BOZEMAN, Montana — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue traveled to Zinke’s home state of Montana on Thursday to join members of Montana’s Republican delegation for an on-site briefing on a large wildfire south of Missoula, which the group blamed not chiefly on drought and climate change, but on mismanagement resulting from lawsuits by “environmental extremists.”
The Lolo Peak Fire was ignited by lightning in mid-July and has since burned more than 34,000 acres, prompting hundreds of evacuations and destroying two homes and several outbuildings. One firefighter was killed working the fire on Aug. 2 when he was struck by a falling tree. As of Thursday, the blaze was 14 percent contained.
At a briefing at the Lolo Peak Incident Command in Missoula, Zinke and the others spoke of the importance of getting ahead of wildfires by better managing forests, as well as the threat they say certain environmentalists pose to that effort.
“Montanans are saying, ‘We are tired of breathing the smoke. We are tired of seeing these catastrophic wildfires,’” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.). “Either we are going to better manage our forests, or the forests are going to manage us.”
Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) said forest fires in Montana have become all too common and that better management will result in healthier forest, more wildlife and hunting, and less frequent and intense fires.
“Everyone benefits,” he said. “Conservation benefits and our communities benefit. We all benefit. And yet we’re tied up in knots through extensive and ridiculous permitting processes, and frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremists.”
Daines echoed that sentiment, saying that the Libby Loggers — the mascot of the school in Libby, Montana — could be renamed the “Libby Lawyers,” apparently implying that the town’s timber mills have been replaced by lawyers working for “extreme environment groups” fighting to stall and stop efforts to clear dead and dying timber.
In June 2015, when still a Montana congressman, Zinke introduced a bill to limit what he described as “predatory lawsuits funded by out-of-state special-interest groups” against timber projects on U.S. Forest Service land. The bill would have required a plaintiff to post cash bonds to cover the Forest Service’s defense costs, with the plaintiff getting the money back only if it proved victorious.
Removing dead trees and thinning forests are common tools for helping to prevent wildfires. But scientists have shown climate change is driving up temperatures and triggering longer wildfire seasons in western states. Last year, researchers from Columbia University and the University of Idaho found that climate change has been fueling wildfires in the western United States for decades.
As HuffPost previously reported, President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget calls for a $300 million reduction to the U.S. Forest Service’s wildfire fighting programs, another $50 million in cuts to its wildfire prevention efforts and a 23 percent reduction in funding for volunteer fire departments.
Montana climatologist Kelsey Jencso told Montana Public Radio last week that a long period of observation is needed to tell if Montana’s current wildfire season is the result of climate change, but that the smoke currently blanketing the state “is certainly what the future [of climate change] may look like.”
Asked Thursday if climate change has anything to do with the intensity of fires in recent years, Perdue said there have also been major fires in the eastern part of the country at certain periods of time.
“There obviously is climate change, temperature change, weather change. And we have to deal, we have to adapt to it. And we have to manage the forest,” he said.
Perdue added that steps should be taken to minimize the threat regardless of the cause. “We can’t affect what the weather is or anything else, but we can affect how we manage these forests to reduce the impact of forest fires.”
In an apparent attempt to dismiss the role of climate change, Daines pointed to the Great Fire of 1910, which “burned three million acres [in Montana and Idaho] and killed enough timber to fill a freight train 2,400 miles long,” according to the Department of Agriculture.
“The climate has always been changing, we go through warmer cycles, cooler cycles, droughts, excessive precipitation,” Daines said. “We are in a warm cycle right now, we are in drought conditions here in Montana. And consequently, we’re having a severe fire season.”
Trump and several members of his Cabinet have dismissed the threat of climate change and the role humans are playing in driving up global temperatures. And the administration has worked expeditiously to derail America’s actions to combat climate change and roll back environmental regulations.
Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have denied the role carbon dioxide emissions are playing in driving climate change. Zinke has said glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park started melting “right after the end of the Ice Age” and that it has “been a consistent melt.” He also dismissed the notion that government scientists can predict with certainty how much warming will occur by 2100 under a business-as-usual scenario.
Listen to the full press briefing here, recorded by Newstalk KGVO.