Royal Burnett: “The Environmentalists Have Won”

I participate in a wildfire discussion group that averages around 130 members, a significant number of whom are retired professionals. The focus of the group has been Michael T. Rain’s “Call to Action” — a systematic and organic strategy for ending the mismanagement of wildfire on our public forests that has characterized much of the past 35 years. One of the occasional contributors to this discussion is Royal Burnett. Here is his current perspective. BZ 

My name is Royal Burnett. I am retired CDF Battalion Chief with 31 years experience on California wildfires. At the time of my retirement in 1993 I was an ICS rated Type 1 Incident Commander, Type 1 Ops Section Chief and FBAN.

Since my retirement I have kept active in fire and fuels modeling and have worked with various committees to solve the wildfire/conflagration crisis that exists in California.

I’ve been on the mailing list for “Call to Action” early on and have commented occasionally.

It should be obvious to all by now that we have not only lost this round, but perhaps the entire fight.

I’ve watched and commented as the USFS burned millions of acres near my home in Redding, California. This summer we had one lightning storm in August here we are in late September and several of those fires are still burning… this in spite of two wetting rains and several nights of 90 percent humidty recovery. These fires would have gone out if the USFS crews had not re lit them.

There is no public out cry. There is no voiced protest from the timber industry. There is no protest from the Society of American Foresters.

What is more alarming is there is not protest from the Indigenous people whose ancestral homelands are routinely torched… the same people who have to live under choking clouds of smoke for months in Happy Camp and Hoopa.

As we speak the Blue and Copper fire are burning near Orleans in prime timber and the quote from the Forest Service Information says there “no values currently threatened”.

No Values ??? The environmentalists have won. Since the Spotted Owl was used to successfully shut down logging in Northern California an entire industry and culture was destroyed. Not only were the obvious logging jobs lost… the fallers, the skid operators the choker setters… the second tier jobs were lost.. the mechanics, the saw shops closed… and the third tier jobs in the cafes and other support services that fed the loggers and truckers and went away.

Several towns closed the sawmills that had provided employment for generations. That resulted in the loss of gas stations and grocery stores…all for an owl that was probably not threatened from the start.

We are now in the second generation of the collapse of the North Coast economy and the citizens and Tribal Leaders realize the only way to make living and remain in their homes is to kowtow to USFS. They now accept the annual huge wildfires…they sign on as truck drivers and timber fallers, the stores make sack lunches, the fuel trucks and porta potties get rented.. and our forests burn.

The USFS has completely reversed course. Fire used to be bad, now its good. I’ve seen the try to brand and sell their insane policy in many different ways…Let Burn… MIST…Light Hand on the Land…Burning for Resource Benfits…its all attempt to convince the public that they have not bungled the stewardship of our National Lands. Anyone with eyes can see that the miles of snags standing alongside the Highways leading in and out of Redding are not productive forest…not even as a Carbon Sink.

USFS Chief Randy Moore announced huge fuel management goals… going to treat millions of acres annually. Little did anyone realize that Moore was going to count acres burned in wildfire as treated acres. And, to go one step further… if a Forest Supervisor met the Fuel Management goals the that would count toward that individual getting an annual performance bonus.

A couple of the nearby Forests give lip service to aggressive initial attack on all fires… to going direct where possible… to working night shifts… this is all in response to public out cry to mismanagement of various incidents. In truth, when fires on those forest escape Initial Attack and USFS Team is called in and the Big Box is drawn on the map . There is no effort to keep that fire small…the objective is to burn as many acres as possible and count them as fuel treated acres…part of the fire resistant landscape .

When fires start in August and the first team in says estimated control date is December you’ve got to realize that something is dreadfully wrong.

The damage that’s been done to the forests and watershed in Northern California will take generations to recover…and there is no rehabilitation plan.

In the last 10 years I’ve watched on TV and live reports as thousands of Northern California homes and millions of acres burned. Many of those acres burned deliberately by the USFS under the guise of firefighter safety or creating fire resistant mosaics…that’s another lie. All they’ve done is create snag patches with and understory of mixed brush. They have increased, not decreased the fire hazard. I’ve watched while entire communities burned due to USFS Tactical and strategic mistakes and there was no review. I watched as hundreds of Giant Sequoias were killed in a backfire…and no one spoke up…not even Save the Redwoods League.

Recently the 10th Circuit Court supported USFS Sovereignty…granting them immunity from lawsuits and repercussions for damages caused to public and private property when allowing a fire to burn for yet to be determined resource benefits. Citizens can file tort claims, but have no say if the USFS deliberately burns their property ?

