Will CA Forests Become “The Lorax”?-The Politics of Clearing Forest Underbrush

Governor Newson says that California wildfires are a result of Global Warming, Donald Trump says they result from lack of undergrowth clearing, both are sorta right. California might decide that undergrowth removal for biomass conversion is the lesser of the environmental evils, while trying to avoid the fate of a popular Dr. Seuss book.

Equipment processing dead trees-can it be done benignly, along with controlled burns?

In the old days, there were occasional wildfires, started by lightning and occasional combustion of dry leaves. Wildlife ran for their lives and the older trees withstood the fire, while the dead and decaying growth was volatilized leaving ash, so that the forest ecosystem could be reborn. After some devastating wildfires in the early 20th century, California subscribed first to a “Smokey the Bear” fire prevention campaign, and later to a tree hugger belief that thinning and undergrowth clearing threatened endangered species. Enter global warming, which has caused higher temperatures, drier air, and high westerly Autumn winds, and you have a recipe for “forest fire payback”, in which homes are destroyed and many killed. These “uncontrolled burns” are an environmental double whammy of CO2 emissions and CO2 up-soaking loss. It may be time to allow undergrowth removal for regulated burning in biomass plants, combined with replanting, and some controlled burning for the forest to regenerate itself.

As lifetime California residents, many of us have been taught a series of rather conflicting things over the years. First, we were taught by Smokey that forest fires were very bad (and this campaign largely worked), so that we all breathed a sigh of relief. Then we were taught that logging was bad, since many of the trees were ancient (and would never grow back), plus erosion took place and animal habitats were threatened. Next, there was the era of the controlled burn, in which we learned that some burning was good, because forests needed to “regenerate” and the old trees like Sequoias were immune to the burnings anyway. Subsequently, when loggers wanted to go in and clear to dead growth (presumably with the blessing of State Foresters), environmentalists told us that animals like the spotted owl (who lived in the old growth) would be threatened. This led to the infamous logging truck bumper sticker “try wiping your ass with a spotted owl”. Finally, a biomass industry sprung up (as a result of perceived global warming), as it was theorized that burning dead trees and undergrowth (in a controlled fashion) would release less net carbon (and methane from rotting matter) and would make way for new trees that would soak up carbon.

The recent spate of disastrous fires has forced all of this to come to a head, as we are now faced with an annual “fire disaster” season, causing many to rethink living in the West. I guess the good news is that Mother Nature is doing the job that we failed to do, clearing the decaying undergrowth that we neglected. Surely, this is a massive carbon release at a time we can ill afford it, but then perhaps ultimately there will be a net carbon deficit, as new growth will compensate. It’s as though Nature created its own Biomass conversion project, without our approvals or consideration of the animals, and we didn’t even get any energy out of the process.

Biomass heating power plant in Germany-a necessary part of forest management and CO2/Methane reduction

Going forward, undergrowth clearing for biomass conversion seems the answer (in addition to restricting building permits near forests, rethinking the energy grid, and other matters). However, there is much nuance that we don’t seem to quite understand. For instance, how exactly do the animals react to undergrowth removal, controlled burns, or raging wildfires? Based upon my limited knowledge of evolution and Nature, I suppose that some animals are able to exit, but others…well…probably lose their homes, get burned, and, uh, die. I suppose that in the larger scheme of things (like when a volcano erupts), this is the way of Nature and things adapt. There does seem to be a growing body of evidence that smaller fires are good as the wildlife adapts and new growth emerges, while the raging fires tilt the balance more towards wildlife devastation (for instance, old trees that used to survive old fires are not always surviving current fires).

In the absence of more advanced knowledge, it would seem that we may need to a) hire contractors to thin forests while removing most undergrowth for biomass conversion and b) perhaps do a final controlled burn, to activate the forces that renew growth (some pine cones only release their seeds during wildfires, for instance). The resultant biomass burn may need to be done with CO2 scrubbing, or some sort of highly efficient burn (usually done by drying out the substrate). New trees may need to be planted, and certainly erosion protection implemented, although I have a feeling that Nature may do its own replanting after controlled burns.

We all want to be like the Lorax and protect Truffula Trees from the Once-lers…but how?

In any case, there is no need for a Red State/Blue State battle over this issue, as there would seem to be a kind of consensus forming. Indeed, we need to “rake” out the forests (more likely, use bulldozers, excavators, and 18 wheelers to haul off dead logs, pine needles, and leaves close to the rotting layer, to one of the many biomass facilities). We will need to leave enough stuff behind and torch it, in such a way that we can manage the burn and people don’t get hurt. I’m guessing that squirrels will take refuge in the larger trees (unaffected by the burn), rodents will go further underground, birds will fly elsewhere, bears and deer will run away (and fungi will do whatever fungi does) as these controlled burns may be things that the wildlife can tolerate. Perhaps this is not even the perfect solution, but it beats runaway undergrowth, bark beetle infestation, and devastating wildfires.

Biomass has received a black eye from movies like “Planet of the Humans”, but I believe that this may have put the industry in a purposefully bad light (the movie was trying to say that corporate America has conscripted alternative energy and the only solution is for us to lead extremely low-impact lives). The Biomass industry may be guilty of greedily taking too many “good” trees on the East Coast, but I suppose that in the West and up into Canada, more dead growth needs to be taken, judging from the bark beetle infestations (an indicator of a “sick” forest, since the little trees are taking too much of the big tree’s food, making them weak). Naturally, appropriate controls need to be placed upon the Biomass industry, or it will indeed become a runaway monster like the fracking industry (ie why can’t they frack while controlling methane release and not polluting groundwater with appropriate controls?) Without Biomass controls, the greedy lumber industry may “clean” forests to the point where they are not forests anymore, as in “The Lorax”.



Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health

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Vern Scott

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health