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'Self-serving garbage': Wildfire experts escalate fight over saving California forests

December 1, 2021
Eric Knapp, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist (Ryan Sabalow/The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As the Caldor fire roared into the Lake Tahoe basin more than a month ago, Brian Newman took some comfort in the surroundings.

An operations section chief with Cal Fire, Newman knew that thousands of acres of trees and brush had been deliberately removed from around the basin in recent years.

He and other firefighters said the work helped level the playing field, turning imminent disaster into one of the most dramatic success stories of the 2021 wildfire season. On the night of Aug. 30, as the fire exploded in Meyers and Christmas Valley, firefighters saved hundreds of homes and businesses. No buildings were lost.

"Obviously, the fuel reduction and the thinning played a part — a large part," said Newman, who patrolled that night in a Cal Fire pickup.

But Chad Hanson, an influential environmentalist with a Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis, looked at the Caldor fire and drew a different conclusion: Forest thinning didn't work. In fact, it probably made things worse, by removing shade and exposing more of the woods to the ravages of climate change. A thinner forest meant less of a natural "windbreak" that could have slowed the fire's progress.

"This is not stopping fires, because they're mostly driven by weather and climate," Hanson said. "You can't fight the wind with a chainsaw."

Hanson, who runs an organization called the John Muir Project, is a published author who's often featured in news stories on fire and forestry issues. He's also spent decades pursuing lawsuits against the U.S. Forest Service over plans to cut down trees to reduce fire dangers. His efforts have sometimes prompted delays in thinning projects and even forced the government to leave more of the woods untouched.

"We go to court to stand up for science," Hanson said.

But over the past few years, as California has endured record-breaking wildfires, a legion of fire scientists is delivering a blunt message to Hanson and other environmentalists who oppose forest thinning: Get out of the way.

In an extraordinary series of articles published in scientific journals, fire scientists are attacking Hanson's and his allies' claims that the woods need to be left alone. These scientists say the activists are misleading the public and bogging down vital work needed to protect wildlife, communities and make California's forests more resilient to wildfire.

"I and my colleagues are getting really tired of the type of activism that pretends to be science and in fact is just self-serving garbage," said Crystal Kolden, a professor of wildfire science at UC Merced and co-author of a journal article that rebutted Hanson's arguments.

"If a lot of these environmental groups continue to stand by these antiquated and really counterproductive viewpoints, all we're going to see is more catastrophic wildfire that destroys the very forests that they pretend to love."

Battles over the management of America's forests have been raging for more than a century, starting when President Teddy Roosevelt set aside millions of acres of public land in 1905 to be managed by a new agency, the Forest Service.

For decades, environmentalists fought the agency for allowing timber companies to pillage huge stretches of the national forests for profit. Hanson says thinning projects, performed in the name of fire safety, are simply an excuse for more of the same commercial logging.

But climate change is making the forests hotter and drier — at the same time they're getting increasingly populated with humans. That has sharpened the debate over how best to manage California's woods. And with another 2.4 million acres burning in California this year, on top of 4 million in 2020, many other environmental organizations have embraced thinning as a means of saving America's forests.

In July, a coalition of 15 groups, from Defenders of Wildlife to The Nature Conservancy, urged new Forest Service chief Randy Moore "to markedly increase ecologically-based forest treatments."

Momentum is building among elected officials. Congress is debating whether to hand the Forest Service billions of dollars for aggressive forest management, as part of President Joe Biden's stalled infrastructure plan. The California Legislature recently appropriated nearly $1 billion toward thinning and pre-planned "prescribed fire" to clear undergrowth.

"When you just see what's happening out the window right now, with the number of fires we're experiencing ... there's a real political movement to (act) on some of this decisively," said Scott Stephens, a UC Berkeley wildfire scientist and one of Hanson's critics.

Spotted owl habitat burned by red tape

Few forest thinning battles illustrate the problem better than a 9,310-acre forest-thinning project planned for the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border.

Environmental groups spent a decade objecting to the proposal, labeling a portion of the project as a thinly disguised "timber grab" that would destroy spotted owl habitat.

Amid objections from the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and others starting in 2011, the Forest Service produced more than 570 pages of environmental reviews, botanical reports and other planning documents for the so-called Pumice Project.

