.
The cause of all this wreckage is easy to pinpoint. It’s simple as two words: spotted owl.
In the 1980s California was a superstar timber producer. Nearly 150 sawmills churned out four billion board feet of lumber every year, leading the nation. Working-stiff loggers had money in their pockets, their families thrived, and little lumber towns tucked away in the north woods boomed.
Enter the spotted owl. A night-flying denizen of the deep woods, the owl became a cause célèbre for people who had never seen one and never would. When the government moved to protect it as a threatened species, it ushered in an ugly slugfest pitting environmentalists, California state officials and the U.S. Forest Service against loggers and the timber industry.
The fight was over protecting the owl’s habitat. After lawsuits, protests and even violence, the environmentalists won.
And, in the process, delivered a death blow to an entire way of life. Sawmills shut down, loggers lost their jobs, and those little backwoods lumber towns went from boom to 1930s Depression-era bust.
“It was like turning off the spigot,” said Ryan Tompkins, a Plumas County forester and natural resources consultant quoted by writer Jane Braxton Little in the latest issue of Bay Nature Magazine.
Little’s excellent, deeply researched article focuses on the roughly 200,000 private owners of forest lands in California, totaling some nine million acres. The Forest Service controls the bulk of the forests in the state, with 19 million acres under its jurisdiction. Its management, or mismanagement, of these resources is a major reason why California and other western states where the USFS has a big footprint are in the mess they’re in.
From 1988 to 2011, Little writes that the number of wildfires in California “increased by seven large fires annually.” It is no coincidence that 1988 was the year the spotted owl received protection. Over the past five years the wildfire situation has grown even worse. Seven of the deadliest fires in state history have occurred in that period. The state’s annual fire season now extends from June or July into late fall.
The wildfires have gotten wilder too—bigger, deadlier, harder to contain and put out. Last year’s Dixie Fire laid waste to a million acres of land, earning the unhappy title of California’s biggest fire. And, as with all these major conflagrations, it spread smoke up and down the state, darkening skies and poisoning the air.
At the risk of over-simplification, the prevailing forest management wisdom in the post-spotted owl era has been: Don’t touch those trees. Leave ‘em where they be, for people coming up from the city to enjoy on the weekends. And sue and regulate the hell out of anyone who dares try to make a profit by harvesting them.
In the go-go days of the ‘80s the timber industry harvested two billion board feet of lumber a year on public lands. That figure has since fallen to 60 million board feet annually. The federal Northwest Forest Plan adopted in the mid-1990s reduced logging in national forests by 80 percent.
But now, the thinking in the smart set appears to be changing. “Sometimes,” a director of the environmental group Save the Redwoods League told Little, “the best approach requires using a chainsaw.” Along with controlled burns, selective thinning of drought-ridden trees and underbrush in California’s densely packed forests may be the best way out of this crisis. Less woodsy material means less material to burn, rendering the fires that do occur less potent.
That’s the hope anyhow, but there’s a catch. California’s once-mighty timber industry has become a shell of what it once was. Over half the sawmills from the old days are gone. So, too, are scores of industry-related support businesses. The ranks of professional foresters have been decimated, and the same holds true for the loggers—the men who actually wield those chainsaws.
Additionally, the knowledge base is almost extinct. Fewer people know how to do the things that generations of logging families once took for granted, and those who still retain these skills are often old-timers whose time is running out.
The irony here is that environmentalists, the state and the USFS are now in need of the very industry they have vilified and fought for so long. According to Dan Porter of the Nature Conservancy, the critical lack of timber industry infrastructure and know-how is “one of the biggest barriers to scaling ecological forest management.”
So let me be sure I have this right:
You identify a “problem” and then destroy a way of life as a means of solving that perceived problem. But then your “solution” creates an even bigger mess, one that causes you to go back to the very people whose communities and livelihoods you trashed, asking them to help you with your latest bright idea. But these small town Americans have themselves become an endangered species.
Meanwhile, has anyone seen a spotted owl lately?
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