Valley Voices

California’s ‘treepocalypse’ creates wildfire emergency

Fire ecologist Tony Caprio stands near a scorched giant sequoia tree estimated to be 1,000-2,000 years old that had been burned by the Rough fire in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park last summer.
Fire ecologist Tony Caprio stands near a scorched giant sequoia tree estimated to be 1,000-2,000 years old that had been burned by the Rough fire in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park last summer.

My neighbors in Pine Ridge roll their eyes and grimace when they hear the word “environmentalist.”

Trained as a biologist in the late 1970s, however, I have until recently unashamedly described myself by that same scare-quoted word. I understood why, in the 1970s and 1980s – the heyday of industrial clear-cutting of forests on public lands – so many environmentalists called the national forests the “Land of Many Abuses.”

At that time, the environmental critique of the Forest Service – that it was blinded by an ideology of extraction and profit-maximization in its management of the forests – seemed to be dead-on.

Fast-forward more than three decades, however, and the pendulum has swung too far to the other side. Now it is the professional environmentalists who are blinded by their own ideology.

See, for example, “California Seeks Federal Aid as Bark Beetles Destroy Trees” (New York Times, Oct. 31, 2015), in which Brian Nowicki of the Center for Biological Diversity (headquartered in Tucson, Ariz.; nearest office in Oakland) argues that Gov. Jerry Brown’s declaration of a state of emergency in response to California’s widespread tree die-off erroneously “conflates dead trees with wildfire risk when there is not a clear connection.”

No clear connection between 66 million dead pine trees and wildfire risk? What?

Ever see a tinder-dry Christmas tree burn? Make that tree 100-plus feet tall and multiply by 66 million. Not only does Nowicki’s statement defy sense and science, but it is also refuted by the experience of those who battled the Rough fire, the largest California wildfire of 2015 (first year of our ongoing “treepocalypse”).

Firefighters working that vast blaze referred to large stands of dead trees as fire “jackpots,” the places where some of the most cataclysmic fire behavior occurred.

It’s not just absentee environmental activists who exhibit this extreme ideological myopia; it’s absentee environmental political scientists, too.

In his June 27 Sacramento Bee op-ed, “Dead Trees Don’t Mean Catastrophe for California,” Char Miller, the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, asked “What if a massive wildfire explodes? … Such a radical transition on such a massive scale would in fact violate what we think a forest should look like. But nature does not particularly care about our cultural constructions – and that’s a good thing.”

The data in Miller’s op-ed are outdated (see again the reports on the 2015 Rough fire incident and other 2015-16 studies), but that’s not the real issue. Absolutely nowhere in his article about massive tree death does Miller mention the potential costs in lives and property of his “Let dead forests stand until they burn or fall down” approach.

Miller labors under the delusion that, even with 66 million dead trees already in the landscape, fires will somehow magically stop at the borders of the public forests. Unlike Las Vegas, however, what happens in the public forests doesn’t always stay in the public forests.

People who live year-round on private land in the Sierra forests, as my wife and I do, apparently do not come into Miller’s eye or heart at all.

We are surrounded by trees Miller would prefer we leave to burn or fall down, until they burn or fall down on our houses. Or on power lines, starting jackpot wildfires. Or on roadways. Or on developed campgrounds and their users.

Apparently one of the “cultural constructions” Miller does not particularly care about is compassion for his fellow human beings. Too many absentee environmentalists share this blind spot, and I don’t think that’s a “good thing.”

Those of us who have made our homes among the trees are well aware of how clearly implicated we are in the complex problem of forest management and mismanagement, particularly its fire-suppression component.

Yet we have also been forced to see that climate is to forest as weather is to trees, and to see the forest for the trees, the trees for the forest, in ways others who do not live here – including absentees Char Miller and Brian Nowicki – have not.

Yet it is precisely those of us who are “rooted in canyons, foothills and ridgelines,” in “these beguiling landscapes” that Miller (in an Aug. 12, 2015, Sacramento Bee op-ed) castigates for creating “lovely residences that double as more fuel for fires, more structures for firefighters to defend, and thus greater dangers for those who live there and for those who race uphill to protect them.”

Since, like many of my neighbors, I am both a firefighter and a resident, I don’t know whether Miller would have me praise or blame myself more. His comments, along with those made by Nowicki and too many other absentee environmental activists and academics, make me suspect that what they really want to see is people like me and my neighbors burned out of the mountains, never to return, so that these already unnatural forests can regenerate “naturally” from pristine charred moonscape, after “the original forest cover is incinerated,” as Miller puts it.

And that is why I didn’t so much leave the environmental movement, as the environmental movement left me.

Howard V. Hendrix of Shaver Lake is a science fiction writer. Contact him at