While tied up in environmental red tape and other bureaucratic delays, the Antelope fire in early August burned through the site before a single chainsaw touched a tree, destroying the owl habitat that the environmental groups were trying to save.

"We're putting our limited time and resources into kind of bulletproofing these documents," said Drew Stroberg, a district ranger in the Klamath forest. "On the Pumice Project, we've worked hard on a lot of those documents and gone around and around and around. And, now, they might as well be in the trash can."

Hanson and other environmentalists continue to fight other forest thinning projects around the state.

In June, Hanson submitted a written declaration in a lawsuit protesting the Forest Service's plan to remove "hazard trees" — conifers damaged by drought, bark-beetle infestations and a 2002 fire — along miles of Sherman Pass Road in the Sequoia National Forest, one of the main thoroughfares through the region.

The agency said the dead, dry trees could ignite a major wildfire. They could fall on power lines, the ignition source for many of California's most deadly fires in recent years. Arguing that there was "an urgent need for this project," the agency had bypassed the usual in-depth environmental reviews and swiftly approved the project.

But Hanson, citing some of his own published studies, argued that the project would ruin extensive habitat that was teeming with "Pacific fishers, spotted owls, black-backed woodpeckers and other species." He added: "I enjoy being in forests in a natural state, and a logged environment ruins that enjoyment."

In July, a federal judge in Fresno granted a temporary restraining order that has prevented the Forest Service from cutting down some of the trees. Judge Dale Drozd limited the agency to removing trees "within striking distance" of the road until environmental studies can be conducted.

Those studies could take years — a period in which Forest Service officials say the forest will grow hotter, drier and more dangerous as climate change intensifies.

"Leaving excessive fuel load along Sherman Pass Road would cause the next wildfire to burn more intensely — making it more difficult for firefighters to suppress," the government's lawyers said in a written court filing.

'Agenda-driven science' and misleading conclusions

In the polite, jargon-filled world of scientific literature, it was an astonishing attack.

Two years ago, in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a group of academics wrote an article titled "Agenda-driven science? The case of spotted owls and fire."

The piece accused Hanson and two of his collaborators of abandoning scientific norms as Hanson's group argued against the need to thin the forests to reduce wildfire risks. Hanson's group also opposes the harvest of timber killed by wildfires.

In this case, the authors said Hanson; Derek Lee, a professor at Penn State University; and Monica Bond, a biologist with the Wild Nature Institute; used "agenda-driven science" to create misleading conclusions about the harms that wildfires do to spotted owl habitats.

Among other things, the authors said Hanson and his colleagues excluded data that didn't support their beliefs — and pushed a scientifically unsupported narrative that could lead to more harm to the owls if fires are allowed to rage unchecked through their territory.

"Ignoring negative effects of severe wildfire could compromise the ability to conserve this species and restore forest ecosystems that are experiencing increasingly large and severe fires as the climate becomes warmer and drier," the nine authors wrote.

This summer, a different group of academics went after Hanson. In three recent articles in the journal Ecological Applications, Kolden, Stephens and other co-authors made the case for more forest thinning, and in the process ripped Hanson and his allies' methods and results.

Hanson's group has "garnered substantial attention and fostered confusion about the best available science," they wrote.

All told, Keala Hagmann, a research ecologist at the University of Washington and a co-author of one of this summer's articles, said at least 111 scientists have co-authored at least 41 scientific papers that call for more active management to restore the nation's forests. Some directly rebut Hanson's and his colleagues' arguments that thinning isn't necessary or doesn't work.

Susan Prichard, a University of Washington fire ecologist and lead author of one of the recent articles that rebut Hansen's positions, compares Hanson and his allies to early climate change deniers.

The deniers, she said, received outsized media attention, and made it seem as if there was a scientific debate when in reality an overwhelming majority of scientists insisted climate change was a pressing threat.

"It's jaw-dropping," Prichard said. "Because for those of us that are in the field, we have this sense of everyone's in pretty close agreement, and that the science is settled."

Hanson said he isn't surprised by the attacks. He denies the allegations about using data improperly. He says his critics are beholden to the Forest Service, which funds some of their research, and they're upset that his work brings to light information that exposes the agency's shortcomings.

