The Burning of America’s Best Idea: Congress and the Yosemite Rim Fire Tragedy

Yosemite National Park

Photo by author. Click to view full-size image.

Yosemite National Park, in California’s Sierra Nevada, is indisputably one of the crown jewels of the American national park system. Although most visitors to the park concentrate their touristic endeavors in the eponymous valley, gazing up at El Capitan, Half Dome, and a myriad of spectacular waterfalls, they are hopefully aware of John Muir’s successful campaign to ensure that the high country around the valley would also enjoy protection. Thus, when a significant portion of the north-west corner of the park was ravaged by fire this summer – as a result of a hunter’s illegal campfire – most Americans would have seen the destruction as a tragedy, reminiscent of the Yellowstone fire of 1988. But the nature and scope of the damage done by the fire are less obvious than they might appear, and a profoundly misguided human response to the fire threatens to visit a far greater destruction on both our public lands and the relationship we have with them.

An Unfolding Tragedy for American Democracy

The Yosemite Rim Fire was one of the largest fires in California history, charring 257,000 acres in the park itself, the adjacent Stanislaus National Forest, and private lands. In its wake, it left blocked roads, apparently barren moonscapes, and approximately a billion board feet of potentially salvageable lumber. For certain members of the United States Congress – a body that was intended by its chief architect, James Madison, to legislate for the public good in a disinterested manner – the commercial value of that lumber eclipses all the other values that Americans treasure in Yosemite and beyond. And so it is that the House Natural Resources Committee (HNRC) is poised to vote on a bill proposed by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), HR 3188, the Yosemite Rim Fire Emergency Salvage Act, that would require the  Dept. of the Interior to arrange immediate logging contracts to extract this perceived value from the region.

HR 3188 is an extraordinary bill. In addition to acreage within the boundaries Below Yosemite Fallsof Yosemite itself, it calls for logging in the Emigrant Wilderness in the Stanislaus National Forest and in several inventoried roadless areas (IRAs), including the Tuolumne Wild and Scenic River. And the manner in which it seeks to accomplish its objectives is even more breathtaking than its thrust into America the Beautiful. McClintock’s bill suspends application of four major federal statutes that could interfere with the proposed logging operations: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); the National Forest Management Act; the Federal Land Policy Act; and the Clean Water Act. Consequently, there will be no need for such burdensome democratic niceties as public notice or consultation, and no possibility of administrative or even judicial review. What we have here is nothing more nor less than a legalized rape of lands that most Americans assumed were protected forever.

Given the outrageously provocative character of his bill, it is fair to ask whether McClintock is serious or just trying to make some kind of point. California Democrat Jim Costa, who himself voted for an earlier expedited-logging amendment to another bill on public lands, notes that McClintock, if sincere, would need to negotiate with the Senate but has never shown even the slightest inclination to reach across party lines. (Since the amendment that Costa supported also suspended judicial review, that wouldn’t involve much of a stretch.) It has also been suggested that McClintock is simply trying to curry favor with his constituents after his own party’s antics forced the closure of the park and hurt the local economy. But McClintock’s bill, while obviously opportunistic and unlikely to pass in its pure form, is representative of an extremely disturbing trend.

HR 3188 may read like something dreamed up in a policy laboratory by an ALEC intern hoping to secure a paid position, but it contains the DNA of several living statutes. The oil and gas industry enjoys special exemptions from the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act to protect its fracking operations from the unconscionable burden of preventing American citizens from being poisoned. For similar reasons, the so-called Monsanto Protection Act blocked judicial review of the marketing of GMOs even if science raises health concerns about their consumption. And the war against the gray wolf has seen Congress (and several states) run roughshod over any and all checks and balances in order to allow the ignorance of ranchers and hunters to slaughter one of the consummate symbols of the American wilderness. In perhaps no other area of policy do we see a clearer realization of Madison’s fears of a “legislative vortex,” calling into question the ability of the entire constitutional scheme to identify and pursue some broader concept of the public good.

