Once again, dozens of wildfires are raging across California, reducing entire forests to cinders and displacing thousands of families. As they burn, these fires pump millions of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) —declared by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as a dangerous pollutant — into the air.
Ironically, this environmental and human devastation is due in part to federal environmental policies.
For decades, federal forest management policy has been, in effect, not to manage forests. Because of pressure from environmental groups, many federal and state forests are off limits to harvest and even to “housekeeping” activities, such as thinning, clearing undergrowth and removing dead and diseased trees. The philosophy is, let nature take its course.
Unfortunately, nature cleans its house with fire. Undergrowth and diseased trees provide the fuel; lightning or the errant camper provides the spark.
The West and Pacific Northwest are blessed with vast forestlands that, if managed to keep green and growing, can be our most potent weapon in reducing greenhouse gases. Trees absorb and storeCO2 and emit life-giving oxygen. Young growing trees absorb the most CO2 and produce the most oxygen.
But when they burn, these same trees release their stored CO2, choking the skies with smoke and polluting the air with millions of tons of greenhouse gases. Researchers estimate that the CO2 emitted by a single California wildfire in one week is equivalent to 25 percent of the monthly emissions from all fossil fuel burning throughout the state.
The study, conducted by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado at Boulder estimates that U.S. fires release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, the equivalent of 4 to 6 percent of the nation’s CO2 emissions from all fossil fuel burning.
Think about it. American taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to protect air quality, yet misguided federal forest policies can wipe out much of that benefit in a few weeks.
President George W. Bush tried to address the situation with his Healthy Forests initiative, which put people to work clearing brush and salvaging diseased trees while bringing in income from salvage logging companies. Unfortunately, the effort was stopped in its tracks by environmentalists.
While a hands-off attitude may be popular in some environmental circles, history has shown the consequences of that policy. In 1988, the U.S. Parks Service allowed several smaller forest fires in Yellowstone National Park to come together and engulf 800,000 acres, nearly incinerating the historic Old Faithful Inn.
The consequences of a massive wildfire today would be catastrophic. A century ago, the Big Burn scorched three million acres of forests from Boise into Canada and from east of Spokane to west of Missoula. Today, more than 13 million people live in that area.
Even our firefighters are being handcuffed in the name of environmental protection. Recently, a federal judge rejected the way the U.S. Forest Service uses fire retardant to fight wildfires because it couldn’t ensure that the retardant wouldn’t harm threatened and endangered species. The judge did not address the harm a raging inferno would cause to those same animals.
One has only to watch the nightly news to see the devastation caused by wildfires. Add to that the human and economic cost to battle the fires and the environmental degradation that results.
Congress and the President must restore sanity and common sense to our federal forest management policy. Sensible management, clearing dead and diseased trees and reducing underbrush is a much more responsible policy than “burn, baby, burn.”
Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.