"We're producing objective, highly credible, really inconvenient data with regard to the Forest Service's logging program," he said.

Forest Service 'legacy of distrust'

California is home to 33 million acres of forestland. Each year, between state, federal and local agencies, about 500,000 acres of forest is treated with some combination of logging, chipping small trees and brush and deliberate burning.

Fire scientists are careful to note that they're not advocating for returning to the destructive forestry practices of decades past, when the Forest Service effectively handed the woods over to the logging companies to cut down the largest, most profitable trees without thought to the ecological consequences.

And they say the thinning projects they want to see done on a much larger scale aren't appropriate for every habitat. For instance, they say there's not much you can do to prevent fires from raging through much of fire-prone Southern California, where powerful winds push flames through brush and chaparral.

Nor will so-called forest "fuels treatments" keep fires from burning.

"The goal of these treatments is not to stop wildfires in their tracks. It's to change the behavior where we can," said Dan Porter, the California forest program director at The Nature Conservancy, which has worked with the Forest Service on thinning the projects in the Sierra.

But fire scientists say that in much of the Sierra and in the other forests elsewhere in dry inland Northern California, the woods are in terrible shape, due in large part to a century of aggressive logging and fire suppression.

Before the Gold Rush, California's forests were dominated by trees large and sturdy enough to survive wildfires that burned through the woods every decade or so — started by lightning or the region's Native American tribes.

The fires burned with far less intensity than today's infernos. They cleared the undergrowth, and the downed limbs and pine needles.

All that changed when white settlers arrived. First off, they extinguished native peoples' practice of setting fires. And then, in the early 1900s, the newly-formed Forest Service implemented a hardline policy bent on putting out all wildfires as quickly as possible to protect the timber that loggers were sending to the mills. The agency reigns over 20 million acres of national forests in California, about one-fifth of the state's total landmass.

Across California, much of the sturdy old-growth was cut down, and what grew back in its place were dense stands of small trees and brush. The stage was set for an era of catastrophic fires like the sorts California is experiencing every summer.

The sorts of clear-cut logging that ravaged California's forests under the Forest Service's authority last century has given environmentalists plenty of reasons to question the agency's motivations.

"There's a legacy of distrust," said Prichard, the University of Washington fire ecologist.

Prichard said Hanson and other environmentalists are exploiting that history — and fears of a new era of clear-cutting — to sell their misleading arguments.

"They're kind of taking a page out of the fake news playbook," she said. "I really feel like they're preying on people's hunches."

When today's fires strike, they hit dense stands that have been dried out by drought and a warming climate, sending flames ripping through the undergrowth to turn even the tallest, healthiest of trees into torches.

To restore the forests, fire scientists say California needs to begin aggressively sending crews into the woods to clear out the smallest trees and brush below what big timber is left. And then the state needs to embrace what the Indians did: Set fires every few years or let the fires that ignite naturally do the work of thinning the brush and small trees that grow back.

Some say the Forest Service has been slow to adopt this model. During a recent visit to the Mendocino National Forest with Gov. Gavin Newsom, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized for the Forest Service's practice of "robbing Peter to pay Paul" — taking money from forest management projects to pay for firefighting. He said the agency will do better if it gets more funding from Congress.

The Karuk Tribe, in the Klamath region near the Oregon border, is among the Native American groups with a long list of complaints about fire and forestry management. In a letter to the agency last fall, they said the Forest Service was dragging its feet on conducting "prescribed fire" — pre-planned burns aimed at clearing out brush and undergrowth. And they said the agency was denying tribal members the right to become "burn bosses" — the people who oversee these pre-planned fires.

A year later, tribal leaders see some progress. Bill Tripp, the Karuk Tribe's natural resources director, said Forest Service officials have agreed to use Karuk members as burn bosses, and pledged to permit more prescribed burns.

Kolden, the UC Merced fire scientist, has this to say about the environmentalists who argue for a hands-off approach to the forests:

"This suggestion that we shouldn't manage anything because the forest takes care of itself is a completely racist and very, you know, colonial viewpoint that ignores the thousands of years of extensive and intensive indigenous landscape management across California and the West."

