Nearly two years ago, President Donald Trump stood amid the smoky ruins of Paradise, California, where he blamed the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history on poor forest management.
“You’ve got to take care of the floors, you know? The floors of the forest, very important,” the president said.
He ordered the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior to make federal lands less susceptible to catastrophic wildfires with measures such as removing dead trees, underbrush and other potentially flammable materials.
But while Trump has accused California and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of doing a “terrible job” of forest protection, his own agencies fell short of his goals for federal lands in 2019.
They treated a combined 6,736 square miles (17,446 square kilometers) — just over half of the 13,203 square miles (34,196 square kilometers) the president sought, according to government data. It was only slightly better than their average annual performance over nearly two decades.
Without directly addressing the figures, the Forest Service said in a statement Friday to the Associated Press that prospects are “very good” for stepping up forest treatments in the next several years, assuming Congress provides more funding and state and private landowners play bigger roles. The agency has formed stewardship agreements with 19 states and “will rely on partnerships with state governments to get this work done,” it said.
The numbers show it will take more than executive orders to make significant progress on a problem that has been building for a century, scientists and advocates say. More money and personnel are needed, along with policy changes.
“The fires are getting bigger, the fire seasons are longer and costs are significantly increasing,” said Dylan Kruse, director of government affairs for Sustainable Northwest, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that seeks collaboration between forest industries and conservationists. “We need billions of dollars and we’re not even close.”
Trump and Congress have provided only modest spending increases for forest treatments in recent years, he said. The president sought a nearly $50 million cut in 2018, which lawmakers rejected. His 2021 budget recommends $510 million, up from $445 million allocated this year.
Trump has drawn ridicule from political foes and some scientists for arguing that western forest floors should be “raked” and ignoring the role of climate change-induced warming and drought in the West’s worsening wildfire crisis.
But protection measures like those sought in his 2018 executive order have drawn support from administrations of both parties for two decades.
A national fire plan developed under President Bill Clinton and continued under President George W. Bush called for hazardous fuel reduction and suppressing invasive beetles, along with restoration of burned-over lands to prevent erosion. The Obama administration released a fire management strategy that embraced fuel removal and controlled burns.
The amount of land receiving such treatments from the Forest Service and Department of Interior has edged upward, peaking at 10,469 square miles (27,115 square kilometers) in 2009 before declining to almost half that for several years. It jumped to 8,505 square miles (22,027 square kilometers) in 2016 — President Barack Obama’s last year in office.
Under Trump, the treated area has gone from 6,367 square miles (16,490 square kilometers) in 2017 to nearly 7,336 square miles (19,000 square kilometers) in 2018. Last year it was up to 6,736 square miles (17,446 square kilometers).
Still, the Forest Service says 125,000 square miles (323,748 square kilometers) it manages need work such as tree thinning and regulated burns to reduce fuel loads. The agency estimates many times more that much government and private land is vulnerable to severe wildfire.
The Department of Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, did not respond to written questions from AP.
“These agencies are still lagging far behind on these projects,” said Susan Jane Brown, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center.
Federal officials acknowledge their longstanding policy of putting out fires as quickly as possible, instead of letting some take their natural course, made forests overgrown and less able to cope with drought and disease.
A Forest Service study this month found that about one-third of trees in areas where excessive vegetation had not been removed died between 2014 and 2018. In thinned out places, the tree mortality rate was 11%.
Some treated areas had been subjected to “prescribed” burns — fires intentionally set and carefully monitored.
In its statement, the agency said it now uses prescribed fire on about 2,187 square miles (5,664 square kilometers) of national forest land each year and plans to do more. But it said the practice “has its challenges,” including smoke pollution in nearby communities and a minor risk of losing control.
Those burns — along with other fuel reduction measures — also are costly, requiring gear, materials and skilled personnel. Yet the Forest Service has fewer staffers to devote to them, while hiring thousands more people to extinguish fires that have grown bigger and more numerous.
The service lost 7,000 non-firefighter positions between 1998 and 2015. The share of its budget devoted to firefighting has shot up from 16% in the mid-1990s to more than 50% today and is expected to keep rising as the agency buys more helicopters, fire engines and other equipment.
Shifting resources from forest treatment to firefighting doesn’t bode well for long-term prevention, said John Bailey, an Oregon State University forestry professor who worked with federal officials on a fire management strategy released in 2014. It emphasized fuel reduction efforts, from clearing forest debris to rangeland grazing.
“We’re on a trajectory where fire seasons are going to get longer and drier and resources stretched thinner,” he said. “We’re just not making the progress we need to.”