On Fires and Fungus

I did not understand the position of public utilities regarding fire safety until I visited Headwaters Forest Reserve in Humboldt County.

Headwaters was the last private preserve held by Pacific Lumber that had not been completely clear-cut The north side of the reserve was harvested, but the central and southern sections include undisturbed old-growth forest. Headwaters was purchased by conservationists for $480 million dollars.

The southern groves are closed in the winter, leaving me with a five-mile prelude to communion with the ancient trees in the center of the Reserve. The first mile of the hike explains the history and botany of the Reserve. Harvesting began over 100 years ago. When a tree is harvested, it sprouts burls that grow into new trunks. As they grow, the open space around the stump becomes populated by rapidly growing deciduous pioneers.

The result is a dense thicket of kindling. When a tree falls naturally, that hazard is localized. Prior burns have culled the tinder around the ancient giants, whose lower limbs have also been consumed. Fire-resistant bark prevents spread to the upper limbs. When a forest is logged systematically, the hazard of the understory kindling becomes a death trap. The pioneers and burls act as wicks, carrying the flames up to the crowns of the older trees. As seen in California during recent years, the forest burns to the ground.

The public utilities are blamed for such disasters, but the true perpetrators are the logging companies that harvested and then went out of business, leaving behind a time bomb. Less direct than pumping hazardous waste into groundwater, but no less irresponsible.

Ten years ago, when I went to visit the State Redwood Preserve north of Eureka, I was alarmed to see the hills turning bare. Two types of fungus coated the trees, one of them an invader from Japan. Most of the stands resembled the mangrove forests coated with Spanish moss, but the true culprit may be sudden oak death, endemic to California. The draped branches cannot produce leaves, and the Japanese moss comes in to coat the weakened trunk.

I had seen some of the first fungus on the redwoods when I last visited Humboldt, so I choose to drive up this time overnight, hoping to avoid the depressing sight. Sadly, the initial stages of my hike proved that it was still active. Hoping that it had no penetrated deeply, I noticed that few of the redwoods were affected. Hit hard were the deciduous pioneers, a pattern proven the next day when I drove back to San Francisco in mid-afternoon. Where redwoods were attacked, the infestation seldom travelled to the upper limbs.

A light turned on in my head as I neared the parking lot. The fungus was clearing the understory. Then I noticed that lower branches on healthy trees were burdened by leaves dropped from above. The redwoods themselves suppressed understory growth by choking the lower layers. The fungus was doing that function as the forest recovered.

I did make it up to the old growth forest, and the density and feel was different from the slopes that had been harvested. It was worth the trip. But I also gained an insight into the ancestry of the politics of privilege that is destroyed our country. Tall trees drop choking leaves to protect from fire in the understory. Is this also how McConnel and his cronies see themselves? Just trying to keep the kindling from reaching into their mansions as the lower classes confront destruction in the conflagration that is COVID

Conserving Liberty

After my post Friday on Speaker Ryan, at Barnes & Noble that night I found myself disrupted in my technology research by a couple railing on about public sector unions. The particular focus of their wrath were police unions that negotiated full-pay retirement packages starting at fifty. As is well known in the West, some officers exercise that option and then take another assignment elsewhere, effectively double-dipping.

Now I agree that this seems unethical, and you’d think that some legislator would find a way to define “retirement” as excluding “leaving to take work elsewhere.” And the six-figure salaries being quoted ($200K) don’t sound like the compensation expected by a beat cop. Again, you’d think that redefinition of terms would be beneficial. There does come a day when a man can’t chase down an eighteen-year-old any longer, but that doesn’t apply to those pushing figures around on spread-sheets.

What was astonishing to me, though, was the framing of the discussion that brought such outrage to the conversation. During the 2008 down-turn, because of the pension obligations, Pheonix couldn’t afford to hire officers to replace those taking early retirement. This was set against the context of civilians that lost their homes in the mortgage melt-down.

For some reason, the couple ranting against the police union seemed to feel that was the union’s fault. Really? Not the financial wizards on Wall Street that stole another $500 billion from the public purse? What gall, to redirect anger against corporate financial fraud against the unions that seek only to secure the survival of the middle class that lost their homes!

This is what drives me crazy about conservative business owners. They rail about regulation as though it’s a confiscatory plot by the poor. Yes, we have the onerous terms of Sorvanes-Oxley that put a CEO at risk of jail if the corporate annual reports contains false information – but that was motivated by Enron’s manipulation or energy markets in California. Yes, we have the Affordable Care Act that requires all employers of more than fifty to provide health-care benefits, but that’s against the context of insurance company manipulations that denied coverage to many with pre-existing or chronic health conditions. And yes, we have rising taxes on fossil fuels, but that reflects a race against time against temperature rises that threaten to wipe out civilization as we know it, a race that has been road-blocked by oil companies (led by the Koch Brothers) propagating fraudulent science in an attempt to prevent governmental action to stimulate replacement of fossil fuels with renewable sources.

Let me focus the point: did nobody in the business world know about these transgressions, some simply moral, but in the last case rising to the level of crimes against humanity? Where were your voices speaking in outrage? Or were you all among those business leaders celebrating the “success” of practices that allowed executives to build huge estates and buy private jets with the gains from stock options that transferred hundreds of billions of dollars from share-holders funds into personal bank accounts?

Corporate America benefits every day from the investment made by middle-class America in roads, schools, emergency services and governmental process. They provide a steady steam of educated employees. They ensure the free movement of goods and safe working conditions. Access to those benefits is not a right, it is a privilege. Securing great wealth from that system comes therefore with a responsibility: to raise your voice when your peers abuse the public trust. Do so, and you’ll find that a lot of regulation would go away, because the cost of cleaning up from long-running abuse would be modest compared to the benefits that accrue from a freely running economy.