Dousing the Claims: Extinguishing Republican Myths about Wildfire

Democrats on the House Resources Committee released a new report on Tuesday.  Phil Taylor, a reporter with E&E, has a story out about the report and subsequent hearing.  Unfortunately, E&E doesn’t have a free link to the entire story, so some snips from the story are below.

Environmental groups over the past three years have appealed less than 5 percent of projects on federal lands designed to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire, and, of those, less than one out of five involved endangered species issues, according to a new report from Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee….

“Environmental laws, land management agencies, litigation, endangered species and even immigrants share the Republican blame for this year’s devastating wildfires,” Markey said. “These accusations are just a smokescreen.”

Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management data obtained by committee Democrats seemed to back up his claim.

Out of 8,000 fuel reduction projects in federal forests over the last three, less than 1 percent of all of the work was affected by appeals, according to the Democrats’ report. Endangered Species Act challenges affected less than 0.05 percent of all hazardous fuels work on roughly 10 million acres of land, the report found.

“This report shows that political fact-checkers should create a new category called ‘pants on wildfire’ for the ill-informed Republican myths on forest fire prevention,” Markey said. “When climate change is baking the country in drought and actually increasing the risks of catastrophic wildfires, these half-baked ideas from Republicans do a disservice to the people who have suffered from wildfires.”….

Democrats said the findings are consistent with a Government Accountability Office report in 2010 that found less than 20 percent of the 1,191 fuel reduction projects on about 9 million acres from 2006 to 2008 were appealed. About 2 percent of all fuel reduction projects were litigated and those involved about 124,000 acres, the report says.


33 thoughts on “Dousing the Claims: Extinguishing Republican Myths about Wildfire”

  1. I have never heard of the so-called “Republican Myths about Wildfire,” but feel much better now that I know they have been doused — and not by lies or damned lies, either, but with statistics. Way to go, Democrats!

  2. You know it’s an interesting row to hoe. Clearly we have to discuss these issues in a hyperpartisanized universe without becoming hyperpartisanized ourselves or contaminated with Virus hyperpartisanicus.

    Should be a challenge. Here is a previous post showing my nonpartisan view of the GAO report cited.

    Last time we had this conversation, I questioned their logic. If you follow it you would agree that if hurricanes only hit one part of the country, they are really not a problem because on the average across the country there are very few hurricanes.

  3. Perhaps house democrats can tell us how many fuels reduction projects in Montana have been appealed? Or, as always, what percent of fuels reduction “Acres” have been appealed. Maybe Mathew could tell us? Another thing this story tells us is that radical enviros from around the rest of the country (Colorado, SE,NE,SW) have stopped appealing…while the relics at the AWR still persist. Cheap tawdry propoganda.

  4. The problem with this 3 year analysis is that the litigation/protest/appeals that are the root of the problem have been going on for at least 25 years and have been aimed, not at fuel reduction measures, but management of the land and especially of it’s timber resources.

    To me the more disturbing aspect of this issue (and one that is sure to prevent its solution) is — How did this turn into a democrat v republican debate? Anybody have a thought on this?

    • Mac- I agree that that is a very interesting question. Stepping back from the “trees” issue, Doug Bevington has a couple of pages on this in his book, pp26-27. Now I’m sure that academics or whomever don’t agree, but Bevington traces it to more political appointees being from national environmental groups under Carter.

      I think this would be a great topic for a graduate student to research the different points of view in the literature on this topic between now and November. Any takers?

    • Here’s O’Toole’s (Andy’s associate) take. It’s indeed an interesting conversation. (it doesn’t seem easy to find out when it was written but I guess the mid-90’s). The more things change…

      Yet polarization carries with it a major long-term cost: It also polarizes the opposition. This is a particular problem for the environmental movement, which really had no enemies in 1970, when everyone from Richard Nixon to Newt Gingrich was an environmentalist. Despite the lack of real enemies, demonization produced such short-run benefits that environmental magazines railed against corporate America, corrupt politicians, inept bureaucrats, and private landowners for harming the environment. By 1994, such demonization became a self-fulfilling prophecy as corporate leaders, elected officials, agency employees, and property owners turned into opponents of environmental causes.

      All of these trends were highly visible in 1993 when environmentalists tried to form a coalition to reform national forest management. The problem, of course, was that the groups couldn’t agree on a strategy. So they agreed to a “kitchen sink” strategy that combined all of the legislative goals of the individual groups while pretending to ignore the many conflicts between these goals.

