Peter Van Zant: Sierra wildlands too critical for petty politics
Peter Van Zant
I was taken aback by George Boardman’s Aug. 28 column, “Wild lands burn while special interests argue over what’s best for them.” The assertion that an argument over forest management and post-fire protocol is a cause of the fires is absurd. He does however identify two real reasons we have increased frequency and intensity of wildland fires.
Climate changes have effectively increased the fire season from summer/fall to almost year long. And, California is suffering from a five- year drought. These two conditions have resulted in weakened pine trees that are dying from bark beetle infestations that have killed over 66 million trees through the Sierra so far.
He correctly identifies a third cause as the buildup of forest density. But he blames this on “environmentalists who … have a hard time tolerating the harvesting of dead trees — never mind ones that are actually alive.” Really?
To set the record straight, the overgrown national forests are the result of more than 100 years of the Forest Service’s strategy of fire suppression. And Sierra general plans throughout have allowed increased residential development in the wildland-urban interface. A recent Sacramento Bee article noted the cost of “defending a home in the Sierra Nevada at $82,000 and as high as $600,000 per home.” Both of these policies have mitigated against letting fires burn and play their natural role in an open forest landscape.
True, there has been dialogue between some environmental organizations over the best practices for forest and post-fire health. A best practice is that timber harvest plans leave enough mature trees to maintain a multi-aged forest, not tree plantations. Also, salvage plans should include enough downed timber to serve as habitat and minimize erosion as the forest recovers. Logging companies would like all of the merchantable trees they can get and point out that more sellable trees result in reduced thinning and salvage costs.
This is an important conversation for the Sierra, not one to be demonized.
I have been involved in Sierra conservation issues for more than 25 years. There is no credible conservation group subscribing to Boardman’s assertion: “On one side we have tree-hugging environmentalists who would be much happier if people would just disappear from the wilderness landscape.” Rather, conservation groups have continually lobbied for balanced general plans, funding for effective forest management practices, and funding to remove dead trees while leaving enough “snags” for the natural return of habitat. Also the Sierra Business Council captures the desired balance with their sustainable triple line approach: economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity.
There is no “they” … “fighting over every tree rather than considering the problems of the entire forest.” There are agencies struggling to maintain forest health while dealing with runaway fires and funding shortfalls, there are private interests developing biomass technologies to deal with overgrown forests on the ground, and there are environmental groups advocating for healthy forests and upland meadows and funding to sustain them.
Wildland fires and the future of the Sierra landscape are serious issues. They won’t be solved by conjuring up tired old animosities. There are lots of smart and committed people working together to solve these difficult environmental and public policy challenges. They need and deserve our support.
Peter Van Zant is a former Nevada County District 1 supervisor, and a long term Sierra conservationist. He is currently on the board of directors of the Sierra Nevada Alliance.
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