By Evan Mills and John P. O’Brien
As it raced to Lake Tahoe this month, the 342-square-mile Caldor Fire incinerated conventional myths about forest management. Contrary to misinformation campaigns that runaway fires can be avoided by commercially harvesting timber in the name of “fuel reduction,” about a third of forest lands through which the Caldor Fire raged had been extensively logged.
The latest science finds that conventional logging practices, together with a century of overzealous fire suppression, are eroding forest health and increasing the severity of wildfires. While news to some, the U.S. Forest Service has recognized this inconvenient truth for over a quarter century. Logging is also diminishing forests’ ability to help fight climate change and so-called “thinning” projects can result in more carbon emissions than the wildfires they are meant to prevent.
Concerns about logging practices are typically focused on private landowners, but just as important is a legacy of failed regulation of industrial logging and extensive logging on public lands, including state-run “demonstration” forests managed by Cal Fire. Known best for fire suppression, only about 10% of Cal Fire’s budget is allocated to forest management and fire prevention. That small percentage has been inexplicably falling.
In its little scrutinized role in stewarding State Responsibility Area forests, Cal Fire’s overriding mandate is to uphold the Forest Practice Act of 1973, which calls for maintaining high quality wood products and healthy forests in a manner that protects all natural resources for current and future generations. Thanks to industry influence on the regulatory process, some argue that the agency is taking its social license for granted and approving virtually all private timber harvest plans as written, while failing to exercise transparency or engage in good faith with native peoples, local communities and outside experts.
Last year, former Cal Fire director Richard Wilson and longtime environmental attorney Sharon Duggan wrote in the Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal that Cal Fire has, for decades, spectacularly failed to enforce the Forest Practice Act. The result has been diminishment of large trees, weakening of forest health, increased vulnerability to natural and human-caused hazards, and boom-and-bust economies for communities. The authors called for shifting those responsibilities to a more qualified entity so that Cal Fire can focus on its core competency: firefighting.
The California Legislative Analyst’s Office agrees.
Logged areas burn more intensely
An underlying conflict of interest is that Cal Fire logs primarily to generate revenue to fund its resource management activities … and its logging. By harvesting smaller and smaller trees more and more frequently, the department’s practices reduce the number of big trees over time. Big trees have a large thermal mass making them mostly non-combustible, even in the hottest fires, and they are also heavily protected by thick bark and have fewer low branches, making them most equipped to survive wildfire.
After logging, rather than setting an example of best practices for the industry, Cal Fire leaves behind heaps of flammable “slash,” rafts of unusable logs and other tinder. More than two decades ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture emphasized that fires are significantly more severe when encountering these materials. In their analysis of recent fires in Oregon, researchers found, remarkably, that logged areas burned more intensely than unlogged forests, and that logging played a larger role than historical fire suppression.
“Garbage trees” are cut or killed with herbicides and left to rot. All this is presumably to maximize profits at the expense of regulatory mandates. Additional fire-risk multipliers include far denser and more flammable regrowth, openings for opportunistic and flammable invasive species, reduced shade and more sunbaked fuels and winds and flying embers no longer slowed by vegetation. Not surprisingly, the same problems routinely play out in private logging operations green-lighted by Cal Fire.
As a case in point, the devastating 2018 Camp Fire blew rapidly through miles of forest “thinned” and “salvaged-logged” after previous fires, ostensibly to protect homes. But increased fire speeds reduced the evacuation time window for residents of Paradise, where at least 130 people died. Research from Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service affirms that salvage logging increases fire risk and hinders forest regeneration.
Even more ferocious, logging-assisted mega fires are currently burning. The Dixie Fire has destroyed the town of Greenville, including 472 homes and businesses. The Caldor Fire has decimated Grizzly Flats, consuming 920 homes before entering the Tahoe basin with tens of billions of dollars in property value. Heavy Cal Fire-approved logging had been conducted all around the town, just north of where the fire started.
No wonder even the insurance industry is calling for logging reforms.
Authorities credit past prescribed burns and thinning of vegetation — not logging — conducted in a partnership between the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service across tens of thousands of acres with helping contain the monster. This included the area around the Kirkwood ski resort, which was spared. Similar projects also slowed the Dixie Fire.
There is an intertwined carbon storyline here, too.
