Trump administration's shameless opportunism on forest fires

Trump administration's shameless opportunism on forest fires
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Few things bring this nation together more than natural disasters. Wherever we live, and whatever we believe, we watch reports from disaster scenes with rapt attention. People come together to volunteer, to donate, and to pray.

This is why, as we see more and more desperate people killed, injured, and left homeless by the California wildfires, it is especially sad that the Trump Administration is showing no interest in bringing the country together in response. Instead, the Administration has chosen to exploit this tragedy for crass political ends.

First, it was the President trying to score political points by claiming – without evidence – that the fires resulted from California’s Democratic government mismanaging its forests. Tinderbox conditions resulting from a record drought – likely exacerbated by climate change – would be a more scientifically defensible explanation. Indeed, many of California’s fires do not come from public forests at all.

Now, two of his cabinet secretaries are using the tragedy to demand even more sweeping authority to turn public resources over to the timber industry. Holding up extractive industry’s favorite cartoon villain, the “radical environmentalist,” Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: House Science Committee hits EPA with subpoenas | California sues EPA over Trump revoking emissions waiver | Interior disbands board that floated privatization at national parks Interior disbands advisory board that floated privatization at national parks Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE and Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueFrom state agriculture departments to Congress: Our farmers need the USMCA Overnight Energy: Trump administration issues plan to reverse limits on logging in Tongass National Forest| Democrats inch closer to issuing subpoenas for Interior, EPA records| Trump's plan to boost ethanol miffs corn groups and the fossil fuel industry Trump administration issues plan to reverse limits on logging in Tongass National Forest MORE are demanding that congressional negotiators scrap a deal made just months ago in favor of still more power for themselves.

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As part of this year’s omnibus appropriation bill, the Administration won extensive new funding for fighting fires under a formula designed to keep the cost of fire emergencies from diverting resources from the departments’ fire prevention efforts. The omnibus also included a new “categorical exclusion” from environmental review for activities designed to address wildfires. At the time, the Administration celebrated these victories. One might expect that, so soon after winning such sweeping fiscal and regulatory authority, the two secretaries would be hard at work implementing it and would only return to Congress if experience showed that this legislation was somehow insufficient.

Instead, before completing a single project under their new authority, they held a press event to blame environmental safeguards for the fires and seek more favors for industry. Appallingly, much of what they sought would actually make fire problems worse. Carefully designed logging projects can help with fire prevention, but those generally are not the most lucrative ones. The unrestrained logging the Administration seeks often removes the most fire-resisted trees and leaves behind highly flammable waste.

The Administration is particularly adamant about getting a sweeping exemption from environmental laws to allow immediate logging in fire-stricken areas. The financial benefits to industry are obvious. The consequences to the already-traumatized forest, however, are disastrous. After a fire, the loss of trees with anchoring root systems has already made soil unstable and prone to run-off into streams and rivers. An invasion of heavy logging vehicles will increase soil loss and run-off. The increased run-off increases post-fire mudslides and flooding, compounding the hardship of stricken communities. Logging vehicles also crush many of the plants and animals that managed to survive the blaze, further hampering the regeneration of a healthy forest.

The Administration wants to expand the innocuously titled “Good Neighbor” program to allow county governments to approve logging projects on national forests. Because many counties’ budgets depend heavily on their share of revenues from these projects, officials will face strong pressures to approve logging that does enormous environmental damage without doing anything to reduce fire dangers.

The effort to stampede Farm Bill negotiators into doing the timber industry’s bidding depends on prodigious double-speak. President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE says that clearing more trees would help reduce fire risks, yet he slashed funding for forest management in his budget proposals. What he apparently has in mind is to allow massive logging in our national forests that serves no fire prevention purposes.

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The secretaries repeatedly insist that they want to rely on the best science. What they are proposing, however, are new “categorical exceptions” from the very environmental reviews that bring scientific analysis into forestry decisions. They also are proposing to expand the size of logging projects that existing exemptions allow them to approve without considering science. One of the most valuable features of the environmental reviews the Administration would eliminate is the consideration of alternatives, which allows identification of ways to accommodate the interests of the timber industry, local communities, fire prevention, and environmental preservation. But if the scientists are not even consulted, the only people at the table will be timber companies serving their own interests.

When scientists and fire experts have spoken out it has been in strong opposition to the forestry provisions of the House’s Farm Bill that the Administration is championing. We would do well to heed them. 

Not everybody will decide to pitch in even in response to a disaster on the scale of the California wildfires. But nobody should be allowed to seize upon the victims’ suffering as an excuse to fatten their profits at the expense of fire safety, environmental stewardship, and the very communities that are suffering the most.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.