Both Mike Skenfield and Ted Shannon’s opinion pieces mix accurate information with significant misinformation, so their claims contain some truth and some complete inaccuracies.
First and foremost, for decades forests were not “well-managed” as healthy forest ecosystems or to create fire-resistant forest conditions. Instead, for decades, clear-cut logging was the dominant type of logging on national forest lands in the Sierra Nevada – converting diverse, ecologically valuable forests into sterile, tree plantations on the clear-cut sites. Where clear-cuts were not done, selective logging on both private and public lands high-graded out the largest, most fire-resistant trees.
Environmental policies adopted in the 1990s required the retention of the large trees that were most valuable for wildlife and were also the most fire resistant. But part of those same Forest Service policies called for thinning forests to open up forest stands to reduce fire risk and to produce lumber by cutting medium and smaller trees.
The key reason forest management did not successfully transform national forests into more fire resistant, with high levels of wood production from thinning logging, was that the U.S. Forest Service was neither staffed-up enough nor given enough budget dollars to produce the plans, road engineering, tree marking and surveys needed in order to ramp up the thinning logging.
In addition, fire scientists emphasized that prescribed burning done under appropriate conditions was the single most important action that forest managers could take to reduce risk of devastating wildfires. Again, the Forest Service has had insufficient staff or resources to do more than a small percentage of the prescribed burning that’s been needed.
In the Stanislaus National Forest, not a single logging project has been blocked by an environmental group lawsuit in more than 10 years. Instead, local environmentalists have been on the front lines – advocating for more thinning logging and more prescribed burning.
There definitely have been extreme anti-logging environmental groups from outside the region that have blocked some logging projects elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada region, but the vast majority of planned logging projects have gone forward without being blocked. Sadly, the Forest Service simply hasn’t had enough staff or resources to plan and implement enough science-based projects to catch up to many decades of fuel accumulation.
On top of all the above, climate change has caused a significant increase in the length of fire season and hotter temperatures have exacerbated wildfire behavior. Even where positive fuel-reduction treatments have been done, wind-blown, extreme fire events cannot be easily stopped with all the retardant drops, helicopters or fire crews.
Where Mike and Ted are accurate is when they point to some extreme, nonlocal environmental groups that choose to ignore decades of forests getting denser and the new never-before intensity of extreme fire weather conditions from climate change. Those groups do attempt to block and delay needed thinning logging projects that – when combined with prescribed burning – can reduce fuel loads and fire risks for forest areas. But the primary reason for unhealthy, fuel-choked forests has been the decades of a lack of sufficient funding from Congress to ramp up Forest Service staffs, and funding that is so needed for a suite of forest projects that all sides in the local region fully support. Thinning logging and prescribed burning are both essential tools that local interests from all sides endorse.