Wildfire season struck early this year. Before August, California’s Mendocino Complex fire was already the largest in the state’s history, and the Santa Ana winds, notorious for fueling fires, hadn’t even begun to blow. Record heat and drought in recent years that scientists have linked to climate change have contributed to a dramatic increase in the annual acreage burned.
On August 2, the Trump administration announced a plan to gut Obama-era gas efficiency standards for vehicles, simultaneously challenging California’s ability to set strict state standards. By then, California’s Carr fire had incinerated more than 1,000 homes and killed six people. The efficiency rules were meant to help avoid the worst projections for a world already irreversibly altered by climate change. Numerous observers pointed out that the U.S. government appeared to be adding fuel to the fires consuming the West.
It was a bad look.
The counteroffensive kicked off with what seemed like an ill-considered tweet from Donald Trump last week, and quickly morphed into a tour by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke peddling the logging industry gospel of cutting down trees to halt wildfires.
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 6, 2018
In an op-ed for USA Today, titled “Wildfires seem unstoppable, but they can be prevented. Here’s how,” Zinke wrote, “Every year we watch our forests burn, and every year there is a call for action. Yet, when action comes, and we try to thin forests of dead and dying timber, or we try to sustainably harvest timber from dense and fire-prone areas, we are attacked with frivolous litigation from radical environmentalists who would rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods.”
On Breitbart News radio on August 11, Zinke doubled down. “We have been held hostage by these environmental terrorist groups that have not allowed public access, that refuse to allow harvest of timber,” he said. “The result is these catastrophic fires that are causing death.”
“We import lumber and yet there is billions of board feet lying on the forest floor rotting,” he added, using a measurement unit for lumber. “It is unconscionable, because as the prices go up from the lack of timber, we’re burning it up.”
The next day, Zinke told California NBC affiliate KCRA, “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.”
Interspersed between his demands for more tree removal and dismissals of climate science, Zinke compared the wildfire-affected areas to war zones and assured that the government was fighting fire with drones. His rhetoric around so-called environmental terrorists fits in with a broader push to frame environmental organizations as promoters of eco-extremism that threatens critical infrastructure.
At a right-wing conference in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a local protester, Sallie Holmes, confronted Zinke as he addressed the audience. “Why won’t you acknowledge that climate change is causing and accelerating wildfires, even in Routt County?”
“You know what?” Zinke replied. “You haven’t served, and you don’t understand what energy is. I’d like to see your child have to fight for energy.”
Zinke’s criticism of environmentalists and public support of forest thinning is not empty rhetoric, nor is this type of politicking new for him. Finding ways to prop up Montana’s struggling timber industry was a frequent activity of Zinke’s during his tenure as the state’s U.S. representative. Now, as interior secretary, Zinke is in charge of overseeing 65 million acres of forests and woodlands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. From his elevated platform, Zinke is pushing the same timber-friendly policies that he did in Congress.
In 2015, Zinke co-sponsored legislation that would have gutted environmental protections for forests located on public lands. That bill failed, but it laid the groundwork for similarly severe provisions in the House version of the 2018 farm bill, which is being debated now by members of Congress.
Using some of the same language from Zinke’s bill, the House farm bill would eliminate many of the environmental reviews currently required under the National Environmental Policy Act for timber harvested on public land. “This is an industry wish list,” Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy for the Wilderness Society, said of the House farm bill. “The changes are sweeping. It is a dramatic rollback of environmental rules.”
The Interior Department did not respond for a request for comment.
Timber removal as a means to slow wildfires is a subject of debate among environmentalists, forestry scientists, and land managers. Many foresters assert that a century of too much fire suppression has left forests with an excess of burnable material that intensifies fires, especially under dry conditions. But even advocates for more forest thinning have called Zinke’s approach an opportunistic attempt to use a climate-fueled disaster to support the timber industry.
“They’re using these fires as an excuse to increase logging on public lands, and it’s happened before. It happened in the Reagan years, it happened in the Bush years,” said James Agee, a forestry professor emeritus at the University of Washington, who wrote a set of best practices for fuel reduction projects. “Every time the Republicans come into office, you see a shift in this direction.”
Agee underlined that forest thinning done wrong can backfire, “You’re opening up the forest to practices that might make the situation worse,” he said.
Forests on public land have always existed in a state of tension between those who see them as a source of timber profit, those who call for wilderness protection, and those who say a healthy in-between is possible. At the center of this tension is the fact that the Forest Service — the Department of Agriculture agency that manages national forest land — and the Treasury Department make money off allowing the timber industry to operate on public land. The Salvage Sale Fund, for example, incentivizes logging on wildfire-impacted land in particular, by allowing the Forest Service to keep all royalties from fire-killed trees harvested by loggers.
