Editorial: Count trees before and after the wildfires

Talk about busy work. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are counting the number of old-growth and “mature” trees on federal land.

Editorial | capitalpress.com | May 4, 2023

Four Corners Fire

Federal forest managers need to be allowed to manage the forests, not count the trees to “protect.”Inciweb

A thought: These two agencies are responsible for managing national forests and other federal forestland. Surely they must already know how many of those trees are old-growth or “mature.” After all, that’s their job.

Considering that, the Biden administration can rest assured that forest managers have this under control. Combined, there are 50,000 square miles of old-growth forests and 125,000 square miles of “mature” trees. That’s larger than California, we’re told. Actually, it’s 7% larger than California. It’s the size of California, New Jersey and Delaware combined.

But we quibble. Suffice it to say that the area is large.

We also have to wonder what a “mature” tree is. U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., is on the House Natural Resources Committee and a licensed forester.

He says he doesn’t know what a “mature” forest is, either. Granted, a grove of 250-foot-tall sequoias is mature, he told The Associated Press, but for the most part “it’s a vague term that has no scientific meaning at all.”

“I’ve got a graduate degree in forestry and I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

The White House climate adviser says “mature” could be applied to trees 80 years old.

We’re not foresters, but that sounds like a nice round number without much actual meaning.

What’s a bit disconcerting isn’t the federal government’s math or its definitions. It’s the federal government’s shortcomings in managing those trees — and all of the others. As wildfires incinerated huge swaths of national forests and other federal forestlands during the past decades, one wonders what the Biden administration plans.

If they want to reduce the exposure to runaway wildfires, we’re all for it. Letting forest managers do their job only makes sense.

However, if the plan is to “protect” these forests — another word for “not manage” — the annual horror show of wildfires and the death and destruction they cause will only continue.

We are told these times are different. With a changing climate, the likelihood of fires is much greater in many areas. That being the case, one would expect the Forest Service and BLM to be allowed to do their job and manage the forests — mature and otherwise — and create a defensive strategy against wildfires before lightning strikes.

Timber sales, thinning projects, prescribed burns and other tools must be put into action, and the more the better.

Unless the administration lets timber managers do their job, the next time a count of old-growth and “mature” trees is undertaken, there will need to be a new category — trees lost to wildfires because of inadequate management.