During the devastating Camp Fire in California, which claimed the lives of at least 85 people, President Donald Trump tweeted, “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.” A week later, while visiting California, he said that the state needs to spend more time “raking and cleaning” its forests.
By managing and cleaning, Trump means logging. His own Interior and Agriculture secretaries said as much in August when introducing a plan that would allegedly prevent forest fires by removing dead trees.
Environmental advocates say the Trump administration and certain lawmakers are siding with the logging industry at the expense of lives, homes, and the health of American forests. Post-fire salvage logging can actually make wildfires more likely and can also “set back the forest renewal process for decades,” according to a 2015 letter to the Senate from 250 scientists.
“Trump doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” Tom Wheeler, executive director of the northern California-based Environmental Protection Information Center, told Sludge. “The federal government has done a bad job historically on post-fire management, and it only seems like Trump and the Trump administration is being more aggressively stupid in their management of our forests.”
Because of misguided state and federal policy, a billionaire logging family in California, the Emmerson family, is profiting from catastrophic forest fires on the West Coast as it funds politicians whose policies help its business. Recipients of campaign donations from the family push for measures that intensify climate change, a cause of increasingly intense fires, and weaken forest protections, allowing logging companies more access to post-fire sites.
The Emmerson family, which owns logging giant Sierra Pacific Industries, has donated over $1 million to mostly Republican federal candidates and PACs since 2015, according to a Sludge analysis of campaign finance records. Several of the family’s recipients, such as Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), are House members who sit on committees that oversee national forests.
Republicans’ pro-fossil fuel and anti-regulation policies directly exacerbate climate change, which in turn impacts forest fires, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Global warming causes drier soil and longer wildfire seasons, making fires more intense and longer-lasting. And, as opposed to leaving the carbon in burned trees to eventually end up underground, post-fire logging leads to more carbon being released into the atmosphere from the wood during processing.
Post-fire salvage loggers typically remove large trees from burned forests but leave behind smaller, highly flammable materials. A 2006 study of the Biscuit Fire in Oregon, published in Science magazine, found that post-fire logging increases “woody fuels” like branches and twigs on the forest floor, which can act as kindling for the next fire, and hurt forest regeneration. In addition, post-fire logging can spread highly combustible cheatgrass. “Nothing burns hotter than cheatgrass,” Chad Hanson, co-founder of the conservation group the John Muir Project, told Sludge.
The U.S. Forest Service’s timber sale staff, the logging industry, and pro-industry politicians claim that removing trees from forests decreases the likelihood of fires, but many conservationists and scientists disagree.
“The reality is completely the opposite,” said Hanson. “In fact, we just published the largest scientific study on this issue ever conducted by far…and we found that the forests with the fewest environmental protections and the most logging actually burned the most intensely.”
Political Investments to Boost Business Profits
Sierra Pacific Industries, based in the northern California town of Anderson, is the fourth-largest lumber producer in the country, and it’s “overwhelmingly the main purchaser of timber from national forests,” says Hanson. Red Emmerson, the multi-billionaire CEO and son of the Sierra Pacific founder, his two sons, Mark and Greg, and his daughter, Carolyn, share ownership of the company.
The business takes in tens of millions of dollars each year from post-fire salvage logging. As the third-largest owner of private land in America, Sierra Pacific derives the bulk of its income from logging on its own lands, but some of its profits come from cheap wood it removes from national forests after winning government bids to access post-fire areas. These operations are subsidized by taxpayers, as government agencies pay for the construction of roads to remote areas of forest and for an herbicide to make the logging process quicker. A smaller portion of Sierra Pacific’s revenue comes from government contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Emmerson, his sons, and his daughters-in-law, Catherine and Susan, have combined to donate over $1,040,000 to federal candidates and PACs, most of it going to Republicans or GOP-supporting committees, in just the last four years, per Sludge’s research. Sierra Pacific Industries did not respond to emails and phone calls requesting an interview.
The Emmersons have given significant amounts of money to two Republican congressmen who sit on House committees that oversee national forests.
Jeff Denham, who represents California’s 10th Congressional District, has received over $20,000 for his campaign committee, leadership PAC, and joint fundraising committee from the family since 2015. Denham is a member of the Agriculture Committee’s Conservation and Forestry subcommittee and narrowly lost re-election in November.
Denham is a cosponsor of a 2017 bill to loosen environmental regulations on national forests, the Emergency Forest Restoration Act. The legislation, which sponsors claim will protect and regenerate forests, would open up more national forest lands to commercial logging, exempting certain areas from the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Cosponsors include other representatives who have receive contributions from the Emmersons, including primary sponsor Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who has received $7,200 from the Emmersons since 2015; Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), whose various PACs have received nearly $84,000 from the Emmersons; and Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.)
Since 2015, the Emmersons have donated a total of $15,200 to the campaign committee and leadership PAC of Westerman, a member of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands and the primary sponsor of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, along with 16 mostly Republican cosponsors. The legislation, which passed the House in November 2017, requires environmental assessments of a forest management activity to only consider the impact of that activity or “the alternative of no action.” It requires the federal government to open up more public lands for private logging and exempts extremely large logging projects, including clearcutting, from any meaningful oversight.
“It’s the most significant attack on our national forests in history,” Hanson said. “We’ve never seen anything this extreme.” The bill, he explained, would essentially eliminate all environmental analysis and nearly all public participation regarding logging projects and proposals on national forests. Potential logging projects would be exempt from analyses such as whether they would increase fire intensity next to a community, something that happened in the Camp Fire.
