About a year ago I wrote a "Letter from Sacramento" about the bark beetle infestation in California's pine forests, its link to climate change and some legislators' inability to move in the right direction on climate policy.
What was most interesting about that letter was the response. I heard from dozens of Club members and supporters who wanted to know how to help rescue the forests.
Since then, we've been trying to learn more and craft a strategy at Sierra Club to help the forests.
Here are a few things we've learned.
First, the number of trees that have been killed by the pine bark beetle has escalated to more than 100 million statewide. Those beetles are not new to the forest, but the perfect storm of conditions -- warmer temperatures and drought being key -- helped make trees already suffering from the temperature shifts in the Sierra even more vulnerable than usual to beetle infestations, while the beetles thrived under the new conditions.
This latest bark beetle infestation may be cyclical. It may not. Nobody really knows what the future holds because climate change has disrupted the system and made it hard to predict the future based on past events.
Second, the pine bark beetle is probably not the biggest problem the forests face right now. There are greater dangers. Here are a few of those dangers (in no special order):
- A biomass energy industry that sees the beetle infestation as a great commercial opportunity. Biomass plants generate energy through either gasification (a kind of matchless combustion) or outright burning in waste-to-energy plants, and they produce air pollution and climate pollution.
The purveyors of biomass technologies designed to create marketable energy from forest waste -- from dead trees to everyday slash from landscape maintenance -- are politically more sophisticated and dogged than they have ever been.
- State and federal agencies that are pretty comfortable with the logging and biomass industry and view forests as factories. That view makes those agencies more vulnerable to short-term economic arguments and less likely to make decisions based on long-term environmental needs unless the public gets involved and applies pressure.
In California, we have agencies like Cal Fire and the Board of Forestry participating in or supporting reports that suggest that building a biomass industry will help address climate change (http://www.fire.ca.gov/fcat/downloads/California%20Forest%20Carbon%20Plan%20Draft%20for%20Public%20Review_Jan17.pdf). That's kind of like saying establishing new oil wells will help address climate change.
- Enlightened political leaders who have ceded California's forest areas to the least enlightened political leaders. One of Sierra Club California's active volunteers who lives in a forest region can wax eloquent about this point. Basically, she says, the Democrats have given California's forests to the Republicans.
Most of the state's forest areas -- with the exception of sections of the North Coast -- are represented by Republicans. Those Republicans almost never vote for bills to protect the environment. Yet a majority of Democrats in the legislature almost always vote for bills that we regard as bad for the forests but that are proposed by those Republicans. Granted, at least one of those Republicans is among the nicest people to deal with in the legislature (I'm talking about you, Mr. Dahle). But being a decent human being shouldn't be argument enough for legislators who know better than to vote for bad policy.
- A behemoth logging company that does it all wrong in the forests, but has smart, smart, smart political tactics and the ear of the governor and others. I'm talking about Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). What a great story it has. Built from essentially nothing, this family owned operation now holds more private forest lands than anyone in California. And about half are slated for clearcutting.
Clearcutting repulses most people who care about forests, biodiversity or forest-fire control, including a lot of other logging companies. But SPI dominates forest policy discussions in Sacramento. It has managed to persuade many politicians to make missteps, from the governor to former state Assemblymember Rich Gordon, who supported or carried SPI-backed legislation until he was termed out last year. Gordon was just appointed as the new CEO of the California Forestry Association, the main trade association for the logging industry. Congrats, Rich!
Unfortunately, this list isn't exhaustive. I could go on. But I won't. I'll just let you know that, at Sierra Club, we're mad as hell and don't want to take it anymore. We've begun a new biomass campaign. We'll be working with our great allies to make sure the forests, wildlife and the people who recognize the role forests play in the environment have a voice in the biomass debates in Sacramento.
Watch your emails. You'll be hearing more from us.
Sincerely, Kathryn Phillips Director
Thank you for being a part of our work! You may securely donate http://click.emails.sierraclub.org/?qs=f47940ed49d64b23e895e57c2060e4ddb49d2b87f40159d908dbbca6fcf8c3e1071e805558594d213df4b8597b25a9dc98167476ab1a774fed4aba540b016898 online or by sending a check to Sierra Club California at 909 12th Street, Suite 202, Sacramento, CA 95814.