Iconic California destinations like Yosemite and Tahoe are all part of Congressional District 4, where Rep. Tom McClintock is facing re-election. It’s a mostly rural, mountainous district where less than a million people call home. This year, his challengers in both parties want to make the race about environmental issues.
Jessica Morse is one of four Democrats, in addition to a Republican, running to replace McClintock, who has represented the district since 2009. During a recent interview, she described a moment last year, when McClintock tweeted congratulations to President Trump for pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, that motivated her to run.
“I said, ‘What about the working families in Tahoe that depend on the snowpack for their livelihood?’” Morse recalled, adding that she wants her Congress member to focus on environmental policies that take climate change into account while at the same time creating jobs that benefit forest health.
All McClintock’s opponents — including Republican Mitchell White — claimed that he doesn’t focus enough on the environment. Morse specifically cited McClintock’s proposal to remove the wild-and-scenic designations from the Tuolumne and Merced rivers, which run through Yosemite.
“This would allow mining on them,” Morse said, then claimed that “he’s proposed clear-cutting Tahoe.”
McClintock declined an interview for this story, but he explained his views on man-made climate change to KCRA in 2017: “There’s no question the planet has been warming on and off since the last ice age, whether or not we choose to destroy our economy the planet is going to continue warm and cool as it has for billions of years.”
McClintock’s challengers say they want the district's next representative in Congress to believe in climate change, fight for federal funds for smart forest management to prevent wildfires and to stop mineral-extraction efforts.
“Our region has been exploited enough with gold mining and the logging industry,” said Democratic candidate Rosa Calderon, who as a geoscientist has mapped the region’s dead trees.
The fourth Congressional district is vast. It extends from the city of Truckee to the Sequoia National Forest. It’s a region that consistently votes conservative. Polling suggests the district will again go to McClintock. Residents will have a chance to cast their votes in the primary on June 5.
The candidates ding McClintock for more than not believing in human caused climate change. “He opposes clean emission standards, he voted yes on the opening the outer continental shelf to oil drilling, he voted yes on baring the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases,” said challenger Democrat Robert Lawton.
All the candidates going up against McClintock pointed out that more than 129 million trees have died in the Sierra because of the perfect cocktail of warming temperatures, drought and bark beetles. McClintock says he wants to address this issue, however.
He’s the author of a bill that he says will help dying forests. “We need to recognize that sound forest management becomes all the more important in a warming, like the one we are in now,” McClintock said at last year’s Lake Tahoe Summit. “We need to match the tree density to the ability of the land to support it to assure our forest are healthy.”
White, who is the only Republican running against McClintock, says his ideas for preventing wildfires are more progressive.
“I think that’s one thing that separates me from Tom,” White said. “I love the timber industry and we need to have it, but we need to do it in a reasonable way where we are thinning the forest in areas where its overgrown."
UC Davis Environmental Law Professor Richard Frank thinks more environmentally friendly policy could bring about positive change for both forest and fauna.
“I think Tom McClintock has been fairly consistent in his position relative to the environment, somewhere between benign neglect and overt hostility to public land management and environmental regulation,” Frank said.
In 2016, 63 percent of the district voted for McClintock, Frank suspects that will decrease this year.
“I think there are a lot of constituents who would like to see this district focus on a more sustainable future,” Frank said. He says that future could include focus on “tourism as a major industry as opposed to timber harvesting and mining.”
That’s what Democratic candidate Regina Bateson wants. She thinks that McClintock, as chairman of the Federal Lands Subcommittee in the house, could do more, and says the next person to fill the congressional seat must understand how climate change is already affecting people’s livelihoods.
Those feeling the impact are people like Dayna and Adrian Burgeson. The couple own a small citrus farm near the foothill town of Newcastle north of Roseville. They’ve witnessed warming temperatures disrupt the growing season and decrease yields. They lost about 25 percent of their mandarins early in the season last year.
“When the trees get stressed by several days of very hot weather, the trees just say ‘I don’t think so, it’s harming my growth,’” Adrian Burgeson said. “And it will drop that fruit.”
Bateson wants to help farmers like the Burgesons. “People can weather one bad harvest, two bad harvests, but at a certain point we’re going to be facing some whole scale changes in our region,” Bateson said. “The longer that we don’t act on climate at the federal level, the longer our local agriculture is in danger, and we may wait too long.”