Forest management tied up in court

Hanson co-founded the John Muir Project in 1996. The organization is based in Big Bear City, east of San Bernardino, and operates under the umbrella of the Earth Island Institute, a Berkeley nonprofit that took in $16 million in donations and other revenue in 2019.

The 54-year-old Hanson holds a law degree but isn't a lawyer, sometimes leaving the legal work to his wife, Rachel Fazio, the staff attorney at John Muir. He's become a prominent advocate on the environmental left, authoring numerous scientific journal articles of his own.

Hanson says he has plenty of allies in the scientific community. He cites a letter he and 200 other environmentalists, ecologists, biologists, botanists, climatologists and other scientists sent Congress last year opposing logging as a solution to major fires. The group also included a forest ecologist from the University of Minnesota and fire scientist at the University of Idaho.

"Reduced forest protection and increased logging tend to make wildland fires burn more intensely," they wrote.

His critics dismiss the letter as evidence that Hanson isn't really in the mainstream. Among those who signed it, it's lacking "key people in this area of fire and forest science," Stephens said.

What's more, they said the timber industry-supported proposal to which Hanson's group was objecting had little to do with the sorts of work needed in California's fire-prone forests.

Kolden said "the logging industry has co-opted the word 'thinning' " to describe its desire to "cut down big trees that don't burn much" in the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest. "Fuel treatments for restoring forest health and resilience are completely different," she said.

Hanson's recent writings are an acknowledgment that his crusade against the scientific establishment is a somewhat lonely endeavor. In a chapter written for an environmental book published earlier this year, he and two of his allies said any scientist who challenges the status quo will be attacked by people wanting to "smear or discredit you." A semi-autobiographical book he published this year is titled "Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate."

Hanson argues that thinning removes a lot of thick, old-growth trees that are fairly resilient to fire. What's left is small trees, saplings and seedlings that ignite like kindling.

True fire safety, he says, is largely about making homes and communities more resilient through strict building codes and "defensible space" regulations that require homeowners to clear their properties of vegetation. He said defensible space, not large-scale forest thinning, saved Christmas Valley and Meyers from the Caldor fire.

'An honorable thing to work to protect wildlife habitat'

Federal laws — particularly the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act — give Hanson and those who share his views the ability to delay projects for years.

Some critics say the environmental review process has been weaponized by activist groups to drag out worthwhile projects, even if a judge eventually sides with the government.

Few are more effective than Denise Boggs, a 61-year-old white-haired environmentalist from Rohnert Park who lives part time in Montana because, she says, she can't afford to live year-round in California.

The head of a group called Conservation Congress, Boggs isn't as well known as Hanson but is considered a tenacious advocate against forest thinning.

"To me, it's an honorable thing to work to protect wildlife habitat," she said.

She spends as much time as she can in the forests — "they're all so beautiful and they all have something to offer," she said — and she's diligent about filing detailed written protests with the Forest Service over thinning projects.

When she can't get the agency to cooperate, she sues — a total of 15 cases since she founded Conservation Congress in 2004.

"I hate lawsuits," she said. "I only file them as a last resort."

Indeed, lawsuits against the Forest Service are rare. Of the 126 thinning projects approved in the past three years in California, "the vast majority of our vegetation and fuels projects are at various stages of successful implementation and are not involved with lawsuits," said agency spokeswoman Regina Corbin in an email.

Nonetheless, the agency listed seven lawsuits filed in the past three years over proposed thinning projects, from the Klamath National Forest on the Oregon border to the Los Padres outside of Santa Barbara.

Sometimes the litigation can last years.

In 2013, Conservation Congress sued the Forest Service over the Pettijohn project, which was designed to thin out a 21,000-acre parcel of the 2.2 million acre Shasta-Trinity National Forest about five miles northeast of Weaverville.

Soon after, the agency got the court's permission to put the lawsuit on hold while it could re-examine the project's potential on spotted owl habitat.

Five years went by, while the Forest Service studied the owl population with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Finally, the Forest Service acknowledged that the owl population in the Pettijohn area was larger than originally believed. It agreed to downsize the project, leaving about 1,200 acres of woods untouched.

Boggs continued to litigate over the remainder of the project, but earlier this year a federal judge in Sacramento gave the Forest Service the green light.

