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'You can't manage it': Agriculture undersecretary takes heat during North State visit

Damon Arthur
Redding Record Searchlight
United States Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Hubbard, second from left, listens during a meeting of ranchers, loggers and government contractors Tuesday at the Red Bluff Elks Lodge.

As California burns, the U.S. undersecretary of agriculture got an earful of criticism Tuesday about how the the nation's forests are being managed.

As part of his visit to the North State on Tuesday to learn more about the fires, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Jim Hubbard had a listening session in Red Bluff with about 20 ranchers, loggers and others who contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

With hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest burning just miles away, Hubbard and other Forest Service officials were told the agency's management practices were making the forests worse and more susceptible to fire.

More:Wildfire: When it's too late to evacuate, experts explain how to survive the flames

Tim Arrowsmith of Western Grazers in Red Bluff told Hubbard and other officials at the meeting that livestock grazing in the woods could thin out vegetation and reduce fire danger.

But he said he has had a tough time getting contracts to bring goats into the forest to clear brush. 

"You guys are not replanting" trees after fires kill them, Arrrowsmith said. As a result, brush grows back to replace the trees that are left on the ground to rot, making conditions worse for intense wildfires, he said.

"They don’t graze. They kicked everybody out of the forest. Sorry Randy, you guys have done a miserable job managing the forest," Arrowsmith said, naming Randy Moore, who is in charge of the forest service in California and Hawaii.

He said the forest service spends too much time studying issues.

"That could be your problem is your biologists are running things," Arrowsmith said.

"Biologists are difficult,” said U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who joined Hubbard at the meeting.

"You need to get foresters who understand streams. You need to get good land management back in place You need to let the grazers back into the mountains, you need to let the logging back into the mountains," Arrowsmith said.

"You know what, you’re just poor stewards. You outta sell the frickin' land. You can't manage it. It's sad,” he said.

Hubbard told the group he was glad to hear their comments and planned to make changes to address their concerns.

"I started by saying by I didn’t want to hear what we're doing right, I wanted to hear what we could do better. You didn’t disappoint. You had not just a lot to say, but I could tell that it's not just coming from someone who hasn’t dealt with this," he said.

More:Wildfire maps: Here are 6 online fire maps Californians can use to stay in-the-know

Kim Kessler of Siskiyou County, who attended Tuesday's meeting, said she also has run into problems dealing with forest service contracting.

She works for a Siskiyou County company that provides water tankers to the forest service to use during wildfires. But because of a change in the way companies are required to apply for federal contracts there are fewer water tankers available this year to help fight fires, she said.

Dee Sanders, manager of the Trinity River Lumber Co. in Weaverville, said the forest service's problems run much deeper than correcting a paperwork issue.

"You're doing a miserable job, and you’ve wrecked wildlife, water, timber, grazing and recreation. Thirty years ago it (the forest) was all better than it is today. Why? Because you people are not doing your job, because you won't hold people accountable,” Sanders said.

LaMalfa said he hopes Hubbard can take what he heard from the group Tuesday and find solutions that lead to forests safer from large, destructive wildfires.

“There's a lot of frustration, because over time bureaucracy has a tendency to build upon itself instead of staying lean. Undersecretary Hubbard is very interested in how we can cut back some of that deadwood so to speak, no pun, to get to where we can be much more nimble and much more available," LaMalfa said.

LaMalfa and Hubbard also announced a new agreement between California and the forest service.

Under the agreement, the forest service and the state will each annually thin 500,000 acres of brush and small trees to make forests less prone to large, catastrophic wildfires like the ones burning throughout California this summer.

"So that just shows that it's possible for the feds and state to figure things out once in a while. It isn’t always an internal war between (Gov. Gavin) Newsom and Trump,” LaMalfa said.

Damon Arthur is the Record Searchlight’s resources and environment reporter. He is among the first on the scene at breaking news incidents, reporting real time on Twitter at @damonarthur_RS. Damon is part of a dedicated team of journalists who investigate wrongdoing and find the unheard voices to tell the stories of the North State. He welcomes story tips at 530-338-8834 and damon.arthur@redding.com. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!