Even within the narrower realm of public-land management, McClintock’s bill is hardly sui generis. As the Associated Press reported this past weekend1, a larger bill to speed post-fire logging on public lands, authored by Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the chairman of the HNRC, has already been voted out of the lower chamber and sent to the Senate. And, as the Wilderness Society reports, the House is considering two bills which would expose vast tracts of public land to commercial exploitation. HR 2657, the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act, would require the sale of 3.3 million acres of public land, ostensibly to reduce the federal budget deficit. HR 1633, the Small Lands Tracts Conveyance Act, would transfer lands – including designated wilderness areas – to state and local governments for the purpose of selling oil, gas, and mineral rights. All of these bills share a common animating purpose – the extraction of monetary value from public lands, a process which not only converts public property held by us all into private property controlled by a few, but which completely discounts all the other values possessed by the land, be they physical or spiritual.

If Any Good Can Come of This….

This monomaniacal focus on commercial exploitation was perfectly encapsulated by McClintock’s framing of his rationale:

If any good can come of this tragedy, it would be the timely salvage of fire-killed timber that could provide employment to local mills and desperately needed economic activity to mountain communities. But this can’t happen if salvage is indefinitely delayed by bureaucratic processes or the usual litigation filed by extremist environmental groups.

McClintock’s swipe at “environmental extremists” is undoubtedly heartfelt and motivated by past experience. Logging interests have never forgotten their experience after the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon, where numerous objections to their plans prevented them from extracting any timber for several years, by which time most of it was too rotten to be of any commercial use. Of course, McClintock would not appreciate the retort that his approach to the environment – ignoring all considerations besides immediate profit and happily subverting democratic pluralism in the service of plutocracy – amounts to a very real extremism in its own right. Nor is he likely to acknowledge the fact that local mills could not possibly handle the volume of lumber he is talking about.

Some members of the Sierra communities affected by the Rim Fire are attempting to find a middle ground that would give both sides some of what they want. John Buckley, a veteran firefighter and director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, believes that the environmentalists who oppose all salvage logging risk tainting their cause with the same stench of intransigence characterizing many current legislators. Buckley would allow logging in the parts of the Stanislaus that burned the most intensely, where he believes the forest will struggle to reseed without human help. Unfortunately, this approach is little better than McClintock’s, for it fails to understand what modern ecology teaches us, and it reinforces the arrogant and misguided assumption that we can manage the land better than the natural processes that shaped it for millennia. McClintock and Buckley both need an entirely new conception of the good that can come from the Rim Fire.

Phoenix of the Sierra

As the recent Associated Press article noted, a scientific consensus has emerged that the apparent devastation left by fires like the Yosemite Rim Fire is actually a blessing in disguise. The so-called snag habitat left behind might look like a dead zone today, but as early as next spring will be the site of a living miracle. What Tom McClintock would have everyone believe is a tragedy warranting salvage operations is in fact one of the best things that could possibly happen to the forest – if we leave it alone.

Snag Forest Habitat

Photo of snag-forest habitat courtesy of Earth Island Journal. Image links to source.

The most effective spokesperson for this counter-intuitive viewpoint is Dr. Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project. Writing in both the Los Angeles Times and for Earth Island Journal, Hanson emphasizes the crucial importance of post-fire habitat for a myriad of creatures that have evolved to exploit these very situations. Because of the longstanding human policy of fire suppression, even in wilderness areas that are far from any structures, and the companion policy of salvage logging and attempted replanting, many of these plants and animals are in grave danger of extinction. But the most fascinating conclusion of the latest research on snag-forest habitat is that these environments actually harbor as much or even more biodiversity than (the remaining pockets of) old-growth forest.

Contrary to common myths, even when forest fires burn hottest, only a tiny proportion of the aboveground biomass is actually consumed (typically less than 3 percent). Habitat is not lost. Far from it. Instead, mature forest is transformed into “snag forest”, which is abundant in standing fire-killed trees, or “snags,” patches of native fire-following shrubs, downed logs, colorful flowers, and dense pockets of natural conifer regeneration.

