The deadly and costly wildfires ravaging California were tragic, and in large measure were caused by humans. They were not, however, traceable to climate change as claimed by the state’s blame-gaming governor.
When California suffered an earlier outbreak of forest fires in August of this year, Gov. Jerry Brown said, "We’re fighting nature with the amount of material we’re putting in the environment, and that material reaps heat, and the heat fosters fires, and the fires keep burning."
Brown then said that extraordinary steps are needed to "shift the weather back to where it historically was, claiming that the current climate is the hottest it’s been "since civilization emerged 10,000 years ago."
He apparently missed reading the memos about warmer-than-now times during the Roman and Medieval Warm periods — 2,000 and 1,000 years ago, respectively.
The governor insisted that because of climate change, "dryness, warmth, drought, all those things are going to intensify." He also said that even if we perform better forest management, that won’t stop climate change, and that "those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies."
First off, climate changes — intermittent periods of cooling and warming — have gone on since long before the arrival of smoke stacks and SUVs. And while I am aware of no debate regarding the fact that hot, dry weather causes forests to be more flammable, average California and broader U.S. temperatures have changed very little over the past 20 years.
California is, and always has been, a largely arid state with periods of prolonged droughts interspersed with episodes of intense rainfall, such as those occurring this past summer.
Yet California’s precipitation between 1896 and 2017 shows no trend. As typical, rainfall this summer spurred new plant growth, followed by warm winds drying the foliage setting the stage for greater brush and tree-fire hazards.
The added manmade factor contributing to the conflagrations that followed has nothing to do with climate change, but rather to forestry neglect. State and federal government banning of tree thinning and brush clearing has created a bureaucratic formula for disaster.
As a result, thousands of skinny, fire-susceptible trees often grow where only a few hundred should be present.
Even the removal of diseased, dead, and burned trees has been prohibited.
The Western Governors Association warned about mismanagement of forest resources in a scathing 2005 report. It observed, "Over time, the fire-prone forests that were not thinned, burn in uncharacteristically destructive wildfires, and the resulting loss of forest carbon is much greater than would occur if the forest had been thinned before fire moved through."
Testifying in 2014 before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Auburn University forestry professor David Smith stated that "data suggests that extremely large mega-fires were four-times more common before 1940." Smith added that "to attribute this human-caused increase in fire risk to carbon dioxide emissions is simply unscientific."
Writing in Forbes, former California legislator Chuck DeVore reported having meetings in 2005 with Northern California forest industry professionals who grew, managed, and harvested trees on private and public lands. They informed him about a worrisome trend beginning years earlier when both federal and state regulators were making it more and more difficult for them to do their jobs.
As timber harvesting permit fees went up and environmental challenges multiplied, the commercial value of many forests went to zero. Many U.S. lumber suppliers went out of business, vital forest management professionals no longer cleared brush and thinned trees.
Predictably, the combustible forest fuel loads soared.
Although 43 percent of California timberlands are privately owned (one percent are state owned) all are governed by state laws, regulations and regulators.
The remaining 56 percent which are federally owned and managed, are subject to what Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., characterizes as "ponderous, byzantine laws and regulations administered by a cadre of ideological zealots." Regulations go so far as to subject proposals for additional fire escape routes to decades-long study, review, and litigation processes.
The beginning of the end for policies of responsible and active national forest management can be credited with President Clinton’s 1994 policies to limit logging of old-growth trees in Western forests which were premised upon protecting endangered spotted owl populations. This effort not only killed off logging creating ghost towns throughout the Northwest — there was another feathered victim as well.
As it turned out, government studies ultimately revealed that those spotted owls weren’t logging casualties at all. Instead, they were being victimized by their cousins, the barred owls, who crowded them out of their habitats and attacked them.
So, true to form, the federal government responded with a $200 million "barred owl removal plan." This can be recognized as an all-too-familiar bird-brained government solution — namely to choose losing favorites, and to kill off the strong competitors.
Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston where he founded the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) and the graduate program in space architecture. He is the author of several books, including "Thinking Whole: Rejecting Half-Witted Left & Right Brain Limitations" (2018), "Reflections on Oceans and Puddles: One Hundred Reasons to be Enthusiastic, Grateful and Hopeful” (2017), "Cosmic Musings: Contemplating Life Beyond Self" (2016), and "Scared Witless: Prophets and Profits of Climate Doom" (2015). He is currently working on a new book with Buzz Aldrin, "Beyond Footprints and Flagpoles." — Click Here Now.
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