Energy & Environment

Zinke on California fires: 'This is not a debate about climate change'

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said climate change had "nothing to do" with California's wildfires, as he visited neighborhoods hard hit by the massive Carr Fire over the weekend.

"I've heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management," Zinke told Sacramento station KCRA.

It's a tone the Interior secretary struck throughout his visit to Redwood, Calif., where, alongside Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, he met with local officials and fire crews battling the wildfire. 

Zinke echoed President Trump in his assertion that active forest management - including logging - is the key to stopping the forest fires. 

"It doesn't matter whether you believe or don't believe in climate change. What is important is we manage our forests," Zinke told reporters while visiting the Whisteytown National Recreation Area on Sunday. "This is not a debate about climate change. There's no doubt the [fire] season is getting longer, the temperatures are getting hotter."

The Interior secretary blamed environmentalists for having their own agenda in keeping officials from logging - a method he said would remove much of the fuel for fires.

"America is better than letting these radical groups control the dialogue about climate change," Zinke told KCRA. "Extreme environmentalists have shut down public access. They talk about habitat, and yet they are willing to burn it up."

Zinke's argument runs counter to a number of California officials and environmentalists who say the underlying factor responsible for the state's expanded fire season and acres burned each year is drought caused by global warming.

"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."

Zinke pushed both the safety and economic benefits of logging in areas like Redding.

"The irony is we have billions of board feet that is rotting on our forest floor, where we are importing lumber, and that lumber could be better utilized for people to build houses, lower the price and make it affordable for people to build a home," Zinke told KCRA.

Environmentalists say Zinke's argument, heavily peddled by Republicans in western states, focuses on pleasing the timber industry rather than focusing on curbing wildfires. They argue that cutting down the mature timber favored by logging groups will actually speed up the spread of fires.

Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the administration is missing the main issue by being dismissive of climate change's effect on the fires.

"Climate change creates drought, high wind conditions, low humidity. Fire creates its own weather," she said. "You can thin all you want till the cows come home but fire will overtake that ... what is misleading is people like Zinke and other people who refuse to talk about climate change and how we need to tackle that."

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