In the midst of a competitive recall election, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has called attention to his now emphasizing proper forest management as key to containing the wildfires that have devastated the state.
On Aug. 24 the Office of the Governor of California posted a video on Twitter in which Newsom stands in front of a smoldering blaze, part of the ongoing Caldor Fire. Newsom highlighted the difference between land that had been cleared by the state and private landowners, versus U.S. Forest Service land where undergrowth hadn’t been cleared.
“It’s vital that we continue to increase our fuels management effort to make CA’s forests healthier and more wildfire-resistant,” the tweet reads.
The Office of the Governor’s tweet comes a week after Larry Elder, Newsom’s chief rival in the recall election, made an issue of Newsom’s performance in combating wildfires, saying at an Aug. 18 news conference that the governor had been “utterly incompetent” in reducing the fuels that feed the state’s wildfires.
In the video, Newsom also noted that some nearby Pacific Gas & Energy power lines could be a source of problems, stating that they would “eventually have to be undergrounded all across the state.”
In June 2020, PG&E was convicted of 84 counts of manslaughter for its role in sparking 2018’s deadly Camp Fire. Shortly after that deadly blaze, Newsom helped draft AB 1054, which enabled PG&E to obtain state safety certificates covering the next two fire seasons.
Newsom has met with criticism for his financial ties to PG&E, which donated $290,000 to his wife’s nonprofit, The Representation Project, between 2016 and 2018.
The tweet comes just one year after Newsom criticized President Donald Trump for claiming that poor forest management was the culprit behind California’s intense recent wildfires, a point Trump had made several times during his presidency.
“You’ve got to clean your floors,” Trump said at a Pennsylvania campaign stop in August 2020. “You gotta clean your forests—there are many, many years of leaves and broken trees, and they’re like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up.”
Newsom said at the time in a video message to the Democratic National Convention: “Just today, the president of the United States threatened the state of California, 40 million Americans who happen to live here in the state of California, to defund our efforts on wildfire suppression because he said we hadn’t raked enough leaves. I can’t make that up.”
As part of Newsom’s change in approach, earlier this year, he reportedly requested $500 million in 2021-2022 funding for forest management, and billions over the next several years, including clearing forest floors of debris.
The request came after Newsom decreased funding for wildfire prevention and resource management in 2020 by 40 percent to $203 million, from $355 million in 2019.
Newsom has exaggerated the amount of land affected by the state’s fire prevention efforts, according to an investigation by CapRadio and NPR. While a fact sheet from 2019 claimed 90,000 acres would be treated with fire prevention efforts, this overstated the acreage that would actually be treated by 690 percent.
Fire prevention, of course, is a national issue, as not only California has been struck with devastating wildfires.
In a recent op-ed, U.S. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and House Committee on Natural Resources Ranking Member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), who described themselves as “the only two foresters in Congress,” urged Congress to take action to clear out the country’s overgrown national forests.
“More than 80 million acres of our national forests are overgrown and in dire need of active management, making them tinderboxes for the smallest stray spark. The only way we can prevent wildfires from getting out of control is addressing them long before they ignite,” they wrote.
“We need forest management that uses proven science to identify high-risk areas, clear hazardous brush, thin dead and decaying trees, and provide healthy space for remaining trees to grow far enough apart to prevent fires from climbing into the canopy and spreading from tree to tree at an uncontrollable rate.”
Newsom has pointed out that almost 58 percent of forest land in California is owned by the federal government, underscoring the fact that forest management isn’t just a state problem.
In a 2019 analysis for The Federalist, Chuck DeVore noted that increases in timber burned during the 1990s coincided with greater restrictions on timber harvesting by the Clinton administration.
“With the retreat of the timber industry came an inevitable buildup of uncleared brush as well as runaway tree density, with it becoming common to have four times the number of trees per acre as is considered healthy,” DeVore wrote.