Are environmentalists to blame for the extent of California fires?

  • Sorry if this needs to be moved, mods. For some reason, I thought this was more appropriate for the pit, looking around at all the other political things in here and the reactions they garner.


My local radio show guy (Joe Soucheray, “Garage Logic”) spent all day yesterday bashing the living hell out of the environmentalists in California.

Now Joe is a good guy in my book as he isn’t like any other radio guy (Read: you can actually listen to him and laugh, whereas Rush gives me a migraine five minutes into it). But Joe tends to go off on the whole tree-hugger, environmentalist, and pacifistic issue more than most would probably like. He’s brutal towards their cause.

But on the whole, I tend to agree with his sentiments—environmentalists are a pain in the ass, and their ‘cause’ is often not fully explained (Read: they have ulterior motives).

But yesterday really surprised me in how many people he had supporting his premise. The premise being, ‘the tough environmental standards that have been put in place, like bans against clearing forest brush, downed trees, etc., along with bans against motorized vehicles in environmentally protected areas, among a host of other ‘California thinking feel-good legislation’, has come back to bite them in the ass. All the environmental legislation and their rules have made it neigh impossible to put this stuff out, or even minimize the impact towards people in deference to the forest. One burned house is better than one burned tree, if not a presupposed mantra and guiding force of the environmentalists, is at least a result’.

Heavily, heavily paraphrased but accurate in its overall scope— environmentalists, in their zeal to outlaw anything man-made, have exacerbated the problem they have now.

What got me the most was the reaction from some California listeners (His show is streamed as well). Every one of them was in agreement that things have gotten out of control in terms of stringent environmental laws and once the immediate problem was taken care of, they’d move next towards the laws and lawmakers and get some of the more bizarre laws changed around and back to something reasonable.

Listening to them, it was hard to disagree with some of the more inane laws – laws against clearing brush. Brush that is now everywhere and burning. Laws against clearing dead trees. The trees are burning too. Laws against access roads and fire lines. And laws against using motorized vehicles in forest land to put out fires, which means all those fires need to put out by hand, without the help of fire trucks and the like (That one really killed me).

What are the Californians thinking right now? Have the environmentalists, ironically enough, played an unwitting role in the extent of these fires? Is environmentalism itself out of the loop and out of control, becoming almost a ‘Save a tree at the expense of an evil house’ kind of group? Are the Californians pissed at their tree friendly laws, or happy?

Or, am I turning into more of a conservative than I ever thought?

This IS fire season in Southern California. Fires happen every year. There are nasty to deal with because of very dry summers, exteme October heat (October isn’t fall in SoCal, it’s still really hot every year) and the dry Santa Ana winds that carry embers a long way. We expect wildfires in this part of the year.

Of course, THESE fires are particularly nasty, mostly because they were arson.

How on earth could enviromentalists be to blame?? Unless a couple of them are also arsonists…

His argument isn’t that they started the fires, spooje, but that they unwittingly helped exacerbate the problem by making it impossible to clear and/or put out the fires.

By creating laws that made it impossible, if not illegal, to remove fuel from the source, combined with restrictions in how the fires can be contained, the fires have grown more costly and larger than had the restrictions not been in place. In the zeal to be mother earth, and let things be, we’ve sacrificed ourselves in favor of the forest, and created an even bigger problem for ourselves to overcome.

Environmentalists didn’t pass the laws. Politicians did. Who elected the politicians? Regular, everyday folk.

Many environmentalists have been complaining about the same restrictions on brush clearing for many years. Their claim is that the Federal Forest people’s preoccupation with stopping all fires in all forests, no matter how small for the last thirty years has made the situation a lot worse.

It’s a classic case of laws having unintended consequences.

But who pushed for those laws Tapioca?

Is there a cite to back up the statement that environmentalists are responsible for a ban on motorized vehicle use in firefighting in CA?

