Michael Bastasch | Contributor
August 14, 2018
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent the last week targeting environmental groups that have for years opposed activities, like logging and thinning, to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires on federal lands.
The former Montana congressman blamed “litigation from radical environmentalists who would rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods,” in a USA Today op-ed published Wednesday.
Zinke also called out “extreme environmentalists” in an interview with KCRA that aired Sunday. The day before that, Zinke lambasted “environmental terrorists groups that have not allowed public access, that refuse to allow harvest of timber” in an interview with Breitbart Radio.
Deadly wildfires have consumed over 1 million acres in West Coast states, damaging structures and forcing thousands to flee their homes. The recent death of a firefighter battling the nearly 350,000-acre Mendocino Complex Fire brings the death toll to six for this season.
So what’s the point of attacking environmentalists? Zinke is taking the conversation away from global warming and bringing it back to land management, including the litigation and environmental laws that keep officials from actively managing the forests.
Instead, activists focus on global warming, arguing human-caused warming has expanded wildfire season due to longer hotter, drier conditions in the western states. At the same time, these groups often oppose efforts to clear forests of debris and dead wood that fuel fires when hot, dry weather sets in every year.
“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth,” Zinke told the Sacramento-based KCRA. “This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management.”
Wildfire experts tend to see land management and urban growth as prime drivers of wildfires. Many experts also see global warming as a factor in the rise of fires, but admit the relationship is more complicated than the media lets on.
“The story can’t be a simply that warming is increasing the numbers of wildfires in California because the number of fires is declining. And area burned has not been increasing either,” University of Washington climate scientist Cliff Mass wrote in a recent blog post.
In fact, the recent National Climate Assessment special report gave “low to medium confidence for a detectable human climate change contribution in the western United States based on existing studies.”
Most wildfires are caused by humans, mostly unintentionally. Sparks from vehicles or equipment, power lines, arson and cigarettes are some of the ways humans cause massive blazes. Lightning is the cause of wildfires humans don’t spark.
In California, for example, humans caused 95 percent of all wildfires, with power lines and utility equipment becoming a growing problem. Research also shows that wildfire season has primarily grown from population growth in fire-prone areas, increasing the chances of a fire-causing spark.
Environmentalists have obviously not taken kindly to Zinke’s remarks, but are particularly incensed by his dismissal of global warming as a driver of catastrophic wildfires.
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,” Randi Spivak, the public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Hill.
“You can thin all you want till the cows come home but fire will overtake that,” Spivak said, adding “what is misleading is people like Zinke and other people who refuse to talk about climate change and how we need to tackle that.”
“Name calling and finger pointing won’t change the truth that climate change is exacerbating wildfires,” echoed the Sierra Club’s Athan Manuel. “The long-term safety of our communities relies on reducing carbon pollution.”
Zinke actually did say fire season had gotten longer and temperatures had warmed, but added that “doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility to remove the dead and dying timber and manage our forests so you don’t have these catastrophic burns.”
But Zinke is correct that environmental litigation has kept federal agencies, including the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service, from thinning, clearing debris and conducting prescribed burns to keep forest growth in check.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Forestry found “[v]egetative management, or logging projects continued to be the dominant type of management activity involved in Forest Service land management litigation, representing nearly three times more cases than any other type of management activity.”
The Forest Service was found more likely to lose cases “where plaintiffs advocated for less resource use,” particularly in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals where the agency won less than half its cases.
In fact, the 9th Circuit on Monday overturned a Forest Service plan for part of Idaho’s Payette National Forest. The judge sided with environmental groups and ruled “renders the Project inconsistent with the desired vegetative conditions set forth in the Payette Forest Plan” from 2003.
The service’s plan that got overturned included getting “fire conditions toward historical range of variability to reduce wildland fire risk, improve wildlife habitat” through “mechanical thinning, harvest and prescribed burning.”