The Environmentalist Response: What Wildfires?

by: Matt Stoller

Wed Oct 24, 2007 at 09:16

UPDATE:  If leaders Carl Pope, Fred Krupp, Frances Beinecke, or Brent Blackwelder have comments on this, I'll happily update my post.

When there's a major environmental disaster, it's interesting to see how the major environmental groups think through their response.  And one small tell is what they put on their websites.  So let's take a tour.

Environmental Defense has something on its front-page about what companies can do to reduce their carbon emissions, while the National Resources Defense Council has a series of beautiful pictures of wildlife on its home page, with a link and picture to the Federal Fire Safety BudgetFriends of the Earth has a top item of 'Carbon tax in the House', while the Sierra Club's top item is on the Energy Bill, with nothing on Carl Pope's blog.

It's Getting Hot in Here has as its top blog post titled 'Megafires in California Force Evacuation of 1 Million'.  Step It Up has a blog post hidden down the page on the fires.

Websites do not tell the whole story.  The Sierra Club after all has a press release out on the Wildfires, and that's good, except that the press release is defending the Sierra Club from right-wing attacks.  And one of two of NRDC's press release yesterday was 'Environmental Victory in New York Harbor Dredging Court Battle'.  Now it's possible these groups don't update their websites with their priorities, but I doubt it.  And given the interesting social media coverage of the fires, that seems like a poor choice, if indeed it is a choice.

When California is burning down due to extreme drought and unusual winds, and there's drought across the Southeast and new and much more pessimistic scenarios on carbon emissions, perhaps this is something environmental groups might want to jump on. 

When an emergency like this happens, it's possible to make a large discontinuous leap in the political system.  It's possible to say 'throw out last years projections, we have to stop emitting carbon now and use the money to build new global warming proof infrastructure.'  Put a sense of the Senate resolution in there that carbon emissions are extremely dangerous, if you don't have a plan ready.  9/11 changed everything because the right was ready.  We weren't ready when Katrina happened.  Thankfully, though, we'll have more extreme weather to contend with so it's not hard to plan for it.

Matt Stoller :: The Environmentalist Response: What Wildfires?

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A few threads: (4.00 / 1)
"When an emergency like this happens, it's possible to make a large discontinuous leap in the political system."

Sounds to me like  you're putting your finger directly onto the juxtaposition of 'The Shock Doctrine' and Paul Rosenberg's recent series of posts.

An opportunity that arises at a moment of cultural attention, and a liberal infrastructure unable or unwilling to develop the political possibilities.

Problematic (0.00 / 0)
I think that confronting these fires as a world world view changing event is somewhat difficult.  Fires in CA or not unusual, its something that Californians or at least Southern Californians have always lived with.  These fires are worse than most because of all the houses destroyed but it would be scientifically irresponsible to blame global warming too quickly.

My guess is that the increased building in recent years has let to building in places that are not as safe from fires or are too close to undergrowth.  That combined with a tendency to prevent small fires from breaking out and lets the chaparral build up an excess of very flammable brush.

Besides this is California and Republicans don't care what happens to Californians.

My job is not to represent Washington to you, but to represent you to Washington- Obama
Philly for Obama

Luam is right (0.00 / 0)
Fire is a natural part of the ecology in southern California.  The manzanita brush is designed to burn periodically.  In fact, the seeds do not germinate unless burned by fire.  Global warming is contributing to longer drought, which has led to the severe bark beetle infestation that has killed a large percentage of trees in the San Bernardino National Forest, making the area extremely vulnerable to massive firestorms when Santa Ana winds hit.  So insofar as global warming is responsible for recent drought, it does make the fire situation worse.  However, a possible bigger problem, according to most forest biologists, is a history of clear cut logging early in the 20th century which caused greater concentration of trees in the forest as huge areas of forest grew back at the same rate, instead of a staggered rate as would ordinarily occur.  The San Bernardino National Forest has one of the highest trees per acre of any national forest in the U.S.  A second important factor is a policy of fire suppression, encouraged by environmental groups and homeowners in recent decades.  Frequent smaller scale fires are not allowed to burn as they normally would because all fires are quickly attacked and suppressed.  This caused brush and trees to stay overgrown and highly concentrated, increasing the danger for huge firestorms when weather conditions occur as they have this week.  This is my basic understanding of the major dynamics creating the current environment of high fire risk in southern California.  If anyone has any ideas or corrections, please chime in.  The bottom line is that global warming is only part of the picture.  And this complexity makes it difficult to use as a galvanizing world view changing teaching moment.


[ Parent ]
Fires more Massive (4.00 / 1)
These fires are more massive and burning hotter than usual. In many cases, the ecosystem, despite its fire-resistance can't withstand this level of heat.

[ Parent ]
Environmentalists are for fire suppression? (0.00 / 0)
===  A second important factor is a policy of fire suppression, encouraged by environmental groups and homeowners in recent decades.  Frequent smaller scale fires are not allowed to burn as they normally would because all fires are quickly attacked and suppressed.

Nice right wing talking points.  Seriously, is being a tool of big timber your life's goal?  Is Glenn Beck your hero?

Environmental groups don't fight most prescribed burns or brush clearing. They do oppose bullshit efforts to call logging brush clearing.

Those 'thinning' projects by the Bush administration, aren't thinning. They are logging the old growth trees and say they are thinning the forest which is false.  You don't take out the old trees to thin the forest, you take out the underbrush.