*There is general agreement on the historical origins of the forest health problem in the inland West. Unlike the humid Pacific coast, this is an area of relatively dry climate with frequent drought years, and fires are a normal part of its ecological cycles…

In the twentieth century, the combination of several decades of fire suppression and timber industry preferences for ponderosa pine, western white pine (Pinus monticola), and larches (Larix occidentalis, Larix lyallii) led to a buildup of fire-susceptible but shade-tolerant species in the understories of the open pine forests (Committee on Agriculture, 1992; Sampson 1994)…

Up to this point, there is a general consensus among the timber industry, the Forest Service, and environmentalists. Most agree that fuels have built up to levels beyond the “historic range of variability,” that the composition and structure of forests today is quite different from those pre-1850, and that past Forest Service and industry policies are to blame for this situation.

Excerpts from here:

From 1916 to 1968, national policy was strictly to suppress all fires, a policy that came about because national parks and forest lands were considered to be scenic playgrounds that needed to be preserved unchanging ( and also during WW II there was concern that fires could affect timber stocks, hence the “birth” of Smokey the Bear in that period ). Also as noted past logging practices bear much of the blame. Things have only gradually evolved since then. So it wasn’t necessarily environmentalists that got us to this point and most ( I’d be inclined to say virtually all ) environmentalists are today at least somewhat concerned about high fuel-loading and associated fire hazards.

Where they differ with the logging industry is in how to handle the problem. That’s a valid debate. But I’d hardly tar and feather environmentalists as being both solely ( or even primarily ) responsible for the current mess, nor comnpletely uninterested in dealing with it.

  • Tamerlane

Excuse me, but what laws are you talking about? California has laws requiring brush-clearing (firebreaks) in fire-risk areas, they have laws against clearing brush by burning it (eminently sensible), and they may have laws protecting endangered plant species, but I’ve never heard of ANY laws against clearing brush.

I don’t believe any such laws exist, or if they do, I don’t believe they have the effect that this radio idiot claims.


You can clear the brush from twenty feet around your house (which is what I think is required for a family friend who lives in Topanga) but when the fires get going, is twenty feet of clear space really going to stop them?

Ecologists and the Forest Service have finally figured out that fires are a part of the ecology in a lot of places. Unfortunately, now we have to deal with the results of all those years of (I’d like to think) well-intentioned fire suppression.

And when you have an ecology like SoCal, where some of the plants require fire to release their seeds and reproduce, things are gonna burn. Arson is a horrible thing, and this year’s fires are really bad, but fires are a normal thing out there.

No, you are required to clear the brush and other dead stuff from a minimum of 30 feet around your house. And the idea isn’t to stop the fire, but to give firefighters a “safe zone” of sorts where they don’t have to worry about brush.

Along the same lines, and I hope not a hijack, but while these forests are burning (like we had here in B.C.) are all the environmentalists out there trying to save the trees in a practical way?

I don’t know anything about California forest regulations, but here in Arizona we’ve had our nasty fires this season as well. The main causes are climate, past fire supression (which allows buildup of ground materials), and lack of fire fighting resources. The fact that people keep building homes in an increasing area also contributes to the danger of these fires.

Of all these things, the only one you could even realistically try to pin on “environmentalists” (not sure whether you mean scientists or political activists) is the fire supression policy. I don’t think that’s valid, because those decisions were made by policy makers who were motivated by a number of concerns, and “environmental” benefits were only one (if they were considered at all). As for the scientists who contributed to that decision, well, ya know, we understand a lot more about forest dynamics, fire history, and climatology than we did 100 years ago, so it’s not surprising that some past policies turn out to be a bad idea in the light of history. It’s not like anyone’s been out there lobbying FOR fire suppression, it’s just that it’s one of those policies that not enough people have been actively fighting. It takes events outside of scientific discussion to create political change.

As for whacko environmentalists (that is, people who are vaguely for or against a lot of stuff without real scientific reasons why), I doubt very many of those folks even were (and are) against honest fire-management brush clearing. Most likely they are suspicious about proposed schemes because they fear it will open the way for logging protected areas.

Speaking of which, this is a big problem with the “blame the environMENTALISTS” approach". The only solution that most of those in charge seem to want to offer is to open up forests to logging, which will not solve the problem at all. It is very underhanded and ugly, and as an ecologist it bugs the hell out of me.

