President Donald Trump issued an executive order last month that would expand logging on public land to address deadly wildfires — and, with the partial government shutdown, has simultaneously blocked funds to wildfire officials to prepare for the upcoming season.
The order was published this week in the Federal Register.
“For decades, dense trees and undergrowth have amassed in these lands, fueling catastrophic wildfires,” the order reads. “These conditions, along with insect infestation, invasive species, disease and drought, have weakened our forests, rangelands and other federal lands, and have placed communities and homes at risk of damage from catastrophic wildfires.”
It is unknown if any of that logging — if this proposal even comes to fruition — would occur on federal land in Curry County; U.S. Forest Service offices are currently closed due to the shutdown with the Trump administration and Democrats at loggerheads over the $5.7 billion he wants to build a wall at the Mexican border to keep people out of the U.S.
The first spark
Time is of the essence as the days tick down to the first spark that will light the first wildfire of the 2019 season.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, along with other, primarily Western state senators, penned a letter to Trump imploring him to end the partial government shutdown — at 26 days today, the longest the federal government has even been shut down — so forest restoration work and firefighting training can get underway.
“The failure to reopen the government puts peoples’ lives at risk by undermining their ability to respond to wildfires and will only serve to delay critical forest restoration and safety projects,” the senators wrote.
Merkley noted, too, that during the shutdown, Trump has threatened to withhold emergency response funding, saying in a tweet that, “Forest fires that, with proper Forrest (sic) Management, would never happen.”
California only manages 3 percent of its forests, senators from the state pointed out in their letter, and the majority of the forests in California are under the purview of the federal government.
“Every day that the shutdown continues, the more the fire risk for the 2019 season grows,” the senators wrote. “Unless these firefighter trainings and forest-health projects resume soon, the health and safety of our communities, mostly in rural areas, will be put at risk during this government shutdown.”
The president has regularly asked advisers how he could punish California for what he deems as poor forestry, according to Insideclimate News, a non-profit and non-partisan news organization.
“Trump has been told repeatedly that he cannot take away money that has already been appropriated for the disaster,” the organization reported, adding that last Wednesday, Trump tweeted that California receives “billions of dollars” for its wildfire recovery efforts and that he was poised to cut that money off unless the state changes its forest management practices.
“Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money,” Trump tweeted. “It is a disgraceful situation in lives and money!”
The logging order
Trump’s executive order instructs the secretaries of agriculture and interior to consider harvesting and selling 4.4 billion board feet of timber — a 31 percent increase from 2017 — from federal forest lands.
In addition to removing trees, Trump has requested the removal of forest brush and debris that fuel fires from more than 4 million acres and treatment of another 1.5 million acres to control tree-destroying pests.
It’s an issue many citizens in Curry County have favored, particularly since the devastating megafires here in the past two years.
While published last week in the Federal Register, there is no deadline listed by which to accomplish the work. Nor is there any indication that the money is there to do this.
Though the Forest Service is closed, officials have given loggers permission to keep working on existing sales — that was prohibited during both the 1995 and 2013 shutdowns — and are evaluating new auctions, Insideclimate reported.
Many wildfire officials say the proposal won’t do much, particularly in light of climate change. Wildfires have increased fivefold since the 1970s, and a fifth of the world’s fires are believed to be caused by human-induced climate change, according to Geophysical Research Letters, a peer-reviewed scientific journal of geoscience published by the American Geophysical Union.
And the order doesn’t address the specific fuel types that should be removed. They range wildly, from hot-burning chaparral, such as what fueled the fire in Malibu, California, last fall, or dense trees in the dry forests of the Pacific Northwest.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, in 2009, lumber production hit its lowest level since 1981, at 30 billion board feet — a level last seen as normal in the 1950s.
In the 1980s, the Forest Service was extracting 12 billion board feet on its lands until it realized the rate was unsustainable. The volume fell to about 1.9 billion board feet in 2009; it crept up to 2.5 billion last year.
Many, including environmentalists, agree the forests need to be more aggressively managed.
“Federal timber sales are a critical part of the nation’s timber supply and support hundreds of thousands of jobs in places where good-paying work is hard to find,” said Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, comprised of companies and trade groups that manufacture wood products and paper. “We appreciate the service of those who are being asked to work without the certainty of a paycheck.”