This forest rejuvenation begins in the first spring after the fire. Native wood-boring beetles rapidly colonize burn areas, detecting the fires from dozens of miles away through infrared receptors that these species have evolved over millennia, in a long relationship with fire. The beetles bore under the bark of standing snags and lay their eggs, and the larvae feed and develop there. Woodpecker species, such as the rare and imperiled black-backed woodpecker (currently proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act), depend upon snag forest habitat and wood-boring beetles for survival.

One black-backed woodpecker eats about 13,500 beetle larvae every year — and that generally requires at least 100 to 200 standing dead trees per acre. Black-backed woodpeckers, which are naturally camouflaged against the charred bark of a fire-killed tree, are a keystone species, and they excavate a new nest cavity every year, even when they stay in the same territory. This creates homes for numerous secondary cavity-nesting species, like the mountain bluebird (and, occasionally, squirrels and even martens), that cannot excavate their own nest cavities. The native flowering shrubs that germinate after fire attract many species of flying insects, which provide food for flycatchers and bats; and the shrubs, new conifer growth, and downed logs provide excellent habitat for small mammals. This, in turn, attracts raptors, like the California spotted owl and northern goshawk, which nest and roost mainly in the low/moderate-intensity fire areas, or in adjacent unburned forest, but actively forage in the snag forest habitat patches created by high-intensity fire — a sort of “bedroom and kitchen” effect. Deer thrive on the new growth, black bears forage happily on the rich source of berries, grubs, and small mammals in snag forest habitat, and even rare carnivores like the Pacific fisher actively hunt for small mammals in this post-fire habitat.

Including the Rim Fire, there are only about 400,000 acres of snag habitat in the Sierra, compared to 1.2 million acres of old-growth forest. Even the Forest Service acknowledges that the Sierra were overdue for a high-intensity fire and could benefit from more. Before human intervention, high-intensity fires used to occur quite frequently and covered thousands of acres. In marked contrast to John Buckley, Hanson stresses that there is no reason to fear such fires or believe that they are bad for the forest. On the contrary, the areas that burn the hottest – in which the conifers take the longest amount of time to return – tend to harbor the greatest biodiversity of all.

Thus, the very areas that Tom McClintock and his allies would subject to salvage logging are the last places we should be entering if we really care about the welfare of the Sierra Nevada ecosystem. Apart from removal of the snags themselves – the role of which has been explained by Hanson – logging operations are terribly destructive to the soil, in which great stores of nutrients lie ready to fuel the forest’s rebirth. Salvage logging delivers a one-two punch to Mother Nature, converting a perceived tragedy into a manufactured reality.

The Burning of America’s Best Idea

When Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan collaborated on their magisterial ken-burns-national-parks-americas-best-idea-dvd-cover-artdocumentary series for PBS, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, they hailed the country’s collective decision – made in fits and starts, and over the objections of many commercial interests – to ensure that some of America’s most remarkable national treasures would be set aside “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it. Thus, the Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance to America’s first national park, Yellowstone, is not inscribed with the slogan, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the logging (or mining or drilling) companies.” This notion of protecting lands for everyone was America’s best idea, second only (in the opinion of Burns) to the Declaration of Independence. (It would have been even better if it protected land for all living things, but that is far too much to expect even today.)

For those of us who have been privileged to follow John Muir’s footsteps into what he called the “grandest temple of nature I was ever permitted to enter,” there can be little doubt that Burns was right. John Muir’s heart was broken by the damming of the Tuolumne River that flooded Hetch Hetchy – a valley that rivaled Yosemite for scenic beauty. That tragedy prompted the creation of the National Park Service; in a sense, something good did come from it. Are we still wise enough to allow something good to come from the apparent tragedies of today? Or are we going to allow small men like Tom McClintock – men whose hearts cannot feel the reverence that John Muir felt, whose brains cannot comprehend the lessons of modern science, and whose venal characters render them unfit to serve in Madison’s Congress – to burn America’s best idea and break our hearts, too?


  1. A version free of the Leesburg Daily Commercial’s typically crude typesetting is available here.

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