What everyone else has said. Not to mention that it’s NOT the brush that’s the biggest problem right now, but the dead TREES that have been killed by the bark beetles.

Take a look at a couple of pictures my husband and I took on our honeymoon in Big Bear last September and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Actually, having just logged some property, I disagree.

Thinning, when properly done, leaves a fairly small footprint. Yes, they cut down the large trees. In my case, poplar, would fall down and be replaced by the smaller poplar anyway. Better to haul the future fuel off the property for money than in chunks or as ashes. Now there is more space between trees and less undergrowth. The logging created several fire breaks and fire (logging) roads onto my property. Otherwise, there would be no way to get onto it with a vehicle, not even a Hummer. An M1A2 should suffice for knocking down the trees spaced feet apart.

But, yeah, other than big money, firebreaks, less fuel, and access to firefighters there aren’t that many other advantages to logging.

Bottom line though: fires are caused by arsonists and/or bad conditions. CA has lots of both, before you even get to the environmentalists.

Why? Trees burn, it’s a good thing. No one should be trying to save the trees from fire, it’s a natural part of the lifecycle. Most of the effort is to save people and structures, but no one is going to stop the trees from burning.

Beagle, there is of course a place for logging in this world. But it is a very simplistic claim that removal of large trees wil reduce fire hazard, and one that is often wrong. There are a number of factors involved.

For one thing, I’ll allow as how it might reduce the amount of underbrush in some cases, but in others it doesn’t. Also, the timescale for logging disturbance to really affect ecological processes is long on a political timescale. For example, it’s very likely that the land you own has a history of logging, and this has definitely affected the age/size structure of the population (more logging leads generally to more uniform polulations, which can definitely have an effect on the likelihood of crown fires).

Many of the areas I’ve worked in have the kind of doghaired trees that are the most dangerous in terms of fire hazard, and also the least profitable for logging – you can’t even make paper out of them easily, as they’re too barky. It costs a lot of money to mechanically thin those areas, and it doesn’t produce any money profits to speak of. Opening up those kinds of places to logging would, at best, do nothing to reduce fire hazard, and at worst, actively increase that hazard. Like most ecological issues, it is delicate, and people don’t want to hear that. They want to be assured that there is a simple solution that can be applied by an act of regulation or de-regulation. People on both sides are guilty of this.

You notice, I’m not trying to make the claim that logging == bad. I’m trying to point out that simplistic rhetoric that leads people to thing there is some kind of one variable cause/effect scenario is bad, and that there are a lot of people (again, on both sides, and with legitimate reasons) that don’t exactly trust each other to have sufficient concern about everyon’s interest. That’s why you get suspicious, reactionary enviros who are hypercautious about (f’rinstance) logging, and why you get those who blame the enviros as well.

Because it’s easier to blame the environmentalists (who don’t have a lot of power) than to blame the politicians and the corporate lobbyists (who do). I’m sure the folks who are eager to blame the enviromentalists for the wildfires would call you a kook for suggesting that global warming, increasing drought conditions, and budget cutbacks for firefighters may have had a factor as well…

Thirty feet. Oops. Okay, thanks, I was operating on second-hand information there. It’s not going to keep anybody’s house from burning, though, right?

Yup, fire is inevitable, unless we pave the whole damn Southwest (which would raise even more dire problems). Actually, as this article points out, a pollana attitude lead to building in the wrong areas of the wrong materials. So you can just as readily say the problem is not enough environmentalism.

(Nitpick corner: yer post should read …“an ecosystem like SoCal…”: your usage is analogous to saying “overfishing has emptied the oceanography.” Sorry, I’m a plant ecologist)

Yup, fire is inevitable, unless we pave the whole damn Southwest (which would raise even more dire problems). Actually, as this article points out, a pollana attitude lead to lots of highly flammable suburban-style development in fire-prone areas. So you can just as readily say the problem is not enough environmentalism.

(Nitpick corner: yer post should read …“an ecosystem like SoCal…”: your usage is analogous to saying “overfishing has emptied the oceanography.” Sorry, I’m a plant ecologist)