Killing a Forest In Order to “Save” It
A current (2023) proposed project to “restore” the alleged ill health of a wild forest at Tomales Bay State Park, on the Point Reyes peninsula of west Marin County, CA, uses Orwellian language to make its claims. Begining with the project’s name, the “Tomales Bay Forest Health and Wildfire Resilience Project” — referring to using chainsaws, masticating and chipping machines and herbicides as its health-restoring “treatments.”
These “treatments” would in reality degrade the forest’s health and increase wildfire risk, by trampling, denuding and desiccating this dense, healthy forest’s vegetation and soil. The result, after the project’s proposed ten years of mechanized assaults, would be hundreds fewer plants, including trees, resulting in a barer forest floor laid barer, and made drier, hotter, and windier. This would increase, not decrease, wildfire ignition risk — the opposite of the claimed secondary goal of this deforestation project.
This assault of industrial forest “treatments” is claimed as necessary to “restore” its aging Bishop pine tree stands. But the blizzard of alleged benefits is purely speculative, beginning with the claim that older pines won’t naturally regenerate. Or even that Bishop pines should generate now that we humans have altered the climate to produce hotter and drier summers and autumns here in California. Or regenerate on a timetable determined by the bureaucracy of California State Parks, not the natural timetable of a living forest itself.
Nor does the project plan offer a detailed scientific study of this specific area’s ecology to support its claim. Specifically, and critically lacking, is any site-specific Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Only a general, so-called “Programmatic” EIR is referenced, which makes generalization claims, assumptions and speculations based on different locations with different geography, hydrology, climate and weather patterns.
To slow this industrial forest assault, a growing number of environmental and animal advocacy groups has coalesced, including TreeSpirit, In Defense of Animals, and The California Chaparral Institute, have signed a detailed, science-based comment letter by Western Watersheds Project excoriating this project for what it is, a deforestation project. Because it will literally reduce the amount of forest at Tomales Bay State Park.
The Big Question: Why is this project being proposed now; what actually drives it, if not arboreal and ecological science, and wild fire science-backed wildfire danger mitigation (e.g., hardening houses, not deforestation).
The California state agency spearheading this forest-reduction wants to begin in the autumn of 2023 is California State Parks, aka Cal Parks. Cal Parks has not disclosed its estimate for the number of trees it will fell in the approximately 2,000 acres of Tomales Bay State Park’s 2,200 acres of forest it has targeted for petroleum-powered “treatments.” It is unlikely to ever do so because this would spook the public which is more pliable when kept under-informed. For Cal Parks (and agency Cal Fire), the less public information provided, the better.
Because Cal Parks doesn’t provide numbers — nor an estimate of the project’s cost to taxpayers — we environmentalists assume the worst. Meaning, we expect hundreds of trees both living and dead standing (“snags”), and also hundreds more small plants will be felled and shredded by masticators and chippers in this undisclosed, massive, mechanized assault. Forest health will suffer dramatically, starting with soil health, since healthy soil will be poisoned with the “forest health” project’s herbicides, presumably used to prevent plants from growing back where they are deemed problematic.
The duration of this petroleum-driven assault is ten years; ten years of noise pollution, air pollution, and plant-killing, Trail closures and the silence of this rural forest, inside a state park, shattered for a decade of mechanized destruction.
Herbicides, appropriately banned in many counties, poison soils, harm and kill beneficial insects, which then poison birds who eat them, and mammals in the food web. Herbicides also desiccate plants, thus increasing wildfire danger too. Herbicides are persistent poisons and endocrine disruptors, shown to cause cancer, and should all be banned, period.
Fallen trees in the Tomales Bay State Park forest, just like dead standing (aka, snags) and downed trees in all forests, serve numerous vital functions. They retain water, decay slowly and keep the forest floor wet and fungi-friendly. And, again, more wildfire-resistant.
Removing snags, as this project’s planners want to, removes both vital nutrients from the forest and makes it drier — and thus, again, more prone to wildfire ignition.
All this raises the question, Why? Why does this project even exist? No, it’s not to sell the wood, at least not that we know of, or Cal Parks isn’t saying if so. So what is driving this deforestation project? The answer is simpler and more disturbing than that. Perhaps it’s to reduce wildfire danger?
But neither Marin County’s FireSafe program nor the federal National Fire Prevention Assocation’s Firewise program include deforestation (called “thinning” in this project and similar projects by the U.S. Forest Service) in their wildfire risk reduction programs. Instead, these programs focus on home-hardening techniques and creating defensible space from houses-out, especially out to about 20 feet, and to an absolute maximum 100 feet, depending on site-specific factors like terrain and wind direction.