[ Parent ]
Nice Try (0.00 / 0)
Pegging me for a right wing troll, give me a break.  I grew up at the base of the San Bernardino National Forest, my neighborhood in north San Bernardino lost over 300 homes in 2003.  So I have a very personal, local view of this issue.  Visit the forest here and tell me thinning isn't needed, tell me that all of the beetle infested trees do not need to be removed.  I don't contest that Bush uses "thinning" projects as a wedge to give loggers new access to areas they had been kept out of.  This is simply not the case here.  This forest needs trees cut, and somebody needs to pay for it.  Most tree cutting here has been done by private, ad hoc tree operations that have sprung up in response to demand - not commercial logging.  That's not even an issue here.  If you would have actually read my post, you would have noticed that it was big timber in the first place who set the conditions for an unhealthy forest here, i.e. dangerously high concentration of trees.  Recent policies have interacted with this historical context to produce the current conditions.  And yes, environmentalists here have lobbied for fire suppression and against forest thinning. 

[ Parent ]
Where was the lobbying? (0.00 / 0)
===And yes, environmentalists here have lobbied for fire suppression and against forest thinning.

You are simply making up facts taken from right wing bullshit talking points. Environmentalists have no problem with thinning projects because they restore the health of the forest.

If you don't like being called a right wing tool, don't use their factually false claims.

The Forest Service has been a captive agency of timber interests for years and blaming environmentalists for their policies is disingenuous. 

Show me legitimate thinning projects that were fought in the last 10 to 15 years?

[ Parent ]
Center for Biological Diversity (0.00 / 0)
issued appeals to the EIR for the San Jacinto Healthy Forest Project that clearly lobby against cutting larger diameter trees in order to protect habitat for Owls...

"The FEIS states that "forest thinning would be less
extreme in WUI Threat zones and would take California spotted owl habitat needs into consideration…" FEIS Vol. 1 at p. 334. This statement is unsupported either by the
evidence in the plan or by the hard scientific data as required by NEPA. As described above, the Conservation Strategy's suggested measures would allow the elimination of critical habitat elements such as canopy cover and medium-sized and large trees in fuels treatments throughout all spotted owl habitat in the national forests. The FEIS fails to analyze these serious potential impacts, and instead justifies the widespread degradation
of owl habitat as necessary to prevent wildfires (in other words, destroy habitat in order to save it(http://www.biologica... p. 89"

The CBD supports fire thinning only in narrow urban interface zones and around houses.  Furthermore, they only support thinning of small trees (http://www.biologica...)."

Ultimately, they and other groups end up supporting good forest management programs. And do so after pushing hard for the EIR's and project designs to be in line with their priorities (which is what lobbies are supposed to do).  I have no problem with that.  I just disagree with their policy aproach.  I think it is way too cautious and can slow the progress of needed forest thinning projects.

[ Parent ]
16 Inch Diameters? (0.00 / 0)
Again, this is a logging project, not a thinning project. Larger diameter trees are not the fire danger, it's the small trees that catch fire and transfer it quickly that are the problem. The lawsuit reasonably called BS on a cheap sale to timber interests and not a thinning project. 

[ Parent ]
It's Not Just The Environmentalist Organizations (4.00 / 1)
It's the so-called progressive media, of which I am a part. (Although Democracy Now! did an excellent piece yesterday.)

By yesterday morning I was utterly convinced that this had to be our cover story at Random Lengths News.  24 hours I am still fighting a battle to make it so.

As a biweekly, which comes out Thursday of next week, our publisher is worried that the fires will be out, and it will be old news, especially given how saturated the airwaves have been with their wall-to-wall, but ultimately extremely shallow coverage.

If I'm going to do a story on it, he tells me, I have to start with Carey McWilliams and Mike Davis's Ecology of Fear, which are old chestnuts for him, and I'm trying to tell him, "those are great references for the past, but this is completely different, we're not talking about neglecting the historic cycles of drought of the last several hundred years, we're talking about transforming them to a whole new, much more dire regime."

Does not penetrate.  "Are you going to interview Al Gore?" he asks me.

Just insane.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

On a smaller scale (0.00 / 0)
I'm trying to organize some kind of drive at my kids' school for the wildfire victims (a former beloved teacher is now in La Jolla, so there's a tangible connection for many of them).  And my thought was that Environmental Club, not the Community Service Club, should be the point organization.

We're still working out the logistics (need to hear back from the teacher), but I hope the drive works out in this "broader" way.

This is lose-lose thnking (0.00 / 0)
Bad idea to attempt to use the fires to make macro policy changes, which seems to be your goal.

There's no way around the fact that as wonderful as it is, the Southwest and California have too many people living here.  The carrying capacity is overloaded - but it isn't in other places.

Settlement patterns won't change until costs drive enough people out.  Until then, people make choices.  Just watch as people move right back into the charred areas.

It is lose-lose to make western wildfires "poster children" of global warming and an impetus for better legislation. 

Choose battles that are likely to draw in a wider range of allies. 

Friends of the Earth on the fires and Bush's visit tomorrrow (0.00 / 0)
Friends of the Earth has put out a press release linking the fires to global warming and criticizing President Bush -- in advance of his trip to the region -- for impeding progress on this issue.  That release is available at: http://action.foe.or...

Also, a petition referencing the fires that calls on President Bush to make the EPA stop delaying implementation of California's standards on global warming emissions from vehicles will soon be up at


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