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The Trump administration wants more logging in western forests. They believe that will help prevent deadly wildfires. But foresters and timber industry leaders say what's really needed to mitigate the wildfire threat is a lot more involved and expensive. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In Redding, Calif., where the Carr Fire burned more than a thousand homes, there's a feeling of desperation that something has to be done to clear the dense stands of trees and thick brush in the mountains around town, or the next fire will be even worse.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR PASSING)
SIEGLER: Ryan Adcock is taking advantage of the first relatively smoke-free morning in three weeks, out walking with her kids along a riverfront bike path.
RYAN ADCOCK: I mean, it's not just global warming. It's not just one thing.
SIEGLER: Adcock's home was spared by the fire, though she was evacuated for five days.
ADCOCK: There's logging. There's several different factors that play into why it's worse now than it ever has been.
SIEGLER: There was a time when logging and timber companies ruled western towns like this. Bill Oliver moved here in the 1960s to take a job with the U.S. Forest Service.
BILL OLIVER: That was the major industry between Shasta Lake City, which is 8 miles north, all the way down to Anderson, 8 miles south of here, where it's just mill after mill.
SIEGLER: Then came the timber wars over clear-cutting. The amount of logging on public land dropped significantly. And the timber industry also mechanized and mills consolidated. So now, even if you did open back up all the land, there isn't much industry left to process all the wood. Oliver is a retired federal wildfire scientist. He says the forests are dangerously overgrown.
OLIVER: The forests are much too dense because we've tried to keep fire out for about 100 years.
SIEGLER: Oliver says the actual stuff that needs to be cleared out of the woods - the brush, the small-diameter trees - it's not worth that much to the timber industry. It's the big trees that make the money. This has long been a challenge when it comes to forest and fire projects, but there are signs things are changing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MECHANICAL EQUIPMENT WHIRRING)
SIEGLER: Many of the remaining mills in northern California are owned by Sierra Pacific Industries. At this one near Redding, fir and pine trees roll down a giant conveyor belt headed for a saw the size of a small car.
(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD ROLLING)
SIEGLER: The company's forester, Dan Tomascheski, says each of their six California mills are now being systematically upgraded to handle that smaller-diameter wood that's a fire risk so it can be turned into commercially viable products, like particleboard.
DAN TOMASCHESKI: The industry is certainly capable and willing to do that. They just need to be reassured that that supply is going to be there for more than just one or two years. This can't just be a bubble. This has to be kind of a ramp up and then a sustained program.
SIEGLER: The Forest Service says there is a sustainable supply if you consider that 80 million acres of public land nationwide is under threat of major wildfires. But so far, only about 2 million acres have been treated through thinning, timber sales or prescribed burns.
The Trump administration says the biggest thing standing in the way of reducing the fuel load is environmental lawsuits. But people on the ground fighting the fires point the finger at a much less high-profile culprit - funding.
RICH FAIRBANKS: The biggest enemy of good forest management, especially fire management, is budget cuts.
SIEGLER: Rich Armstrong fought fires for 30 years from his home base in southern Oregon, where he's now a forest management consultant. He says it takes money to plan and implement the kind of landscape-level forest restoration projects that are needed.
FAIRBANKS: The government's really letting us down here. That's all there is to it. The government's letting us down.
SIEGLER: For the past two decades, the government has cut the budgets for these programs and diverted a lot of the funding that was left to pay for fighting fires.
(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD ROLLING)
SIEGLER: Dan Tomascheski at Sierra Pacific sees the effects of this on the ground.
TOMASCHESKI: The Forest Service has lost quite a bit of expertise in all of the disciplines of hydrology, road engineering, wildlife biology, et cetera. They've lost a lot of the funding for those positions. And they need to regain some of that expertise.
SIEGLER: Congress did recently pass a bipartisan fix creating a separate fund to pay for wildfire suppression, though that won't take effect until next year at the earliest. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Redding, Calif.
[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, as in a previous Web version of this report, Rich Fairbanks is incorrectly identified as Rich Armstrong.]
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