Even though she ultimately lost the case, Boggs was pleased that the Forest Service shrank the footprint of the project.

"That is a win," Boggs said. "It looks like you lose even though the work you're doing is forcing them to make better decisions, and sometimes that is the best we can do," she said.

The fact that the lawsuit delayed the project for years? Boggs said the time lag wasn't her fault; it's up to the Forest Service to observe the nation's environmental laws.

"If they had done those things in the first place, I wouldn't have had to file the lawsuit," she said. "Sometimes the only way you can get them to do the right thing, to follow the law and protect the species, is to file a lawsuit."

Boggs said she regularly receives hate mail and death threats. Conservation Congress took in just $74,478 in donations in 2019, according to the nonprofit's IRS filing. Boggs, the organization's lone paid employee, earned $47,000.

"I'm not getting rich off of this," she said. "I've been poor my whole life and I don't expect that to change."

Conservation Congress' finances could be getting even thinner. After the judge dismissed her lawsuit over the Pettijohn project this year, the federal government petitioned to have Conservation Congress reimburse the government for $16,614 in court costs.

The costs reflect the stunning amount of paperwork that had to be retrieved, reviewed and indexed for the lawsuit: 19,193 pages.

Boggs pleaded with the judge to turn down the request. "Granting an award of this size for a small public interest group would have a chilling effect on groups such as the Conservation Congress, and would likely put us out of business," she wrote in a court filing.

A decision is pending on the court costs. In the meantime, Conservation Congress is still fighting over the thinning project itself: Based on new data about disappearing owl habitat, Boggs said she's demanded that the Forest Service re-examine the planned work. Depending on how the agency responds, Conservation Congress could sue the agency again.

Oases of green in a scorched forest

If thinning is so effective, Hanson argues that the Caldor fire, for example, wouldn't have reached Tahoe in the first place. Before pouring into the basin, it roared through areas throughout the Eldorado National Forest that had been thinned over the years.

But fire scientists say Hanson, who makes similar claims about other recent California fires, including the Dixie fire, is again being misleading.

They say that these thinned areas often hadn't been treated again after they were cut — a necessary step to ensure the woods stay in balance. Plus, if the treated areas were surrounded by miles of dense overgrown woods, there's little hope for them when fire is raging on all sides, said Prichard, the University of Washington scientist.

"If we have a lot of fuels on broad landscapes, sometimes these little postage stamp treatments have no chance," she said.

Experts say reducing fire danger usually requires multiple strategies, including making sure the woods are maintained in the years after they've been thinned. Defensible space immediately around properties helped save homes around Tahoe, said Cal Fire's Newman.

And while it's true that the Caldor fire raced through areas of the Eldorado National Forest that had been thinned, Newman said that proves more work must be done.

"It does work, it's just a matter of we're needing to do it on a much grander scale," he said.

The results of a successful fuels treatment project can be striking.

Around the small Siskiyou County community of Tennant, the Klamath National Forest is a wasteland of scorched trees, a place where no green can be seen for miles. But a few small oases look very different after the Antelope fire scorched the dry landscape in early August.

In these tiny parcels of federal land, the pines are still mostly green, though they're surrounded by the skeletons of scorched trees that died as 150-foot flames climbed up from the dense thickets of small trees and brush underneath them.

These green pines that survived the 145,632-acre Antelope fire were no accident.

In those parcels, loggers with chainsaws more than 20 years ago thinned the dense stands of trees that grew back after the pines were almost all cut down in the 1920s and 30s.

The loggers in 1998 left the biggest pines standing, leaving ample space between groups of trees.

Then, after their log trucks pulled out, crews with drip torches set two fires, years apart, to the pine needles, downed limbs and small trees and brush that grew up underneath the timber the loggers didn't cut.

The thinning and burning was part of a years-long research project aimed at seeing how local wildlife responded to thinning projects and prescribed fire like the Karuk and other tribes had practiced on the Klamath before white settlement.

To Eric Knapp, the standing green timber was proof positive that more treatments need to be done across California and the West.

Knapp, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist, is a co-author of several studies highlighting the benefits of more aggressive fire fuels management.

"To me, it just really illustrates that if you change the fuels," Knapp said, "you change the fire behavior."