The USFS has become a leader in the Fire/Industrial complex that has a vested interest in burning our forest land. Its a sad , sad day when this once proud Agency has degenerated into a gang of the most prolific, the most persistent serial arsonists ever to plague our wildlands.

36 thoughts on “Royal Burnett: “The Environmentalists Have Won””

  1. An unsustainable industry since the start always feels better blaming someone else, rather than themselves. Supposedly the last scraps of primary forests that were barely saved for spotted owls is the only wrongdoing here and it’s magically somehow the sole reason for wiping out all the jobs and towns. Ironic seeing as these timber town were founded on big tree primary forests that were so valuable there was plenty of money for everyone as long as the kept increasing the amount they cut as though they’d never run out.

    Even without environmentalists “winning” the logging rate in the early 90’s, if it had been sustained, would of already logged out all these protected areas by now and these down would face the same disastrous economic failure of its own making.

    Rather than focusing on the truth and facts of overharvesting primary forest and way lower than expected yields from young tree farms the lack of sustainability is never blamed on their pseudo science / dogma, but on those who point out the facts of why they’re responsible for their own failure.

  2. Nonsense. The piece should be titled “The Republicans Won” because republican budget cuts and republican slander of civil servants is at the bottom of current policy.

    • Hi Rich: I agree that your answer is “Nonsense.” This is a political problem, of course, but the problem wasn’t Republican “budget cuts” for a program that had recently paid for itself and provided meaningful employment — and way less major wildfires — for tens of thousands of rural workers. Now it’s seasonal wildfire managers and migrant tree planters being dependent on taxpayer funding rather than local workers producing tax revenues for USFS employees.

        • Democrats didn’t want to cut trees. Republicans didn’t want to fund the cutting of trees. Partisan politics made the Forest Service a rudderless ship, for decades. Even though half of Congress are lawyers, they are so very bad at making laws.

          • Their laws directly created the entire Environmental Law Industry, beginning in December 1969 and NEPA in Washington DC. Then ESA and EAJA completed the process and they’ve held firm to this cash cow ever since. They are only “bad at making laws” if you are not a lawyer or a member of Congress, who have done an excellent job in pay increases and job security for themselves. Documented.

  3. I highly doubt the ‘theory’ that wildfire acres count as “acres treated”… YET. I am thoroughly against that idea.

    Currently, the Forest Service has extra funding and authority to hire many more permanent positions, to accomplish those goals. Remember, also, that the fire suppression folks will be expected to accomplish goals, outside of fire season, too. Some may be used to mark timber, too.

    • At one point seems to me like we had a fire policy statement called “Wildland Fire Use” and since those acres were within a LMRP they would be considered “acres treated”. I do believe the metric has changed (??) since everything outside of an actual “management ignited prescribed fire” falls into the wildfire category. Suppression Response: Monitor/Confine/Point Protection/Full Suppression. Maybe the 209 needs some updating.

  4. This opinion piece tells a quite substantial outcome over neglect and mismanagement of forests all over the West, really. About the only future of public’s lands west of the 100th Meridian is uncontrolled, disastrous wildfire. The Black Hills will soon be logged to oblivion, supporting timber interests and their Congressional panhandlers, who are squarely in the timber interests pocket. That’s also sad; about the only real forest management being practiced (including genuine fire management) in the country is in the South, East and Great Lakes Regions..

    Back a few years ago, we could not log around Mexican Spotted Owl habitat in New Mexico and Arizona. However, after the Wallow fire, only 30% of the MSO habitat remained – wiped out by fire! That was in 2011, so I imagine 15% remaining is about right presently…

    I doubt the West will ever recover; too many why’s instead of why not’s. Meanwhile, at least the Forest Service will continue to gobble up the majority of their budget, to either appease the extreme environmental community or feed the wildfire promotion agenda. It’s all about climate change, you know…..🤣🤣🤣

    • Definitely need to consider in this equation the extensive old growth logging during the early 20th Century; 100 years of second growth understory affected by drought, insect, disease and wildfires; 10am policy with unintended consequences of trying to exterminate fire’s natural role on the landscape; tremendous urban/rural growth and development in high risk fire adaptive landscapes and now hotter, longer summers. I suppose Climate Change can be argued on both sides, but surly people are cognizant of hotter, drier long summers which is ushering in our contemporary Wildfire Crisis as we know it.

      • We must also consider the absolute certainty of increased human-caused ignitions, for the next few decades. How we can respond to those challenges is unknown, but the firestorms will continue, regardless of what we do in the short term. Do we let ‘Whatever Happens’, happen?

