Biden Wildfire Scorecard No. 2

Biden Wildfire Scorecard No. 2

Now that Tom Vilsack is back in the driver’s seat at the Department of Agriculture, it’s time for him to stroll over to the White House and have a heart-to-heart chat with President Biden about the West’s wildfire pandemic. Here’s how it might go:

“Mr. President, our nation’s forest legacy is burning to the ground and we are now sequestering carbon in the lungs of everyone who lives in the 11 western states.”

“Oh,” the President might say. “How’s that?”

“Well,” Mr. President, “We’ve done a terrible job of caring for our national forests for about 30 years. We don’t know how many trees are dead or dying, but this past fall people living in northern California witnessed our nation’s first million-acre wildfire since 1910.”

“They did,” the President would ask. “That’s a long time. Did we put it out?”

“We sure did,” Vilsack will reply. “But it took us three months and cost about $320 million.”

“Wow,” Mr. Biden will surely say. “What’s the problem? Climate change?”

“Well,” not really,” Vilsack will begin. “The big California fire was started by lighting. High winds blew 38 smaller fires into one big one that burned over three national forests and six counties.”

“Oh my, this isn’t good,” a shocked President will say. “ We took California in a landslide last November. Is there anything we could have done differently.”

“Actually, it’s worse than you think, Mr. President,” Vilsack will concede. “More than half of all national forestland in the West is dead or dying. That’s close to 100 million acres. These dead and dying forests are fueling the deadliest forest fires of modern time.”

“Well, for heaven’s sake, what are we doing to solve this,” Biden will urgently ask.

“We’ve built the largest fire department in the world in hopes of being able to get ahead of these fires, but it isn’t working,” Vilsack will say. “We aren’t doing as much as we should be doing to reduce the risks of wildfires before they occur.”

“How so,” a clearly attentive President will ask.

“It’s complicated, Mr. President,” Vilsack will answer. “Many of your most loyal supporters on the east and west coasts oppose removing dead and dying trees from our national forests. They think we should leave these forests in nature’s hands – meaning no human effort to quell the wildfire risk.”

“That doesn’t seem to be working out very well for us,” a now disturbed Biden will say.

“It hasn’t worked for a long time,” Vilsack will reply. “And it’s getting worse. I read a report just this morning that indicates that smoke from these big wildfires is something like 10 times worse for public health than tailpipe emissions. So we have not just a wildfire crisis on our hands, we have another public health crisis with social justice implications in poorer neighborhoods that voted for you.”

“This isn’t one of those phony reports funded by the Republicans, is it,” the President will ask.

“No, it isn’t,” Vilsack will say. “It comes from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity. They’re both at the University of California at San Diego.”

“So this is that business about sequestering carbon in human lungs.” Biden asks.

“Well, that line actually comes from the Evergreen Foundation,” Vilsack will reply. “It’s a non-profit group in Idaho that advocates for science-based forestry. They’ve been trying to help our U.S. Forest Service get back on a forest management track for more than 30 years.”

“Isn’t the Forest Service part of your Ag Department,” the President will ask.

“It is,” Vilsack concedes. “The federal government is the largest forest landowner in the nation, and the Forest Service is responsible for most of it but most of their annual appropriation goes to fight forest fires. There isn’t much left for actual forest management. So we are experiencing larger and more deadly wildfires every year.”

“So we have all this wildfire smoke that has become a major public health problem and the smoke is coming from our federal forests,” Biden will ask.

“That’s correct, Mr. President. “The Forest Service has actually produced several reports concerning the chemical composition of wildfire smoke. It’s carcinogenic, no less dangerous than second hand smoke from cigarettes.”

“Oh my,” a dismayed President will say. “And we’re the biggest source of the problem?”

“We are,” Mr. President,” Vilsack will admit. “Climate change is in the news daily, but it’s a much longer term thing. This is an immediate problem that will only get worse on our watch.”

“Tom, we need to get this fixed immediately,” President Biden will say. “We are going to look like fools trying to advance our climate change agenda with this political mess on our plates. I want you to make sure the Forest Service gets the money and the political support it needs to do something proactive about all these dead and dying trees.”

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