By MATTHEW BROWN, TERRY CHEA, CALEB DIEHL and CAMILLE FASSETT
DOWNIEVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Using chainsaws, heavy machinery and controlled burns, the Biden administration is trying to turn the tide on worsening wildfires in the U.S. West through a multi-billion dollar cleanup of forests choked with dead trees and undergrowth.
Administration officials in interviews and during testimony maintained that the thinning work is making a difference. Work announced to date, they said, will lessen wildfire dangers faced by more than 500 communities.
Yet one year into what’s envisioned as a decade-long effort, federal land managers are scrambling to catch up after falling behind on several of their priority forests for thinning. And they’ve skipped over some highly at-risk communities to work in less threatened areas, according to data obtained by The Associated Press, public records and Congressional testimony.
With climate change making the situation increasingly dire, mixed early results from the administration’s initiative underscore the challenge of reversing decades of lax forest management and aggressive fire suppression that allowed many woodlands to become tinderboxes. The ambitious effort comes amid pushback from lawmakers dissatisfied with progress to date and criticism from some environmentalists for cutting too many trees.
“As much money as we’re receiving, it’s not enough to take care of the problems that we are seeing, particularly across the West,” said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. “This is an emergency situation in many places, and we are acting with a sense of urgency.”
Congress in the last two years approved more than $4 billion in additional funding to prevent repeats of destructive infernos that have leveled communities including in California, Colorado and Montana.
By logging and burning trees and low-lying vegetation, officials hope to lessen forest fuels and keep fires that originate on federal lands from exploding through nearby cities and towns.
The enormity of the task is evident in an aerial view of California’s Tahoe National Forest, where mountainsides are colored brown and gray with the vast number of trees killed by insects and drought. After work on the Tahoe was delayed last year, Forest Service crews and contractors recently started taking down trees across thousands of acres.
“The forests as we know them in California and across the West, they’re dying. They’re being destroyed through fire. They’re dying from drought, disease and insects,” said forest Supervisor Eli Ilano. “They’re dying at a pace that we’re having trouble keeping up with.”
Earlier this month, tracked vehicles including one known as a “harvester” worked through dense stands on the North Yuba, clipping large trees at their base and stripping them bare of their branches in just seconds, then piling the trunks to be burned later. Elsewhere, work crews walked slowly behind a wood chipper as it was pulled along a forest road, stuffing the machine with small trees and branches that were cut to clear the understory.
The infrastructure bill passed two years ago with bipartisan support included a requirement for the administration to treat forests across 10 million acres — 15,625 square miles or 40,500 square kilometers — by 2027. Less than 10% of that was addressed in the first year.
“The Forest Service is obligating hundreds of millions of dollars, but not in the areas required by law,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Forest Service spokesman Wade Muehlhof said the agency was confident in the administration’s strategy, but declined to say if it would meet the acreage mandates.
Key to the government’s strategy is addressing forest patches where computer simulations show wildfire could easily spread to inhabited areas.
Architects of the Forest Service’s strategy based it on tens millions of computer wildfire simulations being used to predict areas that pose the greatest risk. Those scenarios showed fires on only 10% to 20% of the land would account for 80% of exposure to communities.
“This is a mapped plan through time, where we can laser-focus on one highly important issue: the problem of communities being destroyed by wildfires started on public lands,” said Forest Service fire scientist Alan Ager.
An AP analysis of federal data reveals the scale of the challenge: Hundreds of communities are threatened by the potential for fires to ignite on federal forests and spread to populated areas.
In 2022, the Forest Service came up short of its treatment goals in four of 10 areas targeted as priorities. One was the Tahoe National Forest’s North Yuba region, where the agency addressed only 6% of the acreage planned.
Small towns tucked into the forest’s canyons escaped disaster two years ago when the Dixie fire raged just to the north, destroying several communities and burning about 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) in the Sierra Nevada range.
The increased logging needed to reach the government’s lofty goals has gained acceptance as the growing toll from wildfires softens longstanding opposition from some environmental groups and ecologists.
“Gone are the days when things were black and white and either good or bad,” said Melinda Booth, former director of the South Yuba River Citizens League. “We need targeted treatment, targeted thinning, which does include logging.
Even where thinning is allowed, officials face other potential constraints, such as protecting older groves important for wildlife habitat. A Biden inventory of public lands in April identified more than 175,000 square miles (453,000 square kilometers) of old growth and mature forests on U.S. government land.
The inventory will be used to craft new rules to better protect those woodlands from fires, insects and other side effects of climate change. It’s uncertain how that will affect the thinning program.
“What’s driving all of this is insect infestation, drought stress, and all of that is related to the climate,” said Dominick DellaSalla, chief scientist at the conservation group Wild Heritage. “I don’t think you can get out of it by thinning.”
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