Decades of environmental debate and regulatory red tape fuel wildfires in Western states

Ruth Wiechmann
for Tri-State Livestock News
Interestingly, more acres burned between 2000-2017 than burned in the 50 years prior. This information was compiled using information from the U.S Geological Survey, the National Interagency Fire Center, the Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service and individual state agencies.
Courtesy photo

With the smoky haze prevalent in skies from California to the East Coast, the forest fires burning in Washington, Oregon, California and other western states have everyone’s attention.

While some claim that these are a result of climate change, other say that changes in forestry management practices are fueling the blazes.

Data from the University of Idaho in collaboration with NASA provides an interesting picture: both the number of wildland fires, the number of acres burned in these fires and the number of mega fires totaling over 100,000 acres have increased dramatically since the 1990s and especially in the last 20 years, in comparison with documented fires dating back to 1950. Interestingly, more acres burned between 2000-2017 than burned in the 50 years prior. This information was compiled using information from the U.S Geological Survey, the National Interagency Fire Center, the Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service and individual state agencies.

What is fueling these massive wildfires?

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., told the California Globe, “Our forests are now catastrophically overgrown, often carrying four times the number of trees the land can support. In this stressed and weakened condition, our forests are easy prey for drought, disease, pestilence and fire.”

Dick Gaiser is the chairman for the grazing association running cattle in the Stanislaus National Forest in California. The 25 members running cattle in 35 allotments are all family operations, some of which have stayed in the area for five, six and seven generations. Cattle are pastured in the National Forest every summer from June 1 through Oct. 15.

“When they quit logging in the ‘80s or ‘90s the quality of our range diminished greatly,” Gaiser said. “The fires have gotten worse and worse because there is so much underbrush.”

Gaiser’s own allotment consists of about two-thirds U.S. Forest Service land and one-third owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, a logging company and California’s largest private landowner.

“After the Rim Fire of 2013 we did our best to concentrate grazing pressure on that area to keep the brush growth at bay,” Gaiser said. “But eventually it came back. In that burn footprint there is a big difference between the public land and the private land. The lumber company land is beautiful; they planted new trees and kept the brush controlled. The public land has thick brush again.”

Why the difference in management practices? Gaiser said that the USFS staff he works with want to do the right thing but their hands are tied by federal regulations. The National Environmental Policy Act, that became law in 1970, requires environmental impact statements before changes in management practices can be implemented. These are time consuming, taking two to 10 years to complete, lengthy and burdensome to prepare, averaging 650 pages apiece, and frequently the subject of litigation once completed.

Scott Nielsen, Stevens County Cattlemen’s president, Kettle Falls, Wash., said that their new forest management plan is now under suit from Western Watersheds and some smaller, local environmental groups.

“We worked hard on this,” Nielsen said. “We have good people here in the Forest Service that are very supportive of ranchers. These environmental groups were involved in the collaborative process but now they are going after the things they don’t like in the plan through litigation.”


Thick vegetation in heavily forested areas of the Colville National Forest where Nielsen ranches is a double nightmare; it provides fuel for wildfires and hiding places for wolves who like to eat beef.

A 2011 Proposed Action for the Colville National Forest suggested that 87,500 acres be designated as wilderness. Concerned that the abandonment of these areas would create economic hardship for loggers and ranchers, as well as fostering a situation where the overall health of the forest degraded because it could not be managed through logging or grazing, the cattleman’s association came up with a campaign to raise awareness on how healthy grazing and forestry management reduces fire risk and improves the environment and quality of life. “Log it, Graze it, or Watch it Burn” was their slogan, and it has spread to other areas of the country. The campaign was very effective in making people aware of the issues in the area and increasing interest in the Colville National Forest plan revision process.

Shutting down logging and grazing would only serve to create fire-ready forests, increased bug and beetle kill of tree stands and overgrowth of underbrush: the perfect tinder box. While there is pressure from environmental groups to reduce logging, and Nielsen says logging has been cut back, the Colville National Forest may be the most productive logging area in the United States right now. Access to national forest lands is imperative for the community, both for ranchers and for the four lumber mills. If the logging jobs and grazing are reduced, it hurts the economy and also contributes to massive losses when wildfires burn hotter.

True to his promise to cut unnecessary regulations, President Trump has been addressing the National Environmental Policy Act and has put some new limits in place to make the environmental impact statement process less burdensome. It’s a step in the right direction that ranchers in Washington and California are happy about.

“Some of these laws that have been in place for decades need a fresh look,” Gaiser said. “We need to modify things such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, NEPA, the Equal Justice Act, and many others to reflect changes in times and current needs. Minor things in our management plan can be changed but everyone from the Forest Ranger down plus all of the ‘ologists’ have to be on board. We have a NEPA going on now that has been litigated in a San Francisco court and we’re all waiting for Oct. 14 when the comment deadline will be up. The California Farm Bureau, California Cattleman’s Association and the permittees are all backing the Forest Service. The plan looks good to us. But you never know what these environmental groups will come up with.”

For 40 years or so, radical environmental ideology has been telling California to follow the “no use” movement, abandoning public lands to overpopulation and overgrowth, setting aside time tested forestry management practices. The result? More frequent and more intense wildfires.

Excess timber WILL come out of the forest in one of only two ways,” Rep. McClintock told the Globe. “It is either carried out or it burns out.”

“I was in our allotment yesterday checking cattle,” Gaiser said. “On the private land the loggers were going like crazy, but they have a hard time keeping the mill open because there is no logging being done on the federal land. California has the worst timber harvest plan in the nation right now. There is going to be a timber sale in our grazing district, and I hope someone bids on it. Logging companies don’t expect to make any money on Forest Service timber. The first thing they have to do is fix the roads — at their expense. The roads are so bad now that we can’t get a pickup and horse trailer across them, we have to ride out all the way from the base camp. The logging companies are also required to chip and haul out all of the slash, which is an expensive process. And often there aren’t enough big logs included in the sale to make it pay.”

Gaiser is looking for the clouds through the smoke these days but said it will be another month before he expects fall rains to clear the air.

“If we’re not able to use controlled burning to clear the brush, what you see now is only going to get worse,” he said. “There is going to be more and more brush and more ladder fuels to feed these fires.

“Historically, there was far less fuel for fires, and this has been documented through old photographs and records. John Muir never saw a crown fire.” ❖