An article on Reason, and the associated video, claim that the severity of the recent forest fires are largely due to environmental regulations that prevent good forest management, along with an insistence on putting out small fires that would have cleared the undergrowth. Quotes from the article:

California warmed 3 degrees over the past 50 years, but that's not the main cause of California's fires, no matter how often politicians and the media say it is.

But for years, governments and environmentalists put out every small fire they could, while also fighting logging.

For years, [politicians] and environmentalists increased the risk of big fires by opposing the thinning of forests.

The town of Berry Creek, California, tried to get permits to legally clear their forest. For two years, regulators delayed approval. This year, fire destroyed the town.

I'm aware of this question which says that government fire-suppression efforts are largely responsible for the amount of fuel in the forests, but I want to know if it was the environmental movement that was responsible for this, and if other environmental policies, especially tree protection in general, were also significant contributors to the severity of the fires.

  • 60
    There is a hidden false premise built in to this question title: that it makes sense to assign as single cause/responsible party to a real-word issue.. Perhaps there is a way to ask about whether a particular policy was a factor, rather than making it about assigning 100% of blame?
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 8, 2020 at 18:53
  • 46
    The article doesn't say "environmentalists are responsible"; that seems to be your wording. The article says "For years, [politicians] and environmentalists increased the risk of big fires by opposing the thinning of forests." Sensible question: "Does thinning forests decrease the risk of big wildfires in California?" Not sensible: "Are environmentalists responsible?" because sparks are responsible, climate change is responsible, the flammability of wood is responsible, the oxygen-rich Earth atmosphere is responsible - it isn't meaningful to pick a single cause.
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 8, 2020 at 19:05
  • 4
    The article also says that "governments and environmentalists put out every small fire they could, while also fighting logging", and (not quoted above) "What actually is to blame, as usual, is stupid government policies." Yes, "environmentalists are responsible" is my one-line summary of the intent of the article, but I believe it to be accurate. And while it may not be meaningful to pick a single cause, that doesn't seem to stop the author. Oct 8, 2020 at 19:09
  • 9
    Re But for years, governments and environmentalists put out every small fire they could, while also fighting logging. That is nonsense. The US Forest Service is in the Department of Agriculture, for a good reason: "The National Forests were originally envisioned as working forests with multiple objectives: to improve and protect the forest, to secure favorable watershed conditions, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use of citizens of the United States." (Source: fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/aboutus/index.shtml) Oct 8, 2020 at 20:14
  • 4
    @Fattie: I am not saying "the match was 100% responsible". I am saying "assigning responsibility this way is meaningless". Otherwise, drivers are responsible for 100% of all car-hits-pedestrian fatalities, as are pedestrians, as are car manufacturers. Remove any of them and 100% of the fatalities go away.
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 10, 2020 at 3:23

2 Answers 2


Are environmentalists responsible for Californian forest fires?

No. It was environmentalists (by which I mean people who professionally study forest ecology or environmental science) who have tried to convince the various agencies responsible for suppressing forest fires that forest fires are not necessarily bad but are instead a natural part of the West's ecology.

From its inception, the US National Park System and the US Forest Service held a view that all forest fires are bad. By 1935, this was codified as the 10 a.m. policy, which stated that every fire should be suppressed by 10 a.m. the day following its initial report. It was responsible environmentalist organizations such as The Nature Conservancy who argued against this absolutist point of view and convinced the Forest Service to allow some controlled burns.

What is responsible for California's forest fires is a mix of

  • Climate change, which has made for longer fire seasons, and longer bouts of hot and dry weather.
  • A nonaggressive adoption of controlled burns by the Forest Service in California. The Forest Service in Florida has aggressively begun using controlled burns.
  • A lot of people moving from the cities and suburbs to the US wildland-urban interface who then argued against controlled burns in their back yards. The people who own million dollar homes (and sometimes, second homes) in Sky Ranch area of Salinas California aren't environmentalists so much as NIMBYs.
  • Finally, some environmental groups such as Los Padres ForestWatch who vigorously oppose logging and tend to also oppose controlled burns and forest management, sometimes with lawsuits. The cited lawsuit was a collaboration between a mountain community that feared controlled burns, Los Padres ForestWatch, and Earth Island Institute.

Mostly true

First, your title somewhat overstates Reason's claim in the article "Bad Policies Fuel Fires", which is that "[politicians] and environmentalists increased the risk of big fires by opposing the thinning of forests." The article never claims overgrowth is the sole reason (or even the principal reason), just that it provides fuel to make wildfires larger and more devestating.

Second, understand that "enviromentalists" is a broad classification, not a single unified group. As you look at actions of certain groups, realize they don't necessarily characterize every "environmentalist."

Third, overgrowth indeed causes larger wildfires, a fact agreed to by all sides. In 1999,

Years of aggressive firefighting have allowed brush to flourish that would have been cleared away by wildfires, said Michael Paparian, a Sierra Club senior representative in Sacramento, Calif.

While the timber industry and environmentalists agree the forests need thinning, the timber companies want it to include more logging than the environmental groups want.

“There’s no magic solution to the condition of the forests. Our forests have gotten into their current state during 150 years of human manipulation,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes.


Fourth and most significantly, in multiple high-profile instances, environmental groups have successfully opposed proposed solutions to this problem.

In 2002, Senator Feinstein (D-CA) blamed the Sierra Club for blocking a bill to thin forests with logging.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein blames environmental ally the Sierra Club for Congress' failure to pass legislation last month to thin national forests to reduce wildfire threats in the West.

"You have a very polarized community when it comes to fire and how they view fire," Feinstein said.

"The Sierra Club roasted me," she said.


In 2009, an LA County supervisor blamed environmentalists for being unable to do controlled burns.

Some critics suggested that protests from environmentalists contributed to the disaster, which came after the brush was allowed to build up for as much as 40 years.

"This brush was ready to explode," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district overlaps the forest. "The environmentalists have gone to the extreme to prevent controlled burns, and as a result we have this catastrophe today."


In 2014, the Sierra Club opposed a failed Republican bill to make it easier to thin forests, something that would help the overwhelmed Forest Service.

As written, the bill would amend an existing law designed to help clear out forests clogged with flammable underbrush called The Healthy Forests Restoration Act.

Heller’s proposal would further loosen environmental procedures for hazardous fuel projects, allowing them to avoid review altogether if they meet certain criteria...

But there’s a catch, says Ani Kame'enui, a forest representative for the Sierra Club...the bill is undermining a bedrock environmental law to achieve its aims of ramping up commercial logging on public lands.

There is no doubt the Forest Service is strapped for cash. After last year’s sequester cuts went into effect, the wildfire fighting budget was slashed by $115 million.

Instead of undercutting environmental laws, Kame’enui says the answer is to address the funding issue through efforts like the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act...so that federal emergency dollars could kick in to help cover the costs.



In multiple instances, environmental groups have successfully opposed proposal to clear forest growth. Strictly speaking, the claim is true.

However, it fails to provide the reason for opposition. Those environmentalists fought those the forest-thinning not because they disagreed with the diagnosis, but because they thought proposed approaches cut corners.

  • I've qualified the title in accordance with your first sentence. Oct 23, 2020 at 7:09

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .