Energy & Environment

Zinke takes forestry fight to fire-ravaged California

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is seizing on California’s wildfires to promote a policy long-supported by Republicans — that fires could be stopped if forests were logged.

The former Montana congressman is poised to push the benefits of what’s known as forest management at an event with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in California on Monday next to the state’s largest forest fire in history.

Yet it’s not just the blaze that makes the trip important for Zinke and Perdue.


Galvanized by President Trump’s recent tweets on the issue and a looming farm bill vote in the House that carries a number of amendments that could open up logging, the new push is also a golden political opportunity, one that environmentalists are calling foul on.

Interior representatives said Zinke’s recent tweets and planned visit to Redding, Calif., do not mark a new effort by the agency to preach forest management, saying it’s a message Zinke has been promoting for years.

“It’s really not a ‘renewed’ push,” said Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift. “He is constantly thinking about wildfire and the next wildfire season and what we can do to prevent loss of life, property and resources.”

Zinke signed a secretarial order in September 2017 “to adopt more aggressive practices, using the full authority of the Department, to prevent and combat the spread of catastrophic wildfires through robust fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques.”

More recently, in May, Zinke released a joint memorandum with Perdue, whose agency oversees the U.S. Forest Service, promoting increased collaboration between the two departments.

The message Zinke and Perdue are amplifying is the need for prescribed burns, mechanical thinning and targeted cuts of trees, a concept the Interior Department is calling “active forest management.”

In an op-ed Wednesday for USA Today, Zinke said the forest fires were reversible.

“There are years’ worth of dead logs, overgrown shrubs and snags, which many firefighters call ‘widow makers’ because they are so deadly,” he wrote. “The buildup of fuels is the condition we can and must reverse through active forest management like prescribed burns, mechanical thinning and timber harvests.”

Zinke also said “radical environmentalists” would “rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods.”

Environmentalists, however, say forest management is just a euphemism for logging, something they’ve been fighting against for years. And they see this year’s farm bill in the House as the latest legislative effort by congressional Republicans to make significant progress toward more logging.

“In the farm bill, there’s a forestry title. The House version of the forestry title is replete with a revision that would cut out environmental review — to allow logging for just about any reason,” said Randi Spivak, Public Lands Program Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are taking advantage of this moment and, I think, shamefully playing on the public’s legitimate fears of wildfires.”

The House version of the farm bill that passed June 21 includes provisions that would fast track new road construction and commercial logging in national forests. Additionally, the bill would exempt dozens of projects in national forests from full environmental review.

The Senate’s version of the legislation does not include those provisions, and the two measures will likely be hammered out in a conference committee in the fall.

Environmentalists say the House-passed provisions would significantly weaken protections for forest habitat, and that arguments in favor of logging to prevent forest fires are not wholly based in science, in addition to being economically driven by industry voices.

“They call it active management and thinning, but they are really talking about logging by waiving environmental laws and input,” Spivak said. “For lots of members of Congress, they have timber and mills in their district, so it’s really self serving.”

However, Glen MacDonald, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that the argued benefits of logging are complicated and don’t always fall along party lines.

“This debate does not always come down easily to a simple model of conservation groups and scientists versus logging companies,” MacDonald said. “Some conservation groups, such as the venerable Save the Redwoods League, have launched logging plans for second-growth forest as part of their overall strategy for sustaining healthy redwood forests in the northwestern portions of the state.”

He said the debate isn’t likely to be settled anytime soon, and that fires will worsen due to climate change.

In California, though, state leaders are pushing back on the administration’s blame, calling the messaging from Washington a red herring as Trump moves to roll back a number of environmental and air regulations meant to fight global warming, which they say is the main contributor to the enormous fires.

“California has some of the strongest environmental laws in the country, but the impact of extreme drought conditions caused by climate change are intensifying wildfires,” Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) wrote in a op-ed for The Hill on Friday. “Contrary to his tweets, the Trump administration’s anti-environment policies, not California’s pro-environment reforms, will make matters worse and hurt our planet for generations to come.”

Tags Donald Trump Mark DeSaulnier Ryan Zinke Sonny Perdue

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