Dear California Trees,
When will you stand up and take responsibility for all the damage you do to this state?
It’s not only the blue-purple blossoms that you jacarandas use to stain Californians’ cars, or the rats that your palms harbor. It’s not even that your out-of-control fires foul California’s air, destroy Californians’ homes and drain the state budget.
No, what really upsets me is that instead of being accountable for all the trouble you cause, you leave us humans to solve all your problems.
You trees get away with this irresponsibility because you have millions of human apologists who engage in a vast conspiracy of blame-shifting. Tree lovers say the damage trees do is really the fault of environmentalists who make it hard to cull you, or loggers who cut down too many of you, or utilities who don’t keep you away from power lines, or government agencies who don’t properly manage you, or rural homeowners who insist on living among you.
Your defenders even rail against human overpopulation! That’s pretty rich when you recognize there are four billion live trees in California—100 times more than the mere 40 million people who live under you.
Now, to your credit, you pull your weight in some ways: You store carbon, helping limit climate change. You help collect and clean the snowpack and watersheds that California humans depend on for water.
But, lately, trees, your job performance has slipped.
Why? It starts with your exploitation of human fire-suppression policies in order to grow far too great in number. And while humans have done you the favors of reducing our birth rate and limiting development (not to mention giving up newspapers), you grow everywhere, creating dangerously dense forests with smaller, weaker trees.
Today’s overcrowded forests are more vulnerable to drought and diseases. Exhibit A is the drought and the infestation of bark beetles that caused an estimated 129 million California trees to drop dead between 2010 and 2017.
And did you responsibly clean up your dead? No. Instead, deceased trees fell onto buildings, roads, and power lines, while littering the forests and fueling apocalyptic fires that burned vast swaths of the state. These mega-fires badly lowered that air and water quality you trees are supposed to protect.
To reverse these trends, your forests must be thinned, with smaller or diseased trees removed so that larger healthy trees survive. This is hard work, because you trees tend to die in inaccessible places. But do you tax yourselves to help with the expensive work of thinning? No, just like California’s human taxpayers, you seem to think that someone else will pay to restore the forests.
The trees’ lack of leadership on tree issues has created a void that has been filled by polarized human politics. It’s sad. Once, you trees—especially the great coastal redwoods and the signature sequoias like General Sherman—were great unifiers. But today you just fuel the partisan fires. When Gov. Jerry Brown proposed regulatory changes to speed up forest thinning, he got mostly grief, from environmental and logging interests alike.
You trees even gave an opening to the political arsonist in the White House, who blamed environmental lawsuits for fires. This was dishonest scapegoating, since most of our tree problems are on federal lands that his government doesn’t manage adequately.
I’ve seen commentary about state agencies not moving fast enough to address tree problems. But years ago, Brown convened a Tree Mortality Task Force that included every tree stakeholder except the trees themselves. Without their work, the tree situation in California would be even worse. They might have accomplished more if you trees had demanded a greater budget allocation for yourselves, but you characteristically remained quiet,
You can’t play shy any more. The truth is that California’s tree problems may have become too big for humans. For us to help you, we’d have to come together as never before, to engage in long-term collaborations to restore forestlands, better manage forests, and embrace new approaches to fire prevention and land preservation. Such thoughtful, far-sighted governance has been impossible for California even when it involves housing ourselves or educating our children, so it’s unlikely we’ll get our act together to save you trees.
Which is why, California trees, it’s time for you to face the reality that confronts every interest group. If you want to solve your problems, you trees will have to do the work yourselves.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.