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As California Burns, Trump and Zinke Use Catastrophe to Benefit Industry

The Trump administration and House Republicans are using the fires across the West as an excuse to chip away at bedrock environmental laws.

A car passes through flames on Highway 299 as the Carr Fire burns through Shasta, Calif. U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has falsely suggested that more logging would help prevent the devastating fires raging across the West.

A car passes through flames as the Carr Fire burns in Shasta, California. U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has falsely suggested that more logging would help prevent the devastating fires raging across the West.

Noah Berger / AP

Update, 11/10/2018: Reacting to another set of deadly California wildfires, President Trump tweeted today that there is no reason for the fires except "gross mismanagement of the forests." He went on to threaten to end federal government expenditures tied to wildfires. California Professional Firefighters called the tweet "dangerously wrong," adding that most California forests are under federal management and "it is the federal government that has chosen to divert resources away from forest management." Below, we outline the reasons for California's worsening wildfires.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wrote recently that “radical environmentalists would rather see forest and communities burn than see a logger in the woods. ” In Zinke’s zero-sum equation, the devastating wildfires in California would stop if those radical environmentalists would let the timber industry cut down more trees.

The truth is that Zinke and House Republicans are using the destruction across the West as an excuse to chip away at bedrock environmental laws created to ensure that science drives decisions about the future of our nation’s forests.

Everyone agrees that we must protect homes and lives from the catastrophic effects of fires, but Zinke’s argument is dangerously oversimplified, cynically disingenuous and downright false. And that’s not the worst part. He also proclaims that climate change has “nothing to do” with these wildfires, even as scientists and firefighting officials unanimously assert that climate change is creating the conditions that allow destructive wildfires to thrive. These types of fires will only grow in intensity and frequency if we do nothing to address climate change.

With increasingly warmer weather, forests are becoming drier and prone to burning throughout the year. Over the past 30 years, climate change has doubled the area affected by forest fires in the western U.S., according to a study that appeared in the 2016 Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

This year alone, there were 63 large, uncontained fires in the U.S. in the first week of August, according to the Washington Post.

As Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, told the New York Times: “Let’s be clear. It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.”

Climate change isn’t the only culprit. Historic firefighting practices, increased grazing and commercial logging also have created the conditions for increasingly devastating wildfires. In many Western forests, naturally occurring wildfires every five, 10 or 20 years historically helped to clear debris on the forest floor and make room for stronger, healthier growth. However, in the late 19th century, government agencies adopted a policy of complete fire suppression — and the fuel that is feeding today’s fires has been building up for a century.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke arrives at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Livestock grazing on public lands has also reduced the frequency of the low-intensity fires that helped keep the forest strong 150 years ago. Without grasses and ground vegetation left to fuel such fires, forests now burn only when there is a significant buildup of woody debris, which leads to more severe fires.

At the same time, commercial logging operations have removed the largest and most fire-resistant trees. These trees are replaced by dense groups of younger trees that act as fire ladders, providing fuel for fire to burn intensely and travel high up into the forest canopy.

Established wildfire risk reduction strategies that include encouraging “defensible space” and prescribed burning and thinning that selectively removes smaller trees and brush have helped to counter these impacts — especially in forested areas near communities, which are known as the Wildland-Urban Interface. One recent study in Colorado’s San Juan National Forest showed that selective thinning and burning helps to restore the forest back to its natural state and reduce the severity of fires. However, these wildfire risk reduction strategies rely on public funds, which are in short supply these days.

Zinke’s preferred strategy is not about being selective. Instead, it involves bowing to special interests and clearcutting large swaths of trees, following the false logic that aggressively eliminating trees means fewer trees to burn. Clearcutting also happens to be the way that the timber industry turns a profit.

Zinke has been espousing this argument as Congress negotiates the 2018 Farm Bill, which funds our nation’s food security, nutrition and conservation programs. The House version of this bill includes provisions that would exempt large-scale logging in our national forests from environmental review and public input while reducing Endangered Species Act consultation requirements.

If these proposals were to make it into the final bill, they would change the way that our national forests are currently managed, pushing aside science and public input to push forward timber industry interests above the interests of communities, recreation and ecology. Provisions in the House bill that aim to fast-track commercial logging and road building could increase fire risk and create additional dangers for surrounding communities, such as erosion and mudslides.

Zinke’s false assertion that large-scale logging is our best fire prevention strategy hasn’t been the only attempt by the Trump administration to use the deadly California wildfires to misinform the American public. Last week, President Trump tweeted incorrectly that firefighters faced a shortage of water in what appeared to be an effort to insert himself into debates over how best to allocate the state’s water.

All of this is nothing new for Zinke and the Trump administration, which continues to wage an all-out campaign to subvert science and deny the existence of climate change. For the tens of thousands of people forced to evacuate their homes, and the many firefighters who are risking their lives, climate change is very real. They are counting on us to fight for wildfire risk reduction strategies that address the real reasons these fires are burning — before it’s too late.

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