Guess Who’s to Blame for the Rise in Catastrophic Wildfires?

California Congressman Tom McClintock gives the answer in an illuminating op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal.  Turns out our forests have become dangerously overcrowded ever since Congress passed costly environmental regulations in the 1970s.

As a result 80% less timber is harvested from federal lands and fire now destroys a proportionally increased amount of acres.  For a good chunk of the 20th century foresters paid for the ability to harvest excess timer, the forests thrived, and revenues supported forest management.

Now land management is an expensive government cost and our beautiful forests have become a deadly firetrap.

A half-century of environmental regulation hasn’t helped the forests thrive. A typical acre in the Sierra can support roughly 80 mature trees, but the current density is more than 300 trees. A single fully grown tree can draw 100 gallons of water from the soil on a hot day. Drought kills overcrowded forests quickly.

Blaming climate change doesn’t account for the dramatic difference that can be seen from the air between federal lands and private forests that practice smart forest management.

On federal land management the smart path forward (and the mess made by misguided environmental regulation) are pretty clear.

Decaying or burning forests make a mockery of laws aimed at reducing carbon emissions. Wildfires in the U.S. pump an estimated 290 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year. Healthy, growing forests absorb it. Milling surplus trees sequesters their carbon indefinitely and renews the forest’s ability to store still more.

Today’s environmental laws have restored the old normal, making drought, disease, pestilence and fire a constant scourge of our forests. A healthy forest that is maintained and preserved for the enjoyment of future generations is an abnormal condition produced by modern forest management. Ironically, in the name of improving the environment, we have surrendered our forests to a policy of neglect, which, as it turns out, isn’t benign.

Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.