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Peter Kuitenbrouwer is a journalist who holds a master of forest conservation from the University of Toronto.

The forests in California and Oregon that caught fire this summer, and continue to smoulder, are close to my heart. I lived for years in California, spending time as a child in the forests of Mendocino County; I have close family in both states, and my activist father served time in a California prison in connection with a plot to protect the state’s forests.

It was heartening to see U.S. President Donald Trump visit Sacramento earlier this month, to promote co-operation to fight what he called “big monster” fires and to help those left homeless. Less constructive was the immediate, belittling condemnation of the President’s California remarks.

During his visit, Mr. Trump sidestepped questions as to whether climate change caused the incinerations. He blamed forest management. In Europe, the President said, “it doesn’t happen much because they manage their forests, and they manage it brilliantly, and they’ve been doing that for many years.”

Critics pounced. They cast Mr. Trump as Nero, fiddling while his nation burns. Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger, called Mr. Trump a “climate arsonist” and asked, “If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned in wildfires?”

But Mr. Trump is right to some extent, as forest fire experts note. Through history, natural forest fires controlled the buildup of dry material in forests. Now we suppress fires to protect timber and homes, as North Americans increasingly build communities in or near forests. In the United States and Canada, forest management has created a powder keg. We need to, in the President’s words, improve forest management. We also must view trees as a resource, not as a threat.

In California before Europeans arrived, forests burned regularly, though the tallest trees, the very fire-resistant giant sequoias, generally survived. Native Americans used prescribed forest burns in agroforestry, growing crops and grazing animals among the grasses and trees. The first Europeans logged many of the giant trees and then set about, for the next 150 years, to extinguish forest fires, in a bid to protect the source of timber, and to protect homes near the forest.

Forty years ago, in a study of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks in California, David Parsons and Steven DeBenedetti of the U.S. National Park Service warned that fire suppression encourages younger, more flammable trees to thrive: “The rather dramatic recent increase in density can be attributed to the lack of periodic fires necessary to thin the younger trees. It also represents a potentially dangerous fire situation.” This year’s forest fires across California, the worst in the state’s history, prove their point.

A study led by Marc-André Parisien of the Canadian Forest Service’s Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton, published this spring, warned similarly that decades of fire suppression around 160 communities in Canada’s boreal forest have left thousands of people at increased risk of big forest fires. The study looked at four high-profile recent fires: Eastmain, Que.; Fort McMurray, Alta.; La Ronge, Sask.; and Whati, NWT. In each case, decades of efficient fire-fighting led to a buildup of flammable material near the town. The forests around Fort McMurray that burned in 2016, for example, had not burned much since the 1940s. “Extinguishing wildfires before they become large increases the age of the forest and the amount and continuity of flammable vegetation near communities, thereby unintentionally amplifying the fire hazard in the long run around these same values that we seek to protect,” the authors write.

The researchers call this “the fire paradox” and say it illustrates the urgent need to do something else, such as controlled burns or harvesting timber. Parks Canada, they note, has lit small fires in the forest around Banff, Alta., every spring and fall since the 1990s, to reduce the threat of a big blaze.

Mr. Trump, speaking in California, suggested logging as one solution to forest fires. “People don’t like to do cuts, but they have to do cuts,” he said. He is right. Yet many people mistrust the logging industry, which makes sense given the industry’s history.

To some extent, a public-relations challenge sparked this whole monstrous crackling inferno. A Montana University case study, titled Wildfire Protection: Conflict in the Bitterroot National Forest, illustrates this conundrum. The case features David Bull of the U.S. Forest Service who maintains 1.6 million acres of public forests. He wants to harvest trees to reduce fuel along the road to a community. Residents want trees cut – they fear wildfires will burn their homes. The timber industry needs the logs, and employees depend on jobs in the mills. But, given a history of rapacious logging in the region, conservation groups have gone to court to block the harvest. Court cases in this forest are common and expensive: Mr. Bull spends 80 per cent of his staff resources and budget on legal fights, and just 20 per cent on forest management.

For Mr. Bull in Montana, as well as for forest managers closer to home, collaboration is the best bet to improve the forest sector’s public image, cut court costs and look after the forest.

Mr. Trump correctly points to Europe as a good example. In Germany, the birthplace of modern forestry, the job category “forester” is revered, a bit like doctor or nurse. Through careful forest management, loggers have earned credibility. Finland, singled out by Mr. Trump, is 75 per cent forest – the most forested country in Europe. Forest products are a key export. To help with scale, while Finland is a third the size of Ontario, it harvests four times as much forest. Finns use lumber: Close to half of Finland’s buildings are made of wood.

In North America, loggers have improved techniques, and third-party certification gives consumers confidence that we harvest forests sustainably. Still, we use less wood than we did: Fewer people read articles like this on paper, for example. Yet wood is a renewable resource, excellent for toys, tool handles, construction, heat, furniture and, yes, paper. When we consume wood responsibly, we cut fossil-fuel dependence; good forest management also reduces fire risk. This is one more thing we can learn from the First Nations. Still, when Mr. Trump lectures about forest management, he needs to point the finger at himself: 57 per cent of California’s forests are on federal land; just 3 per cent belongs to the state.

California Governor Gavin Newsom told Mr. Trump during this month’s meeting in a hangar at a decommissioned Air Force base outside Sacramento, now a hub for state firefighting operations, that it was “the hottest August ever in the history of the state; the ferocity of these fires … losing 163 million trees to that drought – something has happened to the plumbing of the world.” He added, “Climate change is real, and that is exacerbating this.”

Does climate change threaten forests? Yes. Mr. Trump errs when he ignores it. Science also confirms Mr. Biden’s plan: A reduction in carbon emissions will curb global warming. But renewable energy policy will not save our forests. To prevent fires, forest stewards in the U.S. and Canada must improve management. In this, Mr. Trump is right.

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