Logging into the climate crisis
Unbeknownst to most people, the vast majority of a logged tree’s carbon quickly returns to the atmosphere, even more so if residues, or worse yet the trees themselves, are burned to make ostensibly “renewable” electricity. Even carbon “sequestered” in decks, fences and garden furniture doesn’t stay there long enough to provide long-term climate benefits. Indeed, a recent study found that of all the trees harvested from western U.S. forests since 1900, approximately 81% of their associated carbon has been returned to the atmosphere or the wood dumped in a landfill.
Yet the state’s carbon accounting methods heroically assume that all emissions from logging are eventually reabsorbed by new trees. But researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service have found that, even after a century, this does not in fact happen.
Also troubling, some speculative carbon offsets are being sold from forestlands projected to regrow after logging — so lumber companies get to simultaneously sell trees and carbon credits. Yet unknown amounts of these lands are doomed to burn up in conflagrations, such as this summer’s Bootleg Fire, negating any value to the climate those carbon credits were supposed to confer.
Forest scientists have discovered that a remarkable 40% of coastal forest carbon is stored in soils and roots. This is concerning, as the building of logging roads and collateral damage to unmarketable vegetation and soils cause erosion, mobilizing more carbon. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey in Cal Fire’s own Jackson Demonstration State Forest found that about 95% of landslides are associated with an unwieldy 500-mile network of in-use and abandoned logging roads. Not even the carbon stored in temperate forest soils is safe from climate change.
Climate change compounds all these problems. New findings from researchers at UC Irvine, Stanford and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab show that coastal redwoods are among the most vulnerable. According to a document notably co-authored by Cal Fire, 54% of redwood forests (nearly 4 million acres) would be lost this century under intermediate-severity hot-and-dry climate change scenarios. Drought, wildfire and insect super-infestations are already accelerating forest die-offs across California, cycling carbon back into the atmosphere in a dangerous climate-feedback spiral.
Yet Cal Fire’s recent timber harvest plans for its own forests contain blatant climate denial language and understate risk, inaccurately claiming that “although exactly how and to what extent human activity plays a role in global climate change appears to be unknown.”
Jackson, a forest heavily used for recreation by Bay Area visitors to Mendocino County, is a current flashpoint for all of these issues. About half of its 75-square-miles of forestland has been logged in the past 20 years, making second-growth trees even rarer than old-growth giants. Plans to begin cutting another 10% of these lands have been halted by protesters, beginning with a local student who tree-sat for nine nights, high in a six-foot-diameter redwood painted with a blue slash. Locals made a human chain to block the logging roads. The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians decried potential desecration of cultural sites. The climate change literature called foul. With three-quarters of California’s carbon-rich redwood forests on private lands, wise stewardship of the public stock is a must.
Forest management reforms are the solution
The solution does not require a cessation of all logging. More proactive and effective practices include abstaining from clearcutting, longer intervals between logging and more care for big trees. Logging operations need more discipline and incentives to clean up after themselves and to spare the largest trees. This includes treating surface and “ladder” fuels, restoring unneeded roads and leaving stumps in the ground.
Collateral destruction of vegetation and road-building sprees must be curtailed. Downstream from the mills, wood products must be used more efficiently and applied in more durable ways. Lower-carbon and less-flammable wood alternatives need to be developed, a process already underway. Forests, and especially redwood forests, on public lands should not be logged to produce revenue. Lastly, controlled burning should take on a larger role, and native people’s time-tested knowledge should be respectfully brought to bear in making our forests more resilient.
These approaches are more cost effective and climate friendly than reactive fire suppression after the fact.
Gov. Gavin Newsom says California is donning “the mantle of global climate leadership…to take on this existential threat.” Yet hundreds of experts have signed statements of intense concern about forest management hubris in California, regionally and nationally.
By logging public lands, the state is also working at cross purposes to its much-trumpeted “30×30” plan for preserving 30% of California’s undeveloped land and coastal waters by 2030. The state’s own Jackson is rated as the most promising type of forestland sought by the plan.
Continuation of business as usual will badly tarnish California’s hard-won reputation as a climate leader. Instead, the governor should seize the opportunity to lead by example and atone for unmet fire prevention goals. This could start by making Jackson a model strategic carbon reserve, truly demonstrating climate-oriented solutions and forestland restoration, which is so badly needed after over a century of unabated logging. This would not only support local economies, it would help protect property, biodiversity, cultural resources and contribute to the ever-growing imperative to combat climate change.
Evan Mills is an energy and climate policy analyst who participated in the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He is an affiliated retired senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Research Affiliate at UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group.
John P. O’Brien is a postdoctoral climate science research fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Climate and Global Dynamics Division and a research affiliate at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division.