Timber industry the focus of GOP wildfire response
By Adam Aton, E&E News reporter
Originally published at E&E News on June 17, 2019
Republican climate policy is taking shape under the Trump administration, with a new forestry proposal offering an example of businesses setting the parameters of action.
As wildfires become an emblem of climate change, the GOP wants to help the timber industry respond. The strategy mostly disregards emissions, accepts some collateral damage to local ecosystems and limits public oversight of corporate activity.
The Forest Service's new proposed rule, open for comment until Aug. 12, would loosen environmental reviews for many projects, including logging and road-building. A new suite of categorical exclusions for those projects would require only public notice, not public comment.
It's a model Republicans are settling on as climate denial becomes politically untenable for more constituencies.
At the highest level, the White House is trying to speed permitting and limit environmental reviews for businesses, theoretically helping to quicken adaptation work. And at the local level, officials often find it easier to react to problems — calling in firefighters, building new levees — than it is to address their root causes by doing things like limiting development in hazardous areas or curtailing pollution.
Those dynamics surface in the new forestry policy, even as some experts say it would be counterproductive for managing wildfires.
"The only way we would be able to log our way out of this is if we cut down every goddamn tree," said Jessica McCarty, a Miami University professor who studies wildfires.
The administration framed the proposal as a win-win. Timber companies would get easier access to logging projects, potentially boosting jobs. And the Forest Service could respond more nimbly to climate-related harms like insect infestations and droughts that could bring wildfires near communities. The service says 80 million acres of its land needs restoration work.
"On the eve of a fire season with the potential to be one of the most catastrophic in recent times, this proposal from the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] is most welcome. The Administration is cutting red tape to save lives and protect the environment," said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Such an approach could win over some Democrats and consensus-minded greens. But many are alarmed by the breadth and scale of the Forest Service's proposed changes.
Others reject the very notion of weakening environmental reviews or of using widespread logging to combat fire at all.
Under the proposal, projects covering about 11.5 square miles, with more than 6.5 square miles of logging, could be eligible for a categorical exclusion, so long as the company does one restoration activity.
Although the left bristles at relaxing environmental reviews, some Western Democrats are willing to compromise. The specter of wildfires destroying whole communities like Paradise, Calif., has spurred some bipartisan support for forest thinning and other "active management" tactics.
Congressional Democrats helped shape last year's so-called fire funding fix, offering more money and more categorical exclusions for wildfire suppression. The story is similar at the state level: Washington's commissioner of public lands, an elected Democrat, wants to respond to changing rain and temperature patterns with more prescribed burns and thinning.
"In the West, the reality of this is so great — and the impacts are so great on people's lives — that it's transcending ideologies, transcending politics. It's practical," said Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, a conservation nonprofit. The group hasn't taken a position on the Forest Service proposal.
"I think when you talk to the people who are in these places and seeing these impacts, it's clear to them that we need to do something. And the pace and scale of what we do needs to match the pace and scale with which climate change is harming our forests," Daley said.
Some environmental experts reject the emphasis on logging. Ecosystems depend on wildfires, and cutting timberland often leads to a net release of carbon, after accounting for the energy it takes to transport and mill the wood.
Logging causes about 66% of Western forests' carbon losses, while fire accounts for about 15%, according to a 2016 study in the journal Carbon Balance and Management.
Managed burns limit the ferocity of future fires, but mechanical thinning and logging often do the opposite because timber companies want big trunks — those most resistant to wildfires — and leave behind small vegetation that turns into fuel, said Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist at the Geos Institute.
DellaSala has published research showing that, between 1984 and 2014, wildfires burned more severely in forests that had been actively managed.
"The kind of active management that you're doing is actually contributing to the problem you're trying to avoid," he said.
"We can't control fire, but we can control logging," he said.
Even though the Forest Service is proposing categorical exclusions for relatively small areas, they have a large cumulative effect — potentially forming a patchwork of combustible areas that, thanks to logging machinery, also have a greater chance of ignition, said McCarty, who specializes in mapping wildfires.
"They're making entry points into new fire," she said. "It's almost like a quilt. ... Each of these new places will be a new place where a fire can start."