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Chumash Engine 802 crew member cooling the fire's edge during a burn operation on Henness Ridge. Ferguson Fire, Sierra NF, CA, 2018.
(Forest Service Photo by Kari Greer)

Interior Secretary: Environmental policies, poor forest management to blame for wildfires


WASHINGTON (Circa) — At the peak of what is shaping up to be one of the worst wildfire seasons in U.S. history, the Trump administration has argued that poor forest management and environmental policies are to blame.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently made a trip to California to survey the damage caused by recent wildfires. "We need to manage our forests, we need to reduce the fuels," Zinke said while overlooking one site in Northern California ravaged by the Carr fire. Turning his attention to environmental conservationists, he continued, "The public lands belong to everybody, not just the special interest groups."

Zinke aggressively returned to the theme in an interview with Breitbart, saying, "We have been held hostage by these environmental terrorist groups that have not allowed public access — that have refused to allow [the] harvest of timber."

This is not the first time the Trump administration has attacked environmentalists in connection with the wildfires. In a recent opinion piece for USA Today, Zinke said effective forest management, including thinning forests, timber harvests and clearing the brush that fuels wildfires have been thwarted by "frivolous litigation" and "radical environmentalists who would rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods."

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump took up the argument in a confusing tweet claiming, "California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren't allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!"

Behind the heated claims, the Secretary of the Interior has a valid point in connecting forest management and the risk of wildfires, according to experts, but it is not the only factor.

"Together, poor land management, poor land use planning and the onset of climate change, we have created the perfect environment for the perfect firestorm in California. It's completely expected and it's going to get worse," explained Dr. Kate Wilkin, a fire scientist at the University of California Cooperative Extension.

Flames from the Holy Fire burning close to a pool and a home in Lake Elsinore, CA

In recent years, California wildfires have been more expansive and costly. California is currently under a disaster declaration as more than a dozen wildfires are burning across the state. Almost 1 million acres of land have been destroyed this year and more than 1,000 homes have been lost.

At the same time, firefighters have encountered exceptionally challenging conditions, resulting in six casualties. Earlier this month the National Weather Service confirmed a fire tornado in Redding, California, with gusts of 143 miles per hour.

Across the country, roughly 5 million acres of land have been lost to wildfires this year, the majority of the losses have been on federally managed land.

According to Morris Johnson, research fire ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory, many factors are contributing to the more intense fire seasons. Among the challenges to managing wildfires include fuel management, or the accumulation of dead wood and ground cover, as well as the rise of wildland-urban interfaces with more people moving into areas where wildfires were historically, ecologically the norm.

There is not a simple causal relationship between environmental policy, forest management and massive wildfires, Johnson advised, noting even the most perfect forest management system would not prevent the record-breaking blazes seen in recent years.

"If you have extreme weather, red flag warnings, high wind, humidity, those top-down effects can override the best fuel treatments," he said.

At the same time, under average weather conditions, thinning trees, pile burns and prescribed burning can be effective not in stopping wildfires, but managing them.

"We don't have the ability to prevent wildfires. It's like trying to prevent the rain," Johnson said. Rather, the issue is management and other ways to live with the inevitable.

"We're not going to be able to prevent wildfires. We should be encouraging more to maintain the ecosystem," Johnson said.

Though Zinke vehemently rejected climate change contributing to the intensity of the wildfires, he accurately touched on a number of steps that can be taken to mitigate the effects of these fires.

Wilkin noted that the Ferguson Fire outside of Yosemite, which began in shrublands and quickly spread through poorly managed forests, was a prime example of where proper forest management and even commercial logging could have lessened the damage. "Zinke's paradigm is not entirely false," Wilkin explained. "He was really conflating a lot of ideas."

For example, commercial logging would not have prevented the Carr and Mendencino Complex Fires, which began in shrublands where there is no merchantable timber, she continued. "In these regions, we need more of a focus on homes, land use planning, fuel breaks and somelandscape-wide fuel treatments, like prescribed fire or grazing where appropriate."

One constant criticism of recent decades of U.S. policy has been the focus on wildfire suppression. Recently, California's Public Policy Institute concluded that in addition to climate change and extreme weather, "decades of fire suppression" and "an emphasis on short-term management priorities" had set the stage for poor forest resilience.

During the same time, national forests have grown denser, creating more ground cover that fuels the fires. The U.S. Forest Service has struggled to manage the roughly 90 million acres of national forests.

A 2017 report by the U.S. Forest Service found that the federal government had only treated about one-quarter of the land that needed to be managed through forest thinning or prescribed burning. In California, only a small fraction of the forests, between 1 and 1.5 percent, are treated to reduce the risk of wildfires.

"We've had at least a couple decades of a hands-off forest policy, so you get tinderbox conditions in national forests," said H. Sterling Burnett, a senior environmental policy fellow at the Heartland Institute. Rather than top-down conditions of climate change and extreme weather, he said, "It's 30 years of mismanagement."

Burnett agreed with Zinke's push for forest management, increased commercial logging and limiting environmental regulations that he says have prevented effective wildfire treatment methods. At the same time, it's not clear whether the Trump administration will make the issue a priority.

In August 2017, Zinke issued a memo directing the Department of the Interior to take a more aggressive approach to forest and fuels reduction management to combat the spread of wildfires.

More recently, Zinke argued that the cost of prevention would be far less than the roughly $2 billion the federal government will spend this year fighting forest fires.

Lauri Wayburn, president of the Pacific Forest Trust agreed. "We are spending far more reacting to the problems than we would by addressing the root causes." It is doubtful that the Trump administration will be setting aside additional resources focused on prevention.

In his most recent budget request, President Trump proposed $33 million in cuts to the Interior Department's Land and Water Conservation Fund. The president also proposed $170 million in cuts to the National Forest System.

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