August 14, 2020
With a short title of the “Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020” you would think that this piece of legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress would be focused on actually protecting communities from wildland fire. Unfortunately, you would be mistaken. Out of its 53 pages, 4 Titles and 13 Sections, there is exactly one 3 page Section that could theoretically provide some protection, for some rental properties located in the West, but only if their landlords choose to apply for grant funds (none authorized by this bill) through the state-administered weatherization program run through the U.S. Department of Energy. The Act should more aptly be called the “Western Forest Destruction, Community Endangerment and Climate Change Exacerbating Act of 2020”. This may seem harsh, but let me explain.
First, contrary to the statements at the beginning of this bill, a century of fire suppression has not exacerbated fire risk or intensity in our forests. Our forests are not “overgrown”. Forests don’t actually do that, they grow in accordance with the variation in soil and weather conditions. Their vegetation changes, sometimes dramatically, over time. This is completely natural. They get denser, then growing conditions change, causing trees and plants to die off, reducing density, then conditions change and they once again become dense and so on, and so on. In fact, the densest forests do not burn more intensely than less dense forests, nor do dead trees increase fire risk or intensity. Forests are not static or in need of human intervention in order to manicure them into something that resembles your backyard. These are dynamic ecosystems that evolved with fire.
Second, wildfires are not driven by vegetation. Whether you have 50 trees per acre or 350 trees per acre, a fire that starts on a hot day, with low humidity and some amount of wind is going to burn and is not going to be put out until the weather changes. Our native ecosystems evolved with mixed-severity fire over tens of millions of years. Pretty sure they know better than humans (no, we DID NOT INVENT FIRE) how to adapt and flourish in the face of this natural process.
Third, we know how to protect homes from fire. Step One: FOCUS ON THE HOME! We need to make sure all homes near wildlands are fire-proofed with fire-resistant windows, doors, siding, and roofing materials, as well as protected by ember proof vents and rain gutters. In addition, we need to remove all weeds and prune native vegetation within 60-100 feet from the home and ensure that things which can easily catch fire, like a stack of newspapers, firewood, or wicker furniture are not placed next to the structure. These simple, common-sense measures can ensure that any home has a greater than 90% chance of surviving even the fiercest wildland fire.
Fourth, logging our forests and removing native vegetation does not reduce fire intensity or alter the behavior of weather-driven fires, which are the very fires that we are completely incapable of suppressing (until, as noted above, the weather changes). What logging does accomplish is: the removal of habitat necessary to support our native biodiversity; the removal of trees and vegetation which are currently storing and sequestering vast amounts of carbon dioxide; an increase in fire intensity due to the elimination of forest shade, moisture, and wind buffers; damage to soils; chronic sediment in our waterways, and let’s not forget the belching of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. You might be surprised to find out that logging in this country generates annual carbon emissions that exceed the annual emissions from the residential and commercial sectors combined! Once you account for soil damage and the reduction in vegetation growth that accompanies it, annual carbon emissions from logging rival that of burning coal.
So why “Western Forest Destruction, Community Endangerment and Climate Change Exacerbating Act of 2020”? Well, the vast majority of this Act is focused on logging trees and clearing native vegetation in our western ecosystems. Rolling back environmental laws in order to facilitate logging projects up to 75,000 acres in size each (3x the size of Disney World Florida or 75x the size of Golden Gate Park), including 1/2 mile wide clearcuts, or near clearcuts, across our wildland landscapes. There is no actual limit on the size of trees that can be cut. Safeguards that are inserted, like “maximize the retention of old-growth stands and large trees” are qualified by terms “as appropriate” or “to the extent that” giving the Forest Service full discretion to interpret these provisions any way they choose, rendering such restraints completely unenforceable. This act also tampers with how a Court must conduct its review of the facts and law if such a project is challenged, making it almost impossible to halt one of these projects even if it is harmful and violates the law. It also prohibits the public from choosing which Court will hear their case and curtails public participation in the administrative decision-making process. So what does this mean in a practical sense? A lot more federal tax dollars being spent on a lot more logging that the public has no real way to challenge or stop, hence the title Western Forest Destruction.
Okay, so moving on to Community Endangerment. Certainly, I can’t really mean that? Oh, but I do. And we have a tragic example to point to, the devastating Camp Fire which happened in 2018. The same type of logging as is proposed in this Act was done in the area between where the Camp Fire originated and the town of Paradise, and none of it slowed or stopped the fire – even though the logging done on federal lands was sold to residents as a way to “reduce fuels” and “protect” the community from fire. You have to understand these are just words that logging proponents use in order to cut trees down and sell them, nothing more and nothing less. Even though the title of this act includes the words “Public Safety”, as discussed at the beginning of this article, there is only one provision which even acknowledges that fire-proofing homes can protect them and all it does is add “heat or fire-resistant materials” to the long list of definitions in a weatherization grant program. So how does this Act endanger communities? By telling people that logging in the forest will save them, which it will not. It fails to dedicate even a single dollar toward proven community protection actions like the creation and maintenance of defensible space within 100 feet of structures or fire-proofing homes. But worse yet, it takes money that should be used to actually create fire-resilient communities and puts it into logging activities which actually increase the intensity and spread of fire! Trees and shrubs bring moisture to the forest and act as wind buffers. When they are removed, the forest becomes hotter and drier and winds blow through mostly unimpeded. Logging also brings in invasive species, such as cheatgrass, which is much easier to ignite than native vegetation, making a fire start more likely and creating conditions where, once a fire starts, it will swiftly move through the logged area. This is a recipe for disaster, not public safety.
Moving on to how this Act will exacerbate climate change. This Act specifically seeks to increase the pace and scale of logging on public lands in this country. This means that the pace and scale of carbon emissions from logging will also increase, while simultaneously the ability of our forest ecosystems to store and sequester carbon will decrease. The math here is pretty simple, more CO2 into the atmosphere coupled with less CO2 being removed from the atmosphere means we get farther and farther away from mitigating climate change. To make matters worse in relation to climate, this Act also is pushing and funding (to the tune of $100,000,000) an increase in burning trees and vegetation from our forests to create energy. This is called biomass energy and it burns even dirtier than coal with more carbon emissions as well as noxious air pollution, once again dragging us farther away from getting a handle on the climate crisis. To add insult to injury this Act seeks to put these dirty energy facilities in low-income areas further contributing to the climate, racial, and environmental injustices that our country is plagued with.
It is not an overstatement to say that the “Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020” is a disaster, not only for forests but for communities which might be impacted by fire as well as communities fighting for environmental and social justice, and really for every single one of us who wants to reside on a livable planet.
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