ZAGATA: How Sequoias Were Saved Offers Lesson On Forest Fires

Column by Mike Zagata for December 7, 2018

How Sequoias
Were Saved Offers
Lesson On Forest Fires

Editor’s Note: Among his many credentials, Mike Zagata is currently director of organization development at the New York State Forest Owners Association.

Mike Zagata

The fires burning in California are indeed tragic, but their severity could have been averted.
If politicians and environmentalists had bothered to research the ecology of the brushlands and forests in California, they would have discovered that they are fire dominated – in other words, they rely on being burned on a regular basis to be rejuvenated.
The Giant Sequoias are the classic example.
For decades preservationists put out naturally ignited fires in the Sequoia-dominated forest. Over time, scientists observed a decline in the number of young Sequoia trees as they were being replaced by true firs (Abies) and Douglas fir.
Why was this happening?
It turns out that the Giant Sequoia cones need the heat from fire to release the seeds within them. Suppressing fire based upon emotion rather than science had, as it usually does, unintended consequences.
Allowing controlled fire following this discovery saved the Sequoias. With that lesson under their belt, one would have expected two outcomes:
First, policies would emerge based on the recognition that the brush and forests in question had burned on a regular basis for thousands of years – fire is part of their ecological make-up.
Recognizing that, politicians and environmentalists might then have moved to implement a management strategy that incorporated regular, controlled burns to reduce the build-up of fuel from dying vegetation and shed limbs.
If that had been done, the fires we’re watching burn today would not have been so spectacular because there would have been far less fuel for them to consume.

They would be rejuvenating, not devastating, fires.

Last month’s forest fires in Woolsey Creek, Calif., posted on Facebook.

Nature does not have to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before taking action, nor can she be sued by a well-intentioned but ill-informed environmental group.
Inaction by man due to a bureaucratic maze, rather than action, has led to far greater environmental destruction and the release of enormous amounts of CO2 and particulates into the atmosphere – all in a state where the governor pontificates on the man-induced causes of climate change – than would have been the case if the professional foresters had been allowed to do their job.

Second, California would benefit from what we have learned in the East regarding policies that encouraged people to build in the flood plain.
Early on, the federal government, in an attempt to enable low-income families to purchase cheap land and build a home, subsidized low-cost flood insurance.
After a few major floods, the government abandoned this approach and significantly increased the cost of flood insurance. And banks made it near-impossible to get a loan to build in the floodplain.
Why did they do this? Quite simply, because encouraging people to build in the floodplain – that by definition will flood at repeated intervals – was found to be foolhardy and dangerous.
Do you see the parallel between building in the floodplain and building in an area that will repeatedly be subjected to fire – and then not taking the steps to reduce the severity of that fire when it comes?

It is tragic that people are losing their homes and even more tragic that people are losing their lives. However, the biggest tragedy of all may lie in the fact that no one is being held accountable for tragedies that didn’t need to happen. They could, and should, have been averted.
The mayor of one of the towns destroyed in the most recent fires has already vowed to rebuild.
If that takes place, it may well be another tragedy waiting to happen.
The governor, after decades of fires, stated that from now on the state is going to listen to the science – so long as the science concludes that climate change is the culprit.
That’s not how science works. You are supposed to conduct the research to determine the likely cause and then let the chips fall where they may.

Mike Zagata, DEC commissioner in the Pataki Administration and former environmental executive in Fortune 500 companies, lives in West Davenport.

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