California Outpaced Trump’s Forest Service in Wildfire Prevention Work

While more than half of California’s forests fall under federal management, the U.S. Forest Service consistently spends fewer dollars than the state in managing those lands to reduce wildfire risks, a Reuters data analysis shows.

The relative spending by federal and state forest authorities undermines President Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to blame deadly wildfires on a failure by California to clear its forests of dead wood and other debris.

“You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests… I’ve been telling them this now for three years… they don’t listen to us,” Trump said at a rally last month.

In fact, the bulk of California’s forest management falls under federal jurisdiction, with the U.S. Forest Service owning 57% of California’s 33 million acres of forests. Yet, for the fiscal year 2020, the agency spent $151 million treating 235,000 acres with practices like controlled burns meant to reduce wildfire risks, according to figures provided by the service.

By contrast, California’s government spent $200 million on forest management work, and oversaw treatment of 393,282 acres of state-run and privately-held land, according to figures provided by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Forest Service suspended its wildfire-prevention efforts for six weeks this spring, saying it was concerned about the safety of its personnel during the coronavirus pandemic. State fire officials at the time decried the move as risky.

“We need the federal government to really come in and spend at a much more significant level and make a real investment,” said Jessica Morse, deputy secretary for forest resources management with the California Natural Resources Agency. “Because they own this forestland.”

The number of acres treated by the U.S. Forest Service in California during fiscal 2020 was the second lowest under Trump’s administration, and 40% below a recent peak of 424,486 acres treated in the state during the last year of the Obama administration, according to the data.

Just over half of the acreage burned in wildfires in the state since 2015 has been on federal lands belonging to the Forest Service and other agencies, according to a Reuters analysis of data from the National Interagency Fire Center.

The Forest Service declined to comment, but directed Reuters to an agreement it inked with California last month to treat 500,000 acres per year each in the state by 2025. Last week before Congress, a senior forest service official said the federal government should dramatically increase its fire prevention efforts in California.

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