Clearing forests to reduce wildfires

This is where the federal government is almost fully in charge: California’s landmass is 48% owned by the federal government, and Sacramento has jurisdiction over just 3% of the Golden State’s forests. 

While everyone agrees that forest health — a euphemism for clearing trees to prevent fire — should be a top priority in the West, the U.S. Forest Service, not the states, largely sets the agenda. The Trump administration showed little interest in the topic, other than to blame California officials for poor forest management and suggesting more “raking” could help. 

Trump did little to alter recent forest practices. But a policy of benign neglect can be as devastating to a landscape as proactive good intentions. 

The Biden administration is left to follow through on an agreement signed in August that pledges both California and the Forest Service will clear flammable trees and brush from one million acres each year. That well-intentioned-but-unfunded mandate could make a real difference in reducing fire risk, should the new administration support it. 

Deferred forest maintenance that piled up under Obama and Trump administrations now falls to Biden, who has not articulated a forest management policy.

Also, Biden could loosen the federal purse strings when it comes to disaster relief, with wildfires creating a crippling economic drain on California. New federal guidelines finalized in December mean that well-off states like California will have to shoulder a larger share of recovery costs. But experts expect Biden to offer more assistance to the politically powerful, Democrat-led state.