U.S. Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen also concurs, endorsing simple, inexpensive, effective house preparations like removing flammable leaf litter and debris on roofs, in gutters, and around houses — but not cutting down trees living or dead. Nor killing (often called “clearing”) plants (called “vegetation” or “brush” to make you think it’s not actually killing living plants). Watch the NPFA YouTube video on home hardening featuring Cohen, “Your Home Can Survive a Wildfire.”
Why won’t Cal Parks even consider first “treating” a small demonstration area of an acre or two, as proof of concept. Do first to a much small area what they propose doing to 2,000 acres, which is killing understory plants, cutting down living and standing dead trees to “open up” the canopy to more sunlight, and applying their toxic herbicides. Observe, measure and quanitify the results. Demonstrate that all their industrialized proposition actually helps aging Bishop pine stands regenerate. This might take a few years, or never happen at all.
But no, Cal Parks offers only a full-scale, industrial-scale assault. And with little public awareness of the size or duration of the project. (It bears repeating: 2,000 acres of destructive “treatments” for 10 years.)
So back to the big question: Why this project? If the proposed “forest health initiative” harms the health of this forest by reducing the amount of forest, and increases forest aridity and wind-driven fires by removing trees, then what’s driving it?
The answer is simple and disturbing: to qualify for funding.
All this manmade let’s call it “Man-Age-ment” is part of an ongoing, coordinated and expanding forest reduction plan for tens and even hundreds of thousands of acres of California’s wildlands. And not just forests, but chaparral habitat of southern California too.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, is party to all the deforsetation. Its California statewide “Vegetation Treatment Program,” the CalVTP, teed up and fossil fueled up for Tomales Bay State Park. The CalVTP kills wild plants over thousands of acres of California’s wild habitat. The massive ecological damage of the CalVTP is explained on The California Chaparral Institute’s website.
By shoe-horning the words “wildfire resilience” and Cal Fire’s CalVTP “treatments” into the project, Cal Parks can qualify for a fat slice of the billion dollar wildfire reduction pie baked by California’s Governor Gavin Newsom. And justify a big, multi-million dollar make-work project for both Cal Parks and Cal Fire to sink their masticators’ teeth into.
At a critical time when the climate crisis should be teaching us not to demonize and assault forests, but to value and protect them more than ever, for their unrivaled carbon-storing and cooling services, these agencies are promoting exactly the opposite. Instead of spurring forest growth and expansion, fear of wildfire is leveraged to scare people into supporting cutting down forests everywhere. Just call it “thinning” and “management.”
For decades, the logging industry and, sadly, the U.S. Forest Service, have successfully popularized a false narrative to justify logging (“thinning”), leveraging the powerful fear of wildfire to advance projects. The popularized Myth: claim long term fire suppression has created a dangerous buildup of “fuel”, which creates a threat of “catastrophic” forest-destroying wildfires — and this necessitates “management” projects like this one. Forests are labeled threats to be feared and assaulted with “treatments.”
Ph.D. ecologist Chad Hanson, director of Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project, is one scientist who has worked for years to create data debunking this forest-logging narrative. His myths-busting book, “Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate.”
Hanson’s extensive research reveals that the opposite is true, that “thinned” forests ignite more readily and burn faster because they are sunnier, hotter, drier and windier.
Yes, the park’s bishop pines are aging. But they could live another hundred years or more — if left undisturbed. Or a lightning strike might ignite a productive, regenerative forest fire in the decades ahead. Pine stand replacement may come on its own, natural timetable — not one artificially imposed by bureaucracies.
Cal Parks and CalFire have institutional incentives to aggressively manage millions of acres of California wildlands with chainsaws, masticators and herbicides. But in our era of climate crisis, forest-diminishing projects like this one release huge amounts of stored forest carbon. And emit still more carbon with petroleum-powered machinery.
Don’t be fooled into supporting the destruction of more of our most precious global cooling commodity: wild, unmanaged forests. We’ve been assaulting forests for decades. They won’t be restored with more of the same.
The real danger lies not in our forests, but in our psyche. Separated from Mother Nature, we now fear her, strive to control her, and are managing her to death.
A SHORTER VERSION of this essay was published a “Marin Voice” opinion piece in the Marin Independent Journal on March 10, 2023: https://www.marinij.com/2023/03/09/marin-voice-dont-let-tomales-bay-state-park-get-managed-to-death/