Ecologists and firefighters have long debated the merits of various strategies for managing the wildfires that regularly ravage California and other states. Research shows that prescribed burning can help, while clear-cutting does little. But President Donald Trump pushed for clear-cutting on Wednesday, urging Californians to "get their act together and clean up their forests and manage their forests."
"They are leaving them dirty," the president said at a Cabinet meeting, while threatening to withhold funding for fighting fires, the Hill reports. "Old trees are sitting there, rotting and drying. And instead of cleaning it up, they don't touch them, they leave them. And we end up with these massive fires that we're paying hundreds of billions of dollars for to fix, and the destruction is incredible."
In California, the United States Forest Service removes dead trees, thins the canopy, and conducts controlled burns on as much as 300,000 acres of federal land each year, according to the Sacramento Bee. To expand its reach, the agency would need more funding—funds that would come from a budget that the Trump administration says it plans to slash this year.
Still, environmentalists warn that Trump's apparent endorsement of clear-cutting could be dangerous. The Los Angeles Times reports that this could signify a "move to open ecologically sensitive public land for timber production."
Research suggests that advocates are right to worry: Studies show that removing trees, either for commercial logging or as a fire-prevention strategy, can actually make fires more intense, leading to further destruction for both humans and wildlife. For one, the debris that these cuts leave behind can set off massive fires, according to Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College and an expert on wildfire policy. Moreover, clearing all of the West's brush is simply not feasible, nor would it prevent fires from breaking out in grassland and chaparral, like this summer's Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California. Logging also goes against decades of science on wildfire's ecological benefits, Miller said in August, after Trump made another misleading comment on California wildfire management:
The notion that you could fireproof the forest by clearcutting is a discredited notion, since at least the foundation of the Forest Service and its antecedents in the late 19th century. Fire is necessary for the health of ecosystems. Some need it more than others. California is one of those places where fire is normal and it should happen.
Logging advocates once touted the benefits of removing fire-prone trees to protect old-growth forest dwellers, like the spotted owl. But as Pacific Standard reported in August, these species thrive in burned landscapes, and "decades of science have shown that forest fires—including large hot fires—are an essential part of Western U.S. forest ecosystems and create highly biodiverse wildlife habitat."
Instead, ecologists have moved toward other approaches to reducing fire risk, such as prescribed burning. Studies show setting small, controlled fires reduces the intensity, size, and damage of wildfires, burning up the brush that could fuel a larger fire. Others advocate for setting restrictions on development in fire-prone areas.
As for the threat of withholding funds, agencies say they have yet to hear of any changes from Trump. "It's hard to say, exactly, what he's talking about," Scott McLean, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection deputy chief, told the Los Angeles Times.