      The resulting package had something to anger every other forest interest group: private landowners, public land users, public land managers, state and local government officials, even timber companies that don’t buy from public lands. It was a strategy that made enemies of everyone but the true-believer environmentalists. The proposal never happened, but it remains no different from the basic strategy environmentalists have followed in any case.

      In saying these things, I am not casting aspersions on any environmental leader or group. The tactical situation of the past few years was beyond the control of any leader or group. So long as the Democrats were in power, the benefits of polarization outweighed the costs, so the groups that embraced polarization were the most successful. Today, with a Republican Congress, groups that are willing to make friends rather than enemies may have an advantage.

    • or … “restoration v. degradation”
      let’s give the land what it needs — rest when needed – careful active management when appropriate.

    • Yes, well, I don’t think it’s that simple… management of what, when where and why is where we seem to disagree.
      And we are really talking about vegetation management of trees here, not grazing or ski areas or oil and gas or special use permits.

  5. Of course, many wildfires include the incineration of Endangered Species habitats but, Democrats don’t want to talk about that stuff. The “Party Line” is that wildfires are almost always “natural and beneficial”, and that animals adapt and move. Nesting habitat for owls and goshawks is extremely limited, and the birds are territorial. The Democrats don’t want to talk about that stuff, either.

    Yes, partisan politics, from both sides, still continues to harm our environment. That is why I am not a Republican or a Democrat.

    • Why do you demonize fire and applaud logging?

      Fire is a natural process and would not be a problem AT ALL if habitat was not reduced and fragmented BY LOGGING to the point that the species are endangered.

      Now that habitat is in such bad shape, uncharacteristic wildfire might be an incremental cumulative impact on some species, however the medicine in many cases is worse than the disease. Logging is a blunt instrument when a scalpel is needed.

      Thinning small, young shade tolerant trees to protect large, old shade intolerant ppines to enhance habitat for white-headed woodpecker, makes lots of sense, but the agencies are trying to apply the same logic in relatively moist Douglas fir forests that are home to spotted owls. In mature moist forests, density reduction provides no benefit for species like spotted owls and goshawks that prefer dense forests. Larry’s nutty logic shows that there is a significant risk that logging will be misused as a tool for restoration.

      • Tree- a lot of places haven’t had logging but still have fires. Also you say “logging is a blunt instrument” .. Logging is not a real term in terms of kinds of treatment, as you know, it must means trees are removed for use as here says for sawmills (not for pulp or biomass, technically speaking). But if you mean more generally “removal of trees and other vegetation”, it is pretty nuanced. There are a variety of prescriptions. People spend years learning all the nuances of different kinds of cutting understory and overstory vegetation with or without subsequent prescribed burning. To me, silvicultural treatments of various kinds are or can be, in fact, scalpels. Check out all the different treatments in Table 1 of the oft-discussed Colt Summit project here.

        • I prefer to use “forest sculpting”, instead of LOGGING. Tree always assumes the worst of foresters, pointing to the now distant past as an example of why we cannot be trusted. Preserve the controversy, at all costs, including incinerated landscapes. There will ALWAYS be wildfires, from many sources. You are lumping all kinds of ignitions into the same group, including criminal arson. You believe that ALL wildfires are good, in ALL cases. You believe that our “out of whack” forests are always ready for uncontrolled wildfire. HELLOOOOOOO?? You cannot have a “natural” wildfire inside an unnatural forest, regardless of ignition. If a lightning fire has a lot of rain on it, it MIGHT go out on its own. However, that is pure luck, if that happens in today’s forests. Hey, if we had managed, resilient forests, most all types of wildfires could burn with much less intensity, providing the touted benefits.

          The way I’m seeing it, the passive restoration crowd is looking awful desperate, these days, finding that their platform is crumbling, rotting and about to burn. Yep, its a hard-sell to convince the public that doing nothing will fix our forests.

          Just yesterday, I took some pictures of a recently completed cutting unit. It really looks great! I’ll post some tomorrow.

            • I’m saying that I include aesthetics when I am selecting which trees will stay, and which trees will go. It IS art, on a landscape scale. You seem to be assuming all sorts of bad things about thinning projects.

        • In many of my conversations with the FS silviculturists, we discuss all kinds of creative treatments, then the conservation ends when they say “of course, we can’t afford to mark the trees in that way.” “Production efficiency” gets in the way of creative restoration, thus make the scalpel more blunt.

          And when you have to pay for restoration by removing commercial sized trees, restoration objectives are often compromized and the scalpel gets more blunt.

