Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke traveled to California on Sunday with advice on how to stop the state’s destructive wildfires: Remove trees from national forests.
“We have to actively manage our forests. The density of our forests is too high, the fuel load is too great,” Zinke said, kicking off a two-day tour near Whiskeytown Lake, close to the devastating Carr Fire. He blasted environmental groups for blocking or curbing logging operations on public lands.
“The public lands belong to everybody, not just the special interest groups,” he said, The Sacramento Bee reported.
“It doesn’t matter whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change. What is important is we manage our forests,” Zinke added.
Zinke’s tree-chopping wisdom echoed firefighting advice President Donald Trump tweeted last week: “Must also tree clear.”
Trump also blamed the fires on California’s environmental laws, and falsely claimed firefighting was hampered by the state’s practice of “diverting water to the Pacific” (where the water flows naturally).
California officials said they have plenty of water for firefighting. State officials agree with the scientific consensus that fire season is getting relentlessly worse because of climate change, not because of trees.
Environmentalists have complained that the Trump administration is weaponizing the California fires to ram through its policy of opening public lands and ecologically sensitive areas to corporate interests.
“They’re using the opportunity of fires ... to advance some backward-looking approaches to the environment,” Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, told the Sacramento Bee.
Zinke insisted “we’re not advocating widespread logging. No one loves public lands more than me.”
Zinke has been instrumental in gutting Utah’s Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments while public lands in his home state of Montana were expanded. The de-designated public lands are now open to private logging, drilling and mining operations.
Wildfire experts say California’s failure to clear dangerous underbrush — not trees — does contribute to wildfires. They blamed a shortage of federal funds.
“California is investing millions and millions of dollars in fuels management,” A. Leroy Westerling, a professor and wildfire expert at the University of California at Merced, told The Washington Post. “It would be great if the federal government would step up and do the same.”
Trump’s proposed 2019 budget reportedly includes cuts to firefighting efforts, including for wildfire research. Zinke said he’s redirecting money to be used for the removal of “dead and dying” trees, some of which can be “salvaged” for timber. He has also called for “robust fuels reduction,” including “timber harvests.” He complained that “radical environmentalists” would “rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods.”
But Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) wrote in an op-ed for The Hill on Friday that the key issue in managing wildfires is climate change. “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,” DeSaulnier said.
The Carr Fire has killed eight people, burned more than 191,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 40,000 residents. It was 59-percent contained as of Sunday, according to the Bee.