The Pack-A-Day Club

The Pack-A-Day Club

I wrote the first draft of this essay last October 9, then decided to set it aside until next summer because I thought it was too shrill. Our Evergreen reputation is for, shall I say, a less hysterical approach.

“I’ll calm down by next summer,” I assured myself. “Besides, the smoke from this summer’s wildfire season is clearing. Our crisis will soon vanish from the nation’s front pages. Out of sight out of mind.”

Then something wonderful happened. The story didn’t disappear, thanks largely to the hellish wildfires that swept northern and southern California. Some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America were incinerated.

Blessedly, the health impacts of the choking smoke that accompanies these conflagrations is finally getting some airtime and some ink. Maybe “blessedly” is the wrong word here, but I’ve been trying for more than 20 years to interest the nation’s health care industry - including the American Lung Association - in this story. “Too controversial,” I was told, again and again. Such is the murderous influence of the “Don’t worry, it’s natural” crowd.

Now, finally, data quantifying the chemical composition of wildfire smoke is surfacing in reports from several quite credible sources including, guess who, the U.S. Forest Service, which now spends about half its entire annual National Forest management budget fighting forest fires. But, never mind. The point I want to make here is that wildfire smoke contains most of the same chemicals found in cigarettes, except habit-forming nicotine.

After thinking about this damned mess for another week, I’ve decided to post my temper tantrum on our Evergreen website, just as I wrote it last October. What finally pushed me over the edge is the latest information comparing 2017 Idaho wildfire emissions with other sources. Follow this link to the report.

October 9, 2017

Nice to see that our friends in Portland and Seattle have finally joined us in the “Pack-A-Day" Club.

Lest you wonder what I’m talking about, I’ll get right to the point. Inhaling the carcinogenic wildfire smoke that choked much of the Pacific Northwest in August and September was the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes every day.

I challenge anyone who reads this to prove me wrong. You will look like a fool, and I will have the pleasure of saying, “I told you so.”

More on how I know I am right in a moment, but first I want my friends who live in Portland and Seattle – and I do have a few - to know that we who live in the rural West have been living with acrid wildfire smoke for 30 years.

It hasn’t always been as bad as it was this summer, but next summer it will be worse, and the year after worse again, and again and again until Congress gets serious about dealing with the underlying causes of our health crisis.

Notice that I did not reference our forest health crisis, which we have also endured for at least 30 years. What was a catastrophe for our forests has morphed into a catastrophe for our lungs, to say nothing of our hearts.

There were days last month when we could not see one-eighth of a mile down our street here in Dalton Gardens, Idaho. But it wasn’t as bad here as it was in Sandpoint, 30 miles north, and Sandpoint wasn’t hit as hard as Libby, Montana, which was surrounded by wildfire, but fared better than Seeley Lake, Montana.

Air quality monitors in Seeley Lake, maintained by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, could not measure particulate matter in the air. That’s how thick the smoke was at the southern end of the beautiful Swan Valley. Prove to me that this wasn’t the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. You can’t. Don’t try.

Meantime, Friends of the Wild Swan, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the Native Ecosystems Council, Wild Earth Guardians, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity continue to appeal and litigate forest restoration projects aimed at reducing the risk of wildfire, not just in the Swan Valley’s Lolo National Forest, but in every National Forest in the West. This will continue until Congress forces dissident environmental groups to arbitrate their frivolous claims against the U.S. Forest Service.

As a first step, the Equal Access to Justice Act, which pays radical environmentalist lawyers to sue the federal government at taxpayer expense, needs to be replaced by an Equal Access to Collaboration Act.

Were it not for volunteer collaborative stakeholder groups that are working constructively with the Forest Service, we’d be in even worse shape. We know this because we’ve been tracking their progress, and the challenges they face, for three years. Of these challenges, none looms larger than the murderous Equal Access to Justice Act.

What the hell was Congress thinking when it turned these malcontents loose on the rest of us? What were they thinking when they gave away the public’s right to protect and enjoy its National Forests?

So, just how bad was the air we choked down in August and September? Our colleague, Darryl Flowers, Editor and Publisher of the weekly Fairfield Sun Times in Fairfield, Montana, asked the same question of Montana DEQ. They forwarded his question to the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station at Ogden, Utah. Here is their answer in tons per acre burned.

Carbon Dioxide, 27,222; Carbon Monoxide, 1,685; Methane, 112; Fine particulate matter, 487 Methanol, 46; Formaldehyde, 43; Butanedione, 39; Acetaldehyde, 31; Acetone, 21; Hydroxyacetone, 21 Ethene, 17; Ethane, 13 Furan, 10; Nitrogen Oxides, 9 tons per acre.

