Trump turned California’s tragic fires into a shameless logging campaign

With tweets and taunts and political posturing, President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE and Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior gains new watchdog The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks BLM issues final plan for reduced Utah monument MORE have made one thing clear: They apparently have no genuine interest in reducing the loss of life and property from wildfires.

Instead, they’re misleading the public about the causes of California’s fires and potential solutions. And they’re using these tragedies to force through provisions for large-scale logging. It’s nothing more than a gift to the timber industry.

ADVERTISEMENT

When it comes to wildland fires, the public simply can’t rely on Trump or Zinke to act in their best interests.

Here’s what the Trump administration doesn’t want you to know:

“Radical environmental groups” aren’t the problem. Zinke blames California’s recent wildfires on lawsuits he says prevented federal logging projects. Makes for provocative soundbites, but it’s false.

The U.S. Forest Service’s own data shows less than 7 percent of nearly 600 vegetation management projects in Region 5, which includes California and Hawaii, between 2000 and 2017 have been challenged in court, and only about 3 percent of 3,800 projects nationwide.

The town of Paradise is surrounded by actively managed private timber lands. Sadly, that didn’t save it. The Camp Fire spread through areas burned by lightning fires in 2008, where post-fire logging took place soon after. Federal lands were also salvage logged and thinned to create fuel breaks. None of these projects were legally challenged by conservation groups.

The Woolsey Fire burned in nearly treeless chaparral shrub land. So did the Tubbs Fire that tore through Santa Rosa last winter. Human activity due to sprawl development in fire-prone areas has been shown to cause more fires and likely ignited both. Lawsuits aren’t preventing federal and local governments from keeping communities safe.

Climate change is a factor. Trump and Zinke willfully ignore climate experts. Yet, it’s impossible to miss the tragic consequences of their misguided policies, which are increasing fossil fuel extraction and climate pollution.

No, climate change doesn’t cause wildfires – humans mostly do. But climate change is unquestionably contributing to more fire and a longer fire season in California and elsewhere, as is the dramatic expansion of sprawl development in or near forests, grass and shrub lands.

Climate change is causing “extreme” fire conditions ― higher temperatures, low humidity and hot, dry winds ― that make fires more intense and harder to control. Studies show that increasing carbon emissions, higher temperatures and drier conditions will continue to make things worse.

When they say “forest management” they mean “logging.” Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueChinese trade negotiators cut US trip short Lawmakers run into major speed bumps on spending bills Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity MORE are using the California fires to pressure Congress to pass legislation that would weaken endangered species protections and rubber-stamp huge logging projects. These provisions are not for benign brush clearing.

The House farm bill provisions, resoundingly rejected by hundreds of scientists and the Senate, would open millions of acres, including roadless national forests, to logging and roadbuilding under the guise of “forest management.”

That flies in the face of good science. Timber companies are the ones who would benefit. They would be able to log huge swaths of national forest, including big old, fire-resistant trees ― the ones that are worth money.

Logging and thinning won’t prevent climate-fueled wildfires. As the Camp Fire has proven, these fires will tear through large landscapes, regardless of whether the area has been thinned or logged. And whether it’s called salvage logging or post-fire logging, science shows these projects can actually increase the risk of wildfires.

ADVERTISEMENT

Thinning can be useful, and nothing is stopping the federal government from doing more of it. But thinning isn’t a panacea and it’s not a completely benign activity. Sometimes it looks a lot like clearcutting.

Timber companies want to take the biggest trees they can. That creates a more flammable forest by opening tree canopies and letting in more wind. Thinning also requires an extensive network of roads, which can threaten water quality by increasing sediment in streams that feed public water supplies.

These are some of the details soundbites don’t capture.

The Trump administration’s fire agenda will elevate special interests above human life and the health of the planet. We must reject this dangerous rhetoric and demand proven, science-based responses to wildfires. As climate change accelerates, there’s no time to waste.

Randi Spivak is the public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a national, nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

This piece has been updated.