The Reading Fire and the Death of Common Sense

The Reading Fire and the Death of Common Sense

Remarks by Congressman Tom McClintock
Public Meeting on the Reading Fire
Sacramento, California
October 24, 2012

Thank you, Congressman Herger, for convening this public meeting and for your service to our community, our state and our country. Although we can be confident that your able successor will carry on your work, we are all going to miss you.

An old forester in my district summed up the problem we are here to assess when he said, “The excess timber is going to come out of the forest one way or another.  Either it will be carried out or it will be burned out.  But it will come out.”

A generation ago, we carried it out and the result was a thriving economy and a healthy forest. 

But in the last twenty years, a radical and retrograde ideology has replaced sound forest management practices with what I can only describe as a policy of benign neglect. 

The tragic Reading Fire is a result of that policy: instead of preventing fires, instead of fighting fires – the new philosophy is to welcome fires as nature’s way of clearing things out.

The ideology comes down to this: that fire is just nature’s way of clearing out overgrowth, and that mankind should not interfere with this process.  We need to return to pre-human conditions in our forests, where trees are left to grow until the forest is choked off and ultimately destroyed by fire or disease or both.  Even after the forest is destroyed by fire, we shouldn’t even salvage fire-killed trees. 

This, they reason, restores nature’s cycle of destruction and renewal.

That’s what happened with the Reading Fire. 
For decades, this same ideology has dramatically reduced the timber harvests that once kept the forests healthy by removing excess growth and that paid for brush clearance. 

They rightly decry clear-cutting, but welcome the moonscape of destruction caused by fire.  They rightly fine negligent parties that start fires, but cheer the cleansing process of lightning strikes.

This is not environmentalism.  True environmentalists recognize the damage done by overgrowth and overpopulation and recognize the role of sound, sustainable forest management practices in maintaining healthy forests. 

There is nothing more environmentally devastating to a forest than a forest fire.  Nothing makes a greater mockery of our air pollution laws than a forest fire.  Nothing in a forest poses a greater threat to human and wild life than a forest fire.

Any squirrel fleeing a fire knows this. Which leads me to the unflattering but inescapable conclusion that today our forest management policy is in the hands of people who lack the simple common sense that God gave a squirrel.

What they have produced is economically devastated communities, closed timber mills, unemployed families, overgrown forests, overdrawn watersheds, rampant disease and pestilence and increasingly intense and frequent forest fires.

Proper forest management – including timber harvesting – can prevent or minimize this devastation to our national forests, can protect our forest communities, and can provide the resources for prosperous local economies.

No picture I’ve seen paints a more vivid case for returning to these sound and proven forest management practices than an aerial photo of the Fraser Experimental Forest in Colorado a few years ago that is often called the “Red Hand of Death.”  The areas of that forest consigned to benign neglect form a dead-zone that looks like a “Red Hand.” Overgrown and unmanaged, bark beetles found it easy pickings.  That’s what the so-called environmental movement has done to our forests.

A green, thriving, healthy forest surrounds the dead-zone, in which sound forest practices harvested excess timber and the remaining trees had room to grow strong enough to resist the infestation around it.
They say there isn’t enough money for forest thinning, and yet we used to have no problems keeping our forests thinned and healthy when we sold commercially viable timber to finance it.  The problem is that if they take place at all, timber harvests are now restricted to small diameter trees.  Can you imagine a fishery or wildlife policy limited to taking only the small, juveniles of the species?

Today, thousands of acres of timber lie in ashes across the Sierra Nevada from fires this year.  If we had just harvested a small fraction of those trees, it is likely that we could have spared these forests from the conflagrations that fed on excessive fuels.

It is also likely that we could have snuffed out those fires almost immediately after they started.  A generation ago, small harvesting crews operated throughout the mountains and moved along well-maintained timber roads.  When a fire first broke out, it took no time for a crew with a bulldozer to get to that fire and stop it before it got out of control.  Those crews are gone, the roads are in disrepair, so fires that a generation ago consumed just a few acres now consume hundreds of thousands of acres – even IF we had federal officials dedicated to protecting our forests – which sadly, we don’t, as the Reading fire attests. 

It is time that we identified those officials and got them out of positions of authority before they are able to do even more damage to our forests and our communities.  I hope that today’s meeting sets that process in motion, and as a member of the Sub-Committee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, I intend to insist on it.


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