          • My scalpel is quite sharp, and taking out trees with a feller-buncher is nicely “surgical”. You can see minimal damage in the pictures I posted in the other thread. Also, we never hear anything about “production efficiency” in our marking. While the complexity of the silvicultural prescription shouldn’t be discounted, we are quite capable of applying it to many different stands. Sure, it is difficult but, our crew is very good at juggling all the issues, and doing what is right for these stands.

            Also, a reminder that “commercial sized trees” can be as small as 10″ dbh. Our cut trees average about 14″ to 15″ dbh. There are plenty of 10-18″ dbh trees to thin out. That does not compromise the restoration objectives, one bit.

            • Larry, I think the great “untold” story is “mechanical”(feller buncher)logging. You don’t hear chainsaws in the woods anymore(unless skyline). When I had to quit cutting 30 years ago, my boss just got his first processor. The mill told him he had to get one, and then promptly paid him less per ton. My point is “mechanical” logging has made the small diameter trees much more economical. The great myth is loggers “need” large diameter trees. Weyerhauser “transisitioned” to 16″ “overstory removal” logs certainly helps the bottom line). The next best kept secret is “whole tree harvesting” (WTH), which instantly “fireproofs” a forest. As far as I know, “science” hasn’t found any examples yet of the “efficacy” of WTH fuels treatments. Past studies that have cast doubt on “thinning alone” were based on “slash” surface fuels burning. WTH has eliminated that…and I might add, has eliminated the added expense of RX burning in such stands. It’s stupid the perfect tool (mechanical logging) to thin millions of acres of second growth is here, and it’s not being used.

              Oh, and I might add, whens the last time you heard of a logger getting killed? Mechanical logging is pretty safe-and easy on the spine.

              • I meant to say… “Weyerhauser “transitioned” to 16″ DBH overstory removal trees is nice for the bottom line).

                I hate these naroow threads.
                I hate these “narrow threads.”

      • I DON’T like bad logging but, I do like good logging. Simple as that. I also like good fuels treatments, and don’t like bad fuels treatments. I like good land management, and I don’t like bad management. It depends on your point of view and the site-specific science. Since I work in the woods 40 hours per week, I see lots of sites.

        I think I would have to say that “logging” is a process to acquire logs. Big ones, small ones, as many as they can. “Thinning” is a project that takes smaller trees, to enhance what we want to keep. Logs are just a by-product, and not the goal.

        Using the past to block the future will fail, Tree. Your blanket insult is not appreciated.

  6. Oh come on now Sharon. “Logging” only means trees are removed and sent to a sawmill? So the hundreds of thousands of acres of forests in the upper Great Lakes region cut down and shipped to the big pulp and paper giants really weren’t “logged” and had nothing to do with “logging.” Good lord.

    • “Good lord”???, really?, well back at you Matt…I agree with most of what you said but how many times have we seen enviro groups use “logging” to characterize things like pre-commercial thinning as “massive logging projects”??? You know It works both ways….

      • JZ, For the record, I’ve never ever characterized things like a pre-commercial thinning project as a “massive logging project.” When I saw a conservation group recently say something like that I let them know I didn’t think it was a good idea to use that language.

        However, I still stand by my perspective that it’s simply wrong to claim that all the hundreds of thousands of acres of Great Lakes region forests that have been cut down (and largely converted to aspen) and then shipped to the mega pulp and paper mills in the Fox Valley, Green Bay and elsewhere isn’t really “logging” because a sawmill isn’t involved.

        So I think we’re basically saying the same thing here JZ.

        • I personally am OK with logging as commercial tree removal, whether for pulp or sawtimber or firewood.

          But is Joe cutting a dead lodgepole for his personal use firewood “logging”?

          Is a service contract for fuels reduction that piles and burns “logging”? Is one that doesn’t have commercial value but is required to move the material off- site?

          In many of the documents in the Colorado Roadless analyses, we called it tree cutting because that’s what it is.

    • Matthew, I didn’t define it, I just looked it up in the dictionary..

      Have you noticed that say, hunting has commercial and non commercial, outfitter-guides are cool people, and it would be considered bad form to shoot something and leave it there when it could be used to feed people..

      We have “logging” as one word, whether it’s commercial or not, and loggers are questionable people, and it’s considered bad form to take it for people to use, as opposed to leaving it there.

      Just another of my observations of “animal-ism.” Thanks to Wuerthner, who inspired this line of thought.

