Utah State Representative (73rd district) Mike Noel recently blamed US Forest Policies for the 70,000 acre Brian Head fire. Specifically, he said, “When we turn the Forest Service over to the bird and bunny lovers and the tree huggers and the rock lickers, we’ve turned our history over. We are going to lose our wildlife and we are going to lose our scenery, the very thing you people wanted to try to protect. It’s just plain stupidity.”
This quote is wrong, and wrong-headed for three important classes of reasons: (a) factual errors; (b) process errors; and (c) ethical transgressions.
Let's start with facts. Fires require fuels. Trees, dead or alive, represent fuel. Is there more fuel available for wildfire now than, say, 30 years ago? Unequivocally, Yes. Forests of our western US landscapes have undergone a increase in average stand density. And, yes, this has been at least in part due to reduced logging rates, and yes, US Forest policies, writ large, has been a part of the reduction in timber operations on public lands. However, a century of fire suppression on that landscape has also resulted in increased density in many places that never had any commercial forest value. So, let's get specific.
Factual error #1. Let’s start with the wildlife and scenery. Wildfire, on average, is good for wildlife. Wildfires create habitat for a number of fire dependent species and create habitats that many of our valued wildlife depend. Deer, for example, prefer the openness of recently burned and recovering forests to closed forests. Ok, so fires still alter the scenery in ways that are detrimental to human values, right? Maybe. However, visitation rates increased in Yellowstone consistently in the years following the great fires there. So, the answer is not so clear.
The US now spends over $3 billion / year in fighting wildfires. If this spending is not for wildlife or scenery, then what is it that people wanted to protect from fire? Ski resorts, summer cabins and timber values are three answers that come quickly to mind, but that is being glib. If you survey people on what is a pleasant landscape, mature forest generally wins over open, regenerating forest. So, maybe the land is temporarily less scenic. However, Rep. Noel is trying to cut it both ways here. I bet an active logging operation is one of the least appealing forest sceneries, but one that he would, apparently, prefer to a fire regenerated landscape.
Factual error #2. If not for the USFS, we would have salvaged those beetle killed trees in southern Utah. Well, probably not. The price per ton of pine has not increased in over a decade. Pulpwood now runs $9 / ton. That isn't much. For most types of softwood timber (e.g., saw logs, pulpwood) has gone down since 2007. The demise of the logging industry in the west is a combined outcome of revised timber policies and economics. Cheaper timber from overseas is out-competing western timber. Demand for timber was not increasing during the banking crisis recession (it is starting to pick up now, apparently).
Timber operations across the western US have been shutting down independent of USFS policies. Plain and simple economics. Recent fires in California resulted in an effort to salvage timber that largely has failed for lack of a timber industry willing to cut and cart the trees away. It has not been an economically viable industry for a while now. Beyond this, the USFS policies are an expression of public desire. A forested landscape for hiking and skiing is more appealing, and more valuable in many cases, than the timber. Don’t expect a Republican administration clearing hurdles for timber operations to result in a rush to bid on timber on our national forests, particularly low value salvage material.
Factual error #3. The dead timber caused the Brian Head fire to become bigger and more intense that it would have if forests had been ‘managed’. Fire is not simply a consequence of fuels. Fire throughout the western US has been increasing in frequency, size and intensity. This has been carefully attributed to three things that fires, quite simply, require. Fires are a result of (a) ignition sources; (b) fuels; and (c) weather. Ignition sources are increasing because more people are in the rural western landscape and the vast majority of forest fires are started, intentionally or not, by people. Second, fuels have been increasing, but this is a well-documented consequence of two factors: fire suppression reducing fire as a means to reduce fuels and a reduction in logging. I am not familiar with the details of the Brian Head fire, but fire often runs out of control in remote areas. Remote areas are often remote because they are steep. It has been a long time since timber harvest on steep slopes have been economically viable. Even with a vibrant forest industry, we would have been helicopter-logging on steep slopes. The $9/ton market price for pulpwood just doesn’t pay for the gas in the helicopter to haul the trees out. The only way to solve this problem is manage with more fire on the landscape, not less.
Process error. The second kind of error that Rep. Noel makes is in attribution. Climate scientists are beleaguered by the question, “did climate change cause some event”? In the same way that we can say that smoking causes cancer, but cannot say that smoking caused this particular cancer in this particular person, we cannot fully attribute any particular weather event to climate change. We can only say whether or not some event is consistent with patterns we expect to find under changing climates. The same logic can, and absolutely must, be applied to forest fires. We may be able to attribute a general increase in fire frequency, size and intensity to a general increase in density. Making that claim on an individual fire begs the counterfactual of what would have occurred if some misinformed person who was fighting weeds with a blowtorch (yup, apparently how the Brian Head fires was ignited) started a wildfire and then that fire hit the weather that occurred in southwest Utah last week. High intensity fire is a natural part of the landscape and occurred prior to European settlement, during the peak logging periods and since. One can say that we have an increase in this kind of behavior because of current conditions, but it is nearly impossible to claim that a particular event would or would not have happened as a consequence of fuels. Bad logic.
Ethical error. People who take advantage of a crisis for political gain should be voted out of office on principle. How dare Rep. Noel take a natural tragedy where people put their lives on the line fighting fire to keep people safe and make it a political ‘opportunity.’ This is politics at its absolute worst.
Lawyers and politicians are nuisance species because their jobs encourage them to pick through facts, at the expense of the body of evidence, to find information that supports their goals. Winning an argument becomes everything. Seeking the truth is just not part of the job description. Our country needs to fully embrace the position that ‘winning’a political argument may be politics, but is an unethical way to govern. Governance needs to use all the facts to find and deploy rationale decisions that optimize outcomes for constituents. We trust people in office to work on behalf of what is best for all of the people they represent, collectively. Governance by politics is what ails us. We need to call out folks who mistake politics for governance. Shame on you Rep. Noel.
By the way, Mike Noel is on record stating that he thinks that climate change is a hoax. Dream on, buddy.
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