SACRAMENTO, Calif. – As smoke lingered in the air amid another destructive California wildfire season, former Gov. Jerry Brown invited a group to his ranch for an urgent conversation: What more could be done to save California's forests from wildfires?
The reality of what has become annual fire devastation for the state has become more a part of Brown's life since he built his retirement home on a stretch of land where his great-grandfather settled in the 1850s, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northwest of Sacramento.
The wooded area is at greater fire risk than places he's lived before. Some small ones have cropped nearby and more destructive blazes have come within about 10 miles (16 kilometers). When Brown convened the group of about 20 scientists, fire experts, forest product executives and others regularly engaged in discussion of wildfires, he'd recently spoken to a climate expert who warned California's forests could burn up within two decades.
“That kind of gets me thinking that this is not business as usual," Brown told The Associated Press in an interview. “This is a big, overarching threat to California."
They produced a two-page document dubbed the Venado Declaration, after the name of the area where Brown’s land sits. Among its central conclusions: “It’s time to shift the fire paradigm from one of suppression and exclusion, to one of stewardship and adaptation.”
That’s followed by seven urgent actions including a call for an extraordinary increase in spending on preemptive fire measures — $5 billion from public and private funds, more than three times what already is a record $1.5 billion Newsom put toward forest management this year amid a massive budget surplus.
Wildfires have become fiercer and more destructive with climate change. Brown's group arrived at the spending figure because it's roughly what the state and federal government spent fighting fires in the state last year.
Other suggestions include building more biomass facilities and sawmills to process harvested trees, training more workers in forest management and reforming state and federal environmental laws, though the group offered few specifics.
Brian Nowicki of the Center for Biological Diversity said he was concerned about the involvement of several people with ties to the U.S. Forest Service, which his group sees as derelict in their stewardship, and that the document lacks enough details to assess its merits.
“It’s not clear to me what this actually is saying,” Nowicki said.
Brown held the Sept. 24 meeting at an outdoor spot on his property, once a stop along stagecoach route. Ken Pimlott, who was head of California's forestry and firefighting agency when Brown served from 2011 to 2019, helped bring the group together.
It was an uncharacteristic move for Brown, who since leaving office has avoided inserting himself into policy discussions or offering public advice to his successor and fellow Democrat Gavin Newsom. He said he’s speaking now because the group has an important message on a pressing topic.
“I don’t think as a citizen of Colusa County or California that my duty is somehow to go off into the wilderness of silence,” he said.
For his part, Pimlott said he was inspired to act amid a rough summer stretch of fires and a political climate he felt was overshadowing the Newsom administration's good work on forest management. The second largest wildfire in state history had sparked in August, while another forced the unprecedented evacuation of South Lake Tahoe, a tourism mecca home to more than 20,000 people.
Meanwhile, as Newsom faced a recall election, his opponents seized on a story by Capital Public Radio that found he had vastly overstated the scope of fuel reduction projects completed by his administration. At the same time, resistance to forest thinning by some environmental organizations was garnering public attention.
Pimlott and others in the group wanted to push back.
“Independently, we're all being hit up in some way shape or form to comment or to say something," he said. “There's strength in a unified group."
Asked why they’re acting now that they’re out of government, Pimlott said the state was cash-strapped and facing budget cuts when Brown took office in 2011 but eventually began investing more in firefighting and prevention equipment around 2015, when the current era of megafires began. He also pointed to a Forest Carbon Plan the administration released in 2018, which touched on similar ideas.
Don Hankins, a professor of geography and planning at the California State University, Chico, and an expert in Indigenous practices such as burning to eliminate fuels for fires, said the workforce training piece is particularly important because California doesn't have enough trained workers to effectively spend what is currently budgeted.
“It's not just about how do you go out and run a chainsaw and throw matches on the ground to create fires," he said. “How do you do it to achieve the outcomes that you want?"
Most of the ideas mirror those in a January wildfire resilience report the Newsom administration released. The group hopes their declaration will demonstrate that there is broad support for the state's direction in the face of some criticism.
“If nothing else, you have to have some broad consensus to take real, decisive action. We’re trying to help build that consensus,” Brown said.
Pimlott acknowledged he doesn't have a roadmap for what's next but hopes members of the group will promote the ideas in the upcoming legislative session and state budget talks, as well as in their private work in academia and industry. Based on the reaction to the document, he and Brown may organize more discussions.
Ronayne writes about climate change and the environment in California. Follow her on Twitter.