  7. Coming in late to the conversation here, Sharon began the responses with and interesting question which seems to have been lost in the succeeding dialogue. From all the political and agency rhetoric that I’ve observed, it appears that the impact of appeals and ligation has been quite significant within agency, and yet, according to this latest report on the percentage of appealed and litigated projects (thank you Mathew for sharing this) the total number of projects appealed and litigated is quite small (as is the total acreage directly affected). So why is the impact so much larger than the observed cause? Are appeals and litigation the actual source of difficulty within the agency? Many private sector organizations deal with far more “uncertainties” in a globalized market that affect everything from production to stock share value, and yet, we don’t see the same level of consternation from these organizations. Why? What’s the difference between the USFS and other organizations int his regard (beyond the obvious private/public dichotomy)?

  8. Oh and does any who has read the report know if/where the appeals and litigation are actually clustered? Are we just assuming they are in R1?

  9. Mike, You raise many interesting questions that beg for going deeper into discussions to be able to understand. Starting next week, when I am retired from the FS, I’ll begin to explore them.

    For now, yes, they were clustered in R-1 in both reports. I remember trying to copy the tables to this blog, but that was before I became more adept at Acrobat Professional so hopefully I will be able to do it now.

  10. Sounds good Sharon. This may be part of that larger conversation we’ve been discussing for this blog. Some more questions for consideration that are an extension of the others I’ve posted. Why does that FS seem to crave (or even expect) certainty when we are now clearly in such an age of uncertainty (and have been for some time)? Is there something about the nature of federal bureaucracy in this? Or is it something unique to the FS? My sense is that this discussion will get into the nature of the politics that affect the agency at the highest levels, but I’ll be curious to hear more when you have the time. I’d be very interested in anyone else’s take as well. Thanks.

  11. I’d bet that the extremely high percentage of salvage sales that get litigated aren’t included in those “fuels reduction” projects. Can you say Cherrypicking??…. Sure ya can!

  12. Mike,

    Thanks for the questions, you bring up some very good points that should be followed up on…. I don’t have time to digest and do a proper reply right now, but I’d like to put a placeholder in to continue this discussion. I have a lot of thoughts since this is basically my life/job (inseperable for better or worse) right now.

    In short, appeals/litigation is a calculated risk with any project. The FS has budgets, targets and fiscal year timelines to deal with. The NEPA process is a game that the enviro groups know the rules to all too well and pretty much abuse just to throw a monkeywrench into the works so they can stand back and say “look at how many tax dollars are being wasted!!!” I don’t believe for a second that any of them really believe most of the crap they throw out as protecting species and the American people’s freedoms, etc, etc. It’s a business and as long as the FS is in business and we have targets, then business is good…

    Before any of you enviro no-goodnicks launch into a heated reply (I can feel the pulses pounding), I’d also offer that I don’t believe half the crap that the FS puts up as P&N’s for their projects either…we should be calling a spade a spade, but in light of the “game” it doesn’t matter if we call an orange painted red and “apple”…again, it’s just a game and a business. Fun for us NEPA nerds. Please keep the comments coming!!!!

    The common ground in this arguement is that the FS needs to be transparent and truthful in their motives and conversely so so the enviro groups. Not likely to happen anytime soon which pretty much gurantees us all something to “discuss” into the future. Politics/policy/case law definitely keeps things “lively” and ensures that “uncertainty” will be uhhhhh…”certain”, if you pardon the play on words.

    • Hi JZ,

      Wow, the cynicism in your response is kind of depressing to be quite honest. Assuming your perspective is indeed shared by others and represents an accurate assessment of the condition we’ve created, I would suggest even more strongly that the entire system is in need of fundamental change that will renew its integrity and restore the real purposes for which the public participation system was created in the first place.

      Personally, I value wildlife and wildlands right along side sustainable use of resources, which is why I care deeply about National Forests and their management. For me, the idea that something of so much incredible value (i.e. the National Forest System) is so deeply affected by such cynical gamesmanship is truly a “bummer” (technical term). But like you JZ, I’m not into the “blame game” (unless shared equally). I’d ask everyone following this blog site to seriously consider how we all might re-shape this entire system over time in a way that does not assign blame but rather focuses on solutions that are inclusive (i.e don’t attempt to “carve out” part of the public) while also establishing true accountability. The question I see is: “If we were starting all over today with a blank slate, looking at 192 million acres of public land, what kind of system would we create for its management?” Just a thought…


Leave a Comment