OP/ED: High-Speed Rail gets millions while California burns & forestry projects get defunded

The issue of wildfire is one California leaders have neglected for decades and only seem to pay attention to nowadays between the months of May through October, as year after year, our state is devastated by catastrophic fire.

Since the beginning of 2020, there have been over 8,400 fires in California that have destroyed over 4 million acres. 96,000 Californians have been displaced by these fires, but our Governor and the majority party in power continue to dance around the issue without seriously committing to address it.

Why? Because they are beholden to special interest environmental groups that have driven out the timber industry, done away with controlled burning, and forbid proper forestry practices, leaving our lands ripe for catastrophic fire.

When confronted about the problem, Governor Newsom is quick to point out that nearly 60 percent of California’s forests are federal land and that the federal government needs to step up.

While this is true, we need to get our own house in order first. The Governor has been casting stones at the federal administration while failing to prepare for federal partnership, even when it is offered.

“The Newsom administration needs to get serious about funding projects that are lined up and waiting for funding to start saving our forests and communities,” California Assemblywoman Megan Dahle said; adding, “Empty words of support are not going to treat our forests. It is going to take significant investment, not change left over after High-Speed Rail has sucked the coffers dry.” CBS San Francisco image

A prime example of this is the recent August 13th announcement of a new state-federal initiative to treat 1,000,000 acres of forest per year. Newsom has used this as a messaging opportunity to prove he’s doing something. However, the unfortunate reality is that many projects that were underway in partnership with the federal government through Master Stewardship Agreements are getting defunded due to state-mismanagement.

This is exactly what happened recently in Siskiyou County, which entered into a Master Stewardship Agreement (MSA) with the U.S. Forest Service in September of this year.

The MSA provides the framework for the county, Forest Service, and other entities such as the Resource Conservation District and private timber industry, to enter into specific agreements and obtain critical funding to carry out fuels reduction and fire break projects on federal lands.

These entities have spent the last several months working on one such effort that would treat forested land in the very fire-prone Mill Creek area, helping to protect communities near Yreka. The Mill Creek project was set to be the first under the new MSA and was going to rely heavily on Cal Fire’s California Climate Investment (CCI) Forest Health grant program, funded through Cap- and-Trade auction revenue deposited in the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF).

Siskiyou County worked tirelessly with their partners to prepare this project for grant funding only to find out in the eleventh hour that the low yield of funds from this year’s Cap-and-Trade auction meant that Cal Fire’s CCI grant program would not be offering any grants for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The Siskiyou County project was expecting to apply for and receive a $5 million grant from the CCI program, without which the project is doomed.

And so it goes that yet another qualified project fell by the wayside as our state hit a record wildfire year.

The truly exasperating thing is that projects like High-Speed Rail were prioritized over Cal Fire and did receive funding this year from GGRF. In fact, High-Speed Rail received a whopping 25 percent of GGRF funds while projects under Master Stewardship Agreements throughout the state were defunded.

California is burning, Newsom is calling for federal aid and partnership, and locals are working tirelessly to get projects off the ground, but at the end of the day, a pie-in-the-sky rail project got priority over forest health grants to save communities and lives.

For all the Governor’s talk on addressing wildfire, it’s clear that it truly isn’t a funding priority.

Empty words of support are not going to treat our forests. It is going to take significant investment, not change left over after High-Speed Rail has sucked the coffers dry. The Newsom administration needs to get serious about funding projects that are lined up and waiting for funding to start saving our forests and communities. It is time for action, serious investment, and for Newsom to put money where his mouth is.