Roy Exum: Why Our West Burns

Tuesday, September 29, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There have been far more people than me who believe the catastrophic wildfires that now flame the width of our western states from Canada to Mexico are because “God has darn-near had enough!” Just yesterday in California a law was passed that will allow transgender prisoners to decide if they want to do their time in men’s or women’s state prison! But the better view is that states like Colorado, Utah and Arizona hardly act like the California legislature. Extreme drought and high temperatures are the real culprits why there are over 70 huge wildfires now raging in 10 western states. In the first nine months of 2020, more than 7.1 million acres have burned and already that’s 1 million more than the yearly average over the last 10 years.

Many will remember four years ago when about 18,000 acres burned in the Smoky Mountains, creating one of the biggest natural disasters in Tennessee history.

Over 2,000 structures were burned, 14 lives were lost, and the reason was because of unusual drought, “mountain waves” of winds, and, to hear some tell it, poor forestry management. Since we live in a time where everything is “Donald Trump’s fault,” it might be argued that the Smoky Mountain fires were six weeks prior to his inauguration but the liberal elites shout, “He had already been elected!”

So, let’s turn to an expert. Dave Mihalic has long been considered one of the brightest minds in land management in the United States. He had a long and quite admirable career in the Park Service. Beginning in 1972 at Glacier National Park, that saw him eventually rise through the ranks to serve as superintendent at a number of parks, including Mammoth Cave, Glacier, Yosemite and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

A 2017 article on Mihalic in the Park Service “National Traveler” magazine said, “David Mihalic left the National Park Service on his own terms back in January 2003 rather than follow new Park Service Director Fran Mainella's order that he move from Yosemite National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the Smokies, the Bush administration wanted him to push through the ‘Road to Nowhere,’ an environmentally questionable highway project proposed to run through the park on the north shore of Fontana Lake, and finalize a 168-acre land swap with the Cherokee Nation that reportedly would have led to a school complex being built on the land.”

According to the magazine, just months before the Smoky Mountains’ fires in November-to-December of 2016, Mihalic co-authored a report, along with Ryan Zinke, then Montana's Congressman, and Dale Bosworth, former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, that said specifically the American West had a land-management problem. This was four years ago! The article included, “Today, (President Theodore) Roosevelt's conservation ethic is in jeopardy as special interests, endless litigation, and political gridlock threaten proven best practices, balanced use, and common sense while tying the hands of our resource professionals.

“The result is catastrophic wildland fires, destruction of critical habitat, management decisions made by lawyers, and the loss of millions of dollars in local revenue that funds schools, infrastructure, and preservation," they wrote in the summer of 2016. "What is needed to restore the conservation ethic is better management by resource professionals, greater collaboration with citizens, and increased investment in our public lands."

As you will see, Mihalic’s son - a newcomer to Los Angeles -  asked his dad a pointed question. Why is everybody blaming “Uncle Sam?” As the truth was shared on Facebook, I think all American conservationists should read it and make notes:

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Note: Written by David Mihalic, a noted authority on land management, for his son, and Facebook followers:

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My son, Nicholas Mihalic, who is a newly arrived LA resident, asked me to explain “why Californians blame the Federal government for ‘bad forest management practices’ that are causing the wildfires.” He grew up in the National Parks including Yosemite where I was superintendent.  He knows it’s complicated and asked me for a detailed explanation. The following is my answer to him, but he thought I should make it a Facebook post. So...

Two federal laws were “delegated” to all states for enforcement: the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. The states could make them MORE stringent but not less stringent. The issue here is the air act. California has made them more stringent, which is why you have “California autos” that meet CA air pollution standards and “49 state’s other cars” that meet the regular (less strict) Clean Air Act standards.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) enforces the Clean Air Act. Then there is both National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and “see-qua” or CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, more stringent than and in addition to NEPA.

Every time we tried to do a prescribed burn (in Yosemite) we could rarely get permission (only 25 percent of the time) from CARB to burn the burn piles (from mechanical thinning) or to ignite a prescribed burn. And, when we DID get permission it was always for a smaller amount. We would ask for a 1,500-acre prescribed burn and get only 300 or 500 acres.

If you remember, Nick, we would have burn piles in the Valley sit for two or three years! And those were burned in the winter, in snow! But winter weather causes inversions and smoke doesn’t easily dissipate. So again, CARB ruled.

All those proposed burns had to go through an environmental assessment, or EA, and often the public objects to cutting (for burn piles). Why? Because many think, in a national park “thinning” is equivalent to “logging.”

Between trying to do “mechanical” removal of fuels (resulting in burn piles) and the public outcry, and prescribed burns prohibited by CARB, we never could get ahead of the increasing fuel load.

Thus, the result was when a wildfire occurs - it burns big.

Yosemite is one small, half-million-acre park. Multiply that by all the national forests, the Bureau of Land Management, other national parks, and state forest lands across California, and there is no way to erase a century of suppression which only continues to build up fuels. Trees live, but (they) also die, and when they do, they dry up and fall to the ground.

Remember, the whole West - western landscapes - are “fire-dependent” ecosystems. The general public doesn’t understand, for example, that Sequoias, Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines, and Douglas firs, only sprout seeds after a fire.

Thus, these forests evolved over millennia from fire, and they must, and will, burn!

I always would say in public meetings, “It’s all going to burn some day; we might as well burn it when we have a chance to control it rather than have it burn it uncontrolled.” I think people who live in forest landscapes in Montana, Alaska, Idaho, and other parts of the West have a better understanding of all this. But California has a huge urban population and even if they do understand, it’s easier to “Blame the Feds!”

So, yes, it’s mostly Federal land but if the State won’t allow controlled burns or cutting - including logging, on U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management lands, it sets it up to “it will all burn some time.”

The short answer is, other states allow logging, prescribed burns, and removal of beetle-killed trees.

Some will ask, what about global warming? That has been occurring since the last ice age and will continue at some rate but is continuing. The answer is that you must thin and prescribed burn, even MORE! Some will say, but what about wilderness? Well, you can have wilderness but where forests are near development or communities, the only way to “manage” them is to reduce fuel loads, one way or another. Some will say, but the natural ecosystem in a Park needs tree decay for healthy soils, bacteria to decay wood, cavity trees for birds, etc. Yes, it does - and National Park employees are experts at knowing where to manage natural forests that are near developed areas and communities, but sometimes the public believes they can have their cake and eat it too!

Not just Californians, but many people seem to believe they can have un-cut fire-dependent forests that shouldn’t burn and should never be cut. But that belief only continues to build up fuel loads, and then they are surprised when forests burn as wildfires and turn into conflagrations.

Wild land federal managers try hard to use best management practices -- but the public outcry over the solutions and lawsuits don’t always allow “professionals” to do what’s best for forest management.

And, to add insult to injury, those same professionals have to listen to the blame that “It’s the Feds fault!”

* * *

Don’t you see, the tree huggers are to blame – not the Feds – because the tree huggers are being found out as people with good intention who know absolutely zilch when faced with reality.

And yet … it is Donald Trump’s fault in this era of make believe. Such a notion is disgusting.

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