Something is terribly wrong with California's national forests, vast public lands that cover 20 percent of our state. According to the U.S. Forest Service, they're burning up faster than we're replenishing them. They're also on track to become net carbon emitters by the middle of this century.
Imagine a continuous swath of fire-charred trees 1.9 miles wide stretching from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That's how much of California's national forests have been converted to "deforested conditions" just this century.
Last summer's 257,000-acre Rim fire is yet the latest megaburn. It devoured much of the Stanislaus National Forest before exhausting itself against the cold granite of Yosemite National Park.
Massive wildfires are an enormous fiscal and policy challenge. Our failure to plant trees in the most severely burned areas means that we are, in effect, trading timbered acres for hillsides of brush.
Forest ecosystems are crucial for absorbing and storing atmospheric carbon. The latest National Climate Assessment estimates that U.S. forests absorb the equivalent of 16 percent of our total fossil fuel emissions. Given that every tree, during photosynthesis, "inhales" carbon dioxide and "exhales" oxygen, how is it that our national forests could possibly become a carbon polluter?
The answer is a lack of unified vision, the legacy of deep-seated environmental conflict. Beginning with the post-World War II housing boom and continuing for several decades, national forests in the Sierra Nevada and Northwest were focused on wood production, liquidating old growth and increased clear-cutting. The heavy logging regime eventually spawned a vigorous environmental backlash, which played out in the divisive "Timber Wars" of the 1990s.
Environmentalists "won" the timber wars, but a truce was never declared. Federal harvest levels plunged 80 percent in response to litigation and endangered species concerns. Public forestry swung from one extreme ("maximum sustained yield") toward its opposite (never cut a tree, anywhere).
That's mostly where we remain in 2014.
Meanwhile, our climate has been changing, and so are our forests: Less snowpack and longer fire seasons leading to hotter, larger, more destructive wildfires and the massive greenhouse gas emissions that accompany them.
The Forest Service tracks "deforested conditions" following wildfire in California's national forests. The term applies to timberlands "burned at high severity" with "not enough trees left alive for the forest to function normally." The data show that, since 2000, 657,000 acres of California's national forest timberlands have been burned into this dubious category. Only a third of those acres have been reforested, leaving 425,000 severely burned acres untreated. Often, these former timber stands revert to brush fields and, without intervention, can stay that way for decades if not centuries.
The Forest Service isn't happy about this trend, but reforestation funding is limited.
Post-fire recovery and reforestation, including tree planting, is expensive. It requires public support and investment. A reliable funding source is the sale of dead timber to nearby sawmills. Unfortunately, some activists have vigorously - often successfully - opposed post-fire salvage logging. Stopping all commercial harvesting, even that required to clear dead trees for reforestation, has become an ideological badge of honor.
Success in "saving" a burned public forest from salvage logging only helps to pile on the acres of "deforested conditions." Welcome to the "national ashtray."
Let's start over. We can begin with one simple, but powerful, new forest policy sine qua non - carbon sequestration. Our national forests simply must take in more carbon than they emit today, tomorrow and forever.
Fortunately, with active management, this goal is readily achievable. Accelerating the pace and scale of forest restoration and pre-fire treatments (thinning, chipping, prescribed fire, selective logging) promises to help modify future wildfire impact. Planting trees and restoring burned forests will ensure that our children have resilient ecosystems and a range of conservation options to choose from.
Are we ready to empower a new public forestry? If so, it has to start by reversing present policies.
A handy barometer of potential reform will be the fate of this year's Rim fire recovery efforts on the Stanislaus National Forest.
The Stanislaus has just released its draft environmental impact statement, which supports carefully targeted salvage logging in advance of urgently needed reforestation. Alarming voices, citing dubious science, will line up in opposition, doing everything they can to maintain the failed status quo.
The Forest Service - our Forest Service - needs to win this one. It's time to snuff out the national ashtray.
William Wade Keye, a registered professional forester, is past chairman of the Northern California Society of American Foresters.