“Intensive logging, mostly post fire-logging, occurred for years on private timberland and national forest land just east of [the town of] Paradise,” said Hanson. “It just ripped through that area very rapidly…People had almost no time to evacuate.
Hanson said the bill is “just a sham and a total giveaway to logging companies.”
In stark contrast, Westerman wrote in an op-ed days after introducing the legislation that the Resilient Federal Forests Act “has one overriding goal—to make our federal forests healthy again through sound science and management.”
“I believe we can pass a bipartisan bill that will better allow the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to utilize tools to immediately reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire, insect and disease infestation and damage to state, municipal, and personal property,” wrote Westerman. “Not only can we reduce the threats previously mentioned, but we can do it in a way that benefits rural economies, conservation groups, sportsmans groups, and even those families that wish to build homes….We have a problem of not salvaging timber destroyed in catastrophic events, which makes the forests more dangerous for the next generation. This increases future wildfire problems and makes reforestation challenging.”
The Arkansas representative has doubted humans’ role in climate change and denied that climate change affected forest fires in his state of Arkansas. The League of Conservation Voters gave him a lifetime national environment score of 1 out of 100. Westerman’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.) introduced a related bill in April 2017, cosponsored by Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Mike Enzi (R-Wy.). It did not receive a vote.
In the previous congressional session, Westerman introduced an earlier version of the 2017 bill, the Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act of 2016. Zinke, a Republican Montana representative at the time, was one of 13 cosponsors. Now head of the Interior, Zinke recently blamed the intensity of this year’s forest fires on “environmental terrorist groups” and has denied that climate change plays a role in stoking forest fires.
Aside from House leaders Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), Majority Leader McCarthy, and former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Denham and Westerman received the most in direct contributions from the Emmersons over the past four years. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Westerman has accepted the ninth-highest lifetime total from the forestry and forest products industry out of all current and former House members. In the 2018 election cycle, Westerman leads the pack by nearly $58,000 with a total of $197,000 in contributions from the industry.
Since 2015, the Emmerson family has donated directly to political committees of three additional cosponsors of the Resilient Federal Forests Act and a number of other members of the House Federal Lands and Conservation and Forestry subcommittees. In all, the Emmersons gave to the PACs of 34 House candidates—including Greg Walden (R-Ore.), a cosponsor of the Resilient Federal Forests Act, and Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), also a cosponsor, who chairs the Federal Lands Subcommittee and whose district, California’s 4th, includes some of Sierra Pacific’s forest land. The family also gave to 12 Senate candidates and doled out large amounts to the National Republican Congressional Committee ($252,000) and the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC ($50,000).
The Emmersons donated over $200,000 to congressional candidates in California, Oregon, and Washington.
Overall, the family poured nearly $900,000 into Republican PACs, $105,000 into PACs supporting members of both major parties, and $35,500 into Democratic committees.
The family has given $60,000 since 2015 to the National Alliance Of Forest Owners PAC, of which Mark Emmerson is the chief financial officer. In the 2017-18 election cycle, that PAC gave roughly two-thirds of its campaign money to Republicans. The donation patterns mirror those of the Emmersons; it has contributed to Westerman ($18,500) and several other lawmakers to whom the Emmersons have donated since 2015. The family gave smaller amounts to three more logging industry PACs as well.
The Emmersons have also donated roughly $140,000 to state candidates in California and Washington, according to data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. California’s Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, made up of members selected by the governor, sets state forest policy, which the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) implements. Current Board of Forestry members include Richard Wade, a longtime employee of Sierra Pacific Industries, and employees of other timber companies, including Mendocino and Humboldt Redwood Companies and the Michigan-California Timber Company.
“The [Gov. Jerry] Brown administration has been particularly bad when it comes to anti-forest policies,” said the Environmental Protection Information Center’s Wheeler.
Logging in the Trump Era
In its fourth-quarter report from 2016, Sierra Pacific wrote, “Now that the dust has settled on the national election, we are optimistic that the future will be positive for Sierra Pacific and for the nation…The nation is about to experience a major shift in political priorities.”
Since Trump became president, the executive branch is planning to remove protections of federal lands and has ordered more logging. New proposals from the administration to increase logging will entail new bidding for contracts, which Sierra Pacific is sure to pounce on. According to Forbes, the administration approved a $28 million reforestation plan earlier this year that will entail clearing trees on burned land.
The Forest Service has a conflict of interest around logging. All profits from timber sales from national forests go directly into the Forest Service’s budget, according to Hanson, a budget that’s been subject to cuts in recent years. The president’s 2019 fiscal year budget proposal calls for more cuts and increased logging. The Forest Service did not answer questions posed by Sludge.
Sierra Pacific currently operates in California and Washington, but it’s hoping to expand into states such as Oregon. The company owns manufacturer Sierra Pacific Windows, which has two factories in Wisconsin, and it recently placed unsuccessful bids to buy sawmills in Florida and Georgia.
This trend is the wrong direction for people’s safety and for the environment, say environmental advocates.
“With so many homes burning and people losing their lives, we need to prioritize protecting homes and communities…by creating more fire-safe homes and doing defensible space pruning within 100 feet of homes,” said Hanson.
“Pro-logging politicians who get a lot of campaign contributions from Sierra Pacific Industries and other logging companies” are “perpetuating the commercial logging program in our national forests,” said Hanson. “And they’re doing that at a time when the scientific community is increasingly saying that in order to effectively mitigate climate change…we have to substantially increase forest protections so we can pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. We’re not going to get there if politicians who are funded by the logging industry keep rolling back environmental laws…and increasing logging in our forests.”