        • Agree the megafires and urban conflagrations due to human ignitions are now ubiquitous worldwide and having devastating consequences to life, property, livelihoods and our very existence and dependence on natural and cultural landscapes…. Now is not the time to throw in the towel; it’s time to double down and bring in any and all partners not just throw stones at our current predicament – lets think about a “50 year horizon”. Collectively, we have much work ahead of us.

  5. This needs to be captured and placed as an Appendix item in the next revision of the “A Call to Action.” This is an outstanding reflection and cannot afford to be lost. Please say yes and it will be done.

    • Hi Michael: I already got a “yes” from Royal for his essay to be published anywhere that is helpful in getting the word out. Obviously I am in full agreement with what he has written and have made the same observations in western Oregon that he has made for northern California. Federal management of our public forests has been one disaster after another for the past 35 years for our rural communities, our native wildlife, and for the air we all breathe. Why this has been allowed — even encouraged — to continue for so long is a complete mystery. Gross incompetence and/or conspiracy seem the most likely answers.

      • Landscape ecology 101 – you cannot take fire off the landscape and expect a healthy, resilience forest, water capture and storage (think clean water and dependable municipal water) , and productive carbon sequestration.

      • I knew Royal in the last decade of his career with CDF (now CalFire). He was tops in wildland fire knowledge. He had forgotten more than most people learned in a career. Every time he spoke, at Little T, I listened to him intently, since he knew so much history and had so much fire experience. Please pass along my best wishes to him.

    • It’s disappointing to see such enthusiasm for a rant that has no understanding of the convincing arguments on the other side: everything is the result of “An owl that was probably not threatened from the start.” Let’s not broadcast this kind of ignorance even more broadly.

      • Good points. Everything now a days seem to start with arguments and rants. Sure wish we could go back to the good ole days of “creative debate” entertaining both sides of the issue without getting emotional highjacked by our own myopic views.

  6. I heard a news story this morning about a House Bill, sponsored by Congressman McClintock, that would set new aggressive rules regarding wildfire responses. More fires would be directly attacked. When a prescribed burn breaches control lines, it would be aggressively-fought. While I am not a fan of McClintock, or his views, and I haven’t seen what else is in the Bill, I support such changes in wildfire response.

    • Let’s just call this what it is…. a ‘retread’ of the 10am policy put ALL fires out as fast as possible regardless of the seasonality and local conditions which might otherwise support a healthy fire process…. but today we are living the consequences of such a shortsighted policy.

      • I am only advocating for a summer ban on letting fires burn for dubious resource benefits. With staffing problems in the Forest Service, that is a bad combination. I also advocate for a reduction in fire intensities, through multiple practices. There is no way to “Prevent Wildfires”, through any kind of management, or lack thereof.

        Prediction: Republicans will label Smokey Bear as “too woke” for America.

        • Funny about Smokey Bear… probably right…. I have worked fires all over the west (as I’m sure you have and many others here) and we all know that “everyday is a burn day” Somewhere in the west, and rest of US, the conditions are right for a wildfire to play it’s natural role. Not all areas can or should use wildfire to help meet resource objectives, but many landscapes offer optimal opportunities if we just dig a little deeper. Old fire footprints, vegetation type changes, natural and human made barriers, applying fire to reduce high intensity/severity fire spread all come together in our ability to effectively manage wildfire for resource objectives. There is no denying lack of broad use of “good fire” has created our current and future high fire severity events. Hard to convince the broader public (and our public employees and retirees) that “more good fire” is needed to help mitigate our current wildfire crisis. Certainly not the only tool, but one which is essential now more than ever before.

          • “…wildfire to play it’s natural role…”

            Well, since over 85% of ALL US wildfires are human-caused, how “natural” can those be? Of course, many of those happen during the dry summer months. Generally, “natural fires” don’t happen during the dry weather, without a human ignition. Many forests aren’t “natural”, due to all the human influences. It’s a reality we should never ignore.

            Yes, Smokey Bear should continue his role, and adults should not be assigning any political label to his message.

  7. Royal Burnett provides a good example of someone who’s view of wildfire seems stuck in the past. He’s frustrated because most others have moved on to a more tolerant and nuanced view of wildfire and its ecological role, and our inability to exert granular control of fire throughout the year.

    Most people think it is wise to (when possible) let some fires burn when weather conditions are more moderate, like early fall, with cool nights, and wetting rains in the forecast, etc.

    • Anyone with half a brain in far Northern California knows who and what Royal is, and don’t really have much time or respect for his rants. He’s exhibit A of why Facebook should have never been opened up to anyone without an active college email; He just likes to rant and make himself feel good, and then all the others who have predetermined opinions and agendas latch on in his comments. Sad that now it is being shared here.