To gain an appreciation for the anger of countless thousands of westerners, multiply these tons per acre numbers by the 8.5 million acres burned in this summer’s long wildfire season. Bear in mind that well over 95 percent of this loss occurred in poorly managed National Forests.

Many blame the Forest Service for mismanaging our National Forests. I don’t. I blame Congress for creating a regulatory nightmare composed of conflicting laws administered by federal agencies with often conflicting missions.

I also don’t blame climate change. The West has been experiencing warming and cooling cycles spanning 150 to 350 years for the last 2,000 years, well before the Industrial Age. I don’t doubt that producing the goods and services that are basic to civilization’s advancement impacts air quality; and, yes, there will always be room for improvement, but can anyone explain to me how or why all this smoke and wildfire is good for the environment?

Where forestry’s impacts on climate change are concerned, it is essential that we all remember that wood is the most environmentally benign structural building material on Earth, and the only material that is at once renewable, recyclable, biodegradable and reusable.

Numerous federally-funded studies dating from the 1960s, demonstrate that less energy is used in its manufacture and use than in competing materials, including steel, aluminum and concrete. Likewise, wood manufacturing contributes less to measurable air and water pollution than do competing building materials.

A friend told me last week that he thinks members of Congress should be hooked up to masks and forced to breathe our wildfire smoke 24-7 for two months.

“I guarantee you this bullshit will get fixed in a heartbeat,” he declared.

I confess that the visual has a certain visceral appeal.

Millions of westerners, most of them probably non-smokers, were forced to inhale a pack-a-day for two or more months this past summer. Is this simply the price of living the good life in the West? I don’t think so. Nor do I think most who live in the West will ever get comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to let nature take its course in our National Forests, especially with so many assets at risk and so many safe and reliable, stewardship options at our fingertips.

Rapidly advancing flames forced thousands to flee their homes this summer. Property insurers are cancelling policies by the thousands. Yes, homeowners need to do a better job of protecting their property from wildfires, but wildfires capable of throwing embers a mile ahead of flames aren’t the homeowner’s fault. They are the fault of House and Senate windbags who annually polish their environmental credentials at the expense of the rest of us.

My 30-year friend, Dave Blackburn, who runs a spectacular guide service on Northwest Montana’s Kootenai River estimates that he lost $10,000 in booked fishing trips in one week in September. I don’t doubt it. We spent several days recording the carnage. Libby, which has already been devastated by the loss of its timber and mining industries, looked like a ghost town. And tourism is the future?

It was the same here. The Coeur d’Alene Resort’s world-famous golf course was deserted, as was Sherman Avenue, which is normally packed with tourists during the summer months. The losses will surely run into the millions of dollars. And these are businesses that are heavily dependent on tourism.

Congress is now engaged in its annual mad scramble to explain its unexplainable behavior. And, indeed, we do seem to be making some progress, but the voices we hear are mainly those of western solons who are getting an earful from voters. Unfortunately, the tail is still wagging the dog in eastern cities. I know this because our colleague, Bob Williams, a forester in New Jersey [yes there are forests in New Jersey] sends us links to newspaper stories extolling the virtues of wildfire and the evils of logging.

Right on cue, the excuse-making and name-calling has begun among anti-forestry environmentalists. It will reach its crescendo just before the Senate votes on the House version of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017.

The legislation will be a great help to the West’s forest collaboratives – those who are doing the heavy lifting in National Forests that are dying and burning in wildfires for which there is no ecological or historic precedent.

If you want to ditch your membership in the Pack-A-Day Club, I’d suggest you start paying closer attention to what’s happening in the House and Senate. The action will be in the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Meantime, the fact that the wildfire story has disappeared from the airwaves and the front pages of the nation’s daily newspapers aggravates the hell out of me. If Congress doesn’t soon fix this damned mess of its own making, you’ll soon be smoking two packs a day.

Postscript, January 6, 2018:

The Resilient Federal Forests Resiliency Act of 2017 is unlikely to survive reconciliation because the House and Senate versions are too far apart. Many conservationists are nervous about the acreages proposed for restoration. Others fret about limiting associated NEPA reviews. A few don’t like the idea that some collaborative projects would be protected from litigation, requiring litigants to instead submit their objections to arbitration.

My view? Leadership in the West’s collaboratives needs to write its own legislation and submit it to the appropriate House and Senate committees.

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