How our government fuels forest fires; Part 2

Part two of a two part series

The Rim Fire started in a remote canyon northwest of Yosemite on Aug. 17, allegedly from an illegal camp fire lit by a hunter.

It cost more than $130 million to suppress, endangered whole communities, hundreds of homes and briefly threatened the water supply of San Francisco. Like cattle in an earlier time, the fire crossed into Yosemite National Park. For days, smoke filled the skies as far away as Lake Tahoe and both fire and smoke left the economy of tourism-dependent communities in a shambles.

The hunter’s fire, however, was just the ignition. The problem was a dry, overgrown forest and an unobstructed path for flames to charge all the way into Yosemite.

All that’s been made worse by another act – or to be more correct, a failure to act – by Congress.

“I have owned the Groveland Hotel and Cellar Door Restaurant since 15 May 1990 – 23 years,” Peggy Moseley wrote to the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group to which she belongs. “We saw the closure of (Yosemite) park in 1995, during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. This was totally devastating to the business owners, but more importantly, our employees and their families, who depended on those earnings to provide for their 1995 holiday season.

“Ours is a very seasonal business, with primary revenues generated from May through mid-October.  We are just beginning our meager recovery from the devastating Rim Fire, which began on 17 August 2013 – the absolute center of our high season – and are now getting hit with the closure of Yosemite National Park. Our losses this season are significant and will continue to increase during the government shutdown.  Ironically, today (Oct. 1) is the 123d birthday of Yosemite and it’s closed for the party!

“… We are a 17-room country inn, with a full-service restaurant, saloon and Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence Wine List,” Moseley continued. “During high season, we employ 35 people and this drops to about 15 during the winter. With significant loss of hours across the board, many of our staff are now attempting to draw their unemployment checks. However, due to a changeover in the processing of both California unemployment and state disability checks, my people have not received these checks in over six weeks. They are running out of food for their families and are being provided food by the local food bank. They have also received notices of their electric, water and propane being turned off.”

Moseley said she grew up believing there is a solution to every problem.

“Why can’t the folks in D.C. understand this simple approach to problem solving? They should also invoke the Golden Rule – ‘Treat others how you wish to be treated.’”

Nanci Sikes, executive director of the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, holds similar views.

“The impacts of the devastating Rim Fire are just beginning to be felt,” she said. “It affects every industry and every business in Tuolumne County to one extent or another. We are not even beginning to recover and now we are hit with a second crisis and that is the closure of Yosemite National Park and so many of our recreational lands in the Stanislaus National Forest.  From a tourism standpoint it is a ‘one-two’ punch and we are still reeling as we prepare for several trade events promoting our region and wondering if we can tell the world that at least Yosemite is open again! We start these intense marketing efforts on the first of November.”

Tourists spend on average $200 million a year in Tuolumne County, Sikes said, but not this year. The economy is suffering and that means needed local tax revenue is down as well. Could all this have been avoided or at least lessened?

The U.S. Forest Service approved the Soldier Creek project, a plan to treat 2,600 acres northwest of Yosemite, in 2009-2010. Treatment meant thinning (logging), then prescribed burning, mastication and other work to create a buffer against wildfire. Virtually none of that happened.

Preventative-treatment forest projects designed to reduce the threat of catastrophic fires, building a wall against runaway fire, would have cost a fraction of what has been spent just to suppress the Rim Fire, said John Buckley, executive director of the nonprofit Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. Typical forest treatment projects, including logging and burning, might cost many tens of thousands of dollars, but not the many millions a fire costs, he said.

The question is, do you spend the money to prevent the fires or do you spend it to put the fires out? The cost of the latter choice has been constantly rising. The cost of catastrophic fire to the area economy may never be fully known.

For comparison, though, the total amount of wildfire management appropriations for 2012 was about $2.7 billion, when 9.3 million acres burned, according to the Congressional Research Service. The figure has increased steadily in recent years. The costs usually exceed the actual budget, leading agencies to sometimes draw money from other funds, including preventative treatment, to make ends meet.

In contrast, NBC news reported in June that for the third year in a row, the Obama administration had proposed slashing spending on hazardous fuels reduction. This year’s budget is $419 million, a 41 percent cut that eliminated more than 1,000 jobs in the Forest Service, the National Park Service and other federal land agencies. Some of that can be blamed on the shift of money to pay for fire suppression, some can be blamed on the federal sequester that cut budgets throughout the federal government.

The forest won’t resemble its pre-fire self for many decades to come. Still smoldering, the Rim Fire is the largest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada, charring at least a quarter of the national forest and part of Yosemite National Park. These places are too precious and too important to too many people to be treated so indifferently by politicians.

Congress failed to protect these national treasures, the national forest and Yosemite National Park. It failed the people who rely on the forest for their livelihoods. It failed the people who seek it out for recreation and as a sanctuary of peace in a hectic world. If Yosemite’s great protectors John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt saw what has become of the place they sought to protect, they would weep.

Buzz Eggleston is a former editor of the Calaveras Enterprise. Contact him at buzz.calent@gmail.com.

Contact Buzz Eggleston at editor@calaverasenterprise.com

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