      • What is really sad is a nameless coward publicly calling people names. I’m guessing you have your weirdly valued “active college email,” but maybe as an undergraduate having problems with a few of your classes. Close? Or maybe just the cowardly troll part is accurate?

        • Nah Bob, I left undergrad 17 years ago with a 3.9, and left grad school with a 4.0, and am now happily employed and very successful in what I do (forest management). I do like your response to anyone who is anonymous, despite the points they may or may not raise. I also like that you criticize this of me, yet always bring up you “dissertation” any chance you get as a catch all to criticize “science” you don’t like.
          Way to miss the point, as always, just as Royal does with his “put every fire out everywhere” mentality. The point was he makes claims in an echo chamber he never had before, and the echo chamber responds as such to further embolden him.
          By the way, has the Flat Fire responded to all your dire predictions?

          • Hello Anon: Without any additional evidence, I’ll accept your self-serving claims of having been an outstanding forestry student and very fortunate to have secured employment as a forest manager. I’m not sure about your accusations regarding my own academic achievements or why you think it is smart to publicly belittle someone like Royal while hiding out somewhere and concealing your identity. Not at all credible or admirable, either one.

            Also not sure why you have personified the Flat Fire and think it should somehow “respond” to my “dire predictions.” My statements have been consistent that we have “dodged a bullet” by not having an east wind event this past fire season. Also, having the Flat Fire, Smith River Complex, and the Anvil Fire all taking place in the same area at the same time is exactly the type of “dire prediction” I have been making — and documenting — for many years. You could look it up.

  8. Thanks Bob for posting this. Royal pretty well nails it. Anyone who has walked into the burned out giant sequoia groves on the south Sierra knows the pathetic consequences of denying reality in the the groves and surrounding forest for the last 40 years. Most of the area in the giant groves that suffered catastrophic losses would still be green if mechanical thinning of white fir ladder fuels had been done in the groves ahead of the fires. This is exactly what Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest has been doing in its giant sequoia groves in that area for the last 60+ years and the majority of its giant sequoias remain green. It follows thinning with an active prescribed burning program. It is not possible to safely re-introduce fire into even giant sequoia groves without doing active and SUBSTANTIAL fuels management ahead of the fire. This is not rocket science. Hand crews cannot effectively treat the quantities of fuels needing treatment ahead of the reintroduction of fire. Mechanical thinning can. To do otherwise is insanity and will continue to destroy the forests we all love. The failed ideas of the Environmental Left have now destroyed as many or more giant sequoias than were ever cut by all the unwise logging ever. The anti-logging crowd may chafe at that fact, but they can’t escape the reality of it. It’s the truth.
    There are solutions. We need to cut trees. Our forests won’t survive without it. It’s called management. We tried it the other way. It didn’t work.
    Thanks Royal for telling the truth.

    • Heavy equipment is a big danger to giant sequoias, which have very shallow root systems. While modern logging can, and should, be used, it is inappropriate within the actual groves. Yes, there might be some situations where logs could be winched out, after directional felling. Modern loggers have the knowledge to propose what is possible, and the skill to complete the specialized tasks.

      Within the groves, it will also take great directional felling skills to burn pile sites, or scatter the log rounds for broadcast burning. Not every non-Sequoia has to be cut. Usually, individuals of other species can reach massive size, growing in these groves.

      Side note: I can say, with considerable amusement, that I ‘blacked-out’ several giant sequoias, which were marked for cutting, in the San Bernardino National Forest. The trees were all growing underneath other native trees. At first, they were OK with thinning out those non-native trees, if they met the marking guidelines. The marking was done, but the Forest came to its senses, and considered the potential public outcry, then decided to not cut any of them. (Besides, I think that the one lumber mill would have refused to buy them, too.)

  9. I don’t know how long this dead horse is going to continue be beaten, but there are way too many folks who have no idea of the history surrounding the 10:00 AM policy, nor the changed condition of our Forests because of pressures from an ever expanding population! The 10:00 AM Policy was at time between the Great Depression and WW II, when an actual Ranger District may have had three or four employees, and one of those was a clerk! I know; as I have said before, my grandpa started on 1929 as a “Forest Warden”, and I have the original letter of his designation. My dad was a product of the CCC’s, and went from there to the forest service.

    I am steeped in family history; you would not believe the amount of CCC and early forest service communication I’ve seen, and hold. Unless you travel back in time (figuratively), you would never understand the policies generated by actual fear of the Third Reich, and how that influenced policy decisions.

    There weren’t many FS folks in 1935, not many on the ground anyway! The histories of the disastrous fires of the nineteen “teens” were still fresh in the public’s minds. So……. What would you have done? I thought so!!!!


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