Zinke hails from Whitefish, Montana, a former timber town. Its economy today centers on tourism; Whitefish is home to a ski resort and lots of pricey real estate. But the lumber industry statewide has suffered in the last 25 years, with numerous saw mills and lumber businesses closing. As a legislator, Zinke pushed for policies that would open up new forests to the timber industry, which forked over $31,100 in campaign contributions between 2014 and 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Zinke’s National Forest Collaborative Incentive Act of 2015 would have forced anyone challenging Forest Service timber sales to post cash bonds to cover the costs of litigation. In a press release, Zinke called the bill a step toward rebuilding the state’s timber industry, noting that it would “help address the two leading threats against our forests, predatory litigation and wildfires.”
That bill never made it out of committee, but another that Zinke co-sponsored, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, provided the seed for the farm bill — creating a menu of environmental review exemptions for timber harvests, especially those carried out to prevent catastrophic fires. “As a fifth-generation Montanan, I grew up in timber country,” Zinke said in a statement at the time. “Revenues from the timber industry were re-invested in the community and conservation efforts.” He said the bill would “revitalize the economy. But not only that, it revitalizes our forests.”
The bill didn’t make it past the House while Zinke was in Congress, but versions of it have been kept alive since.
Its latest iteration is the House farm bill, which would eliminate environmental reviews for almost any tree removal carried out in the name of wildfire management, so long as it’s approved by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. In forests up to 6,000 acres, tree removal intended to reduce “hazardous fuel loads,” protect a habitat from “from catastrophic disturbances,” or protect a municipal water source (from ash, for example) could be carried out without review. The removal of “hazard trees” would also be exempt, along with any operation whose purpose is to encourage forest regrowth, which, according to the Wilderness Society, “is commonly accomplished by clearcutting.”
Forestry scientists have pointed out that snag forests, leftover after a fire, can provide essential habitats for threatened species — they can also provide a source of profit for timber companies. Salvage operations, where burned material is cleared post-fire, would no longer require environmental review. Logging could count as a “salvage operation” even if its primary purpose were simply to “provide an opportunity for utilization of forest materials” leftover after a fire or “a funding source for reforestation for the National Forest System lands or public lands impacted by the catastrophic event.”
Wildfires make up an important piece of the lumber industry’s profits. In 2015, at the peak of California’s drought, the timber mogul Forbes recently called “America’s richest lumberman” got 58 percent of his company’s federally sourced logs through post-fire logging.
An array of additional provisions would eliminate reviews for herbicide use, allow for road construction in wilderness areas, and weaken endangered species protections.
The lumber industry has rallied around the forestry provisions in the House Farm Bill. In an op-ed for The Hill at the end of June, the organization Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities advocated for its passage; while the organization describes itself as a “grassroots coalition,” tax filings from 2017 list its principal officer as Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry trade association that has also testified in favor of eliminating environmental reviews.
Some review requirements have already been cut. An important law passed last spring to fix problems with the Forest Service’s wildfire funding mechanism included exemptions for certain wildfire-related operations on forests up to 3,000 acres. The House farm bill significantly expands on the activities already allowed without formal review.
The Senate version of the farm bill does not include most of the House provisions to gut environmental review. The two versions are currently being reconciled in conference, where legislators have until September 30, when the current version of the bill expires, to emerge with a new bill.
Most, if not all, forestry scientists are in favor of some degree of fuel management to curb the spread of wildfires and protect communities, although there’s disagreement around how to go about it. But even experts with conflicting opinions about how to approach the problem said Zinke’s approach seemed to be tailored to the timber industry.
Chad Hanson, an ecologist who advocates for minimal forest thinning via his organization the John Muir Project, is in favor of some management, carried out close to homes and communities. “If you remove very small trees, less than six inches diameter, and you remove the lower limbs of mature trees, but leave the mature trees standing, that can reduce fire intensity; it can also reduce the rate of spread, especially if it’s followed by prescribed burning,” he said.
But Hanson said that such limited thinning is rare, since there’s so little money in it. He’s in favor of leaving more remote stands of trees alone, and allowing fire-impacted areas to self-rejuvenate without the removal of snag forests, which provide essential habitat for animals such as the black-backed woodpecker.
Hanson notes that even today, as fires spread to acreage unseen in recent years, most areas have a fire deficit, which is ecologically harmful. Evidence indicates that before Europeans invaded the West, 20 to 30 million acres of annual burning was typical (for comparison, in 2017, record-setting fires spread to about 10 million acres). As people have built homes further into the woods, allowing controlled burns has become difficult in many previously wild areas.
If Hanson had his way, he’d take all the money put toward tree removal and fire suppression efforts in remote forests and redirect it toward helping people create fire-safe areas around their homes.
Forestry scientist James Agee said, “If you’re going to manipulate fuels, you’ve got to do it in the right way. I see very little in Zinke’s op-ed that suggests they’re going to do it in the right way.”
Agee is not one of the “radical environmentalists” that Zinke has been invoking. In fact, over the years, he’s at times felt frustrated over some environmentalists’ calls for minimal logging in forests. But he’s not impressed with the interior secretary.
Although the timber industry stands to make money off of fuel reduction efforts, Agee pointed out that some of the most effective methods are not very lucrative. He underlined that forestry is a science of place — what works in one forest may not make sense in another, so making broad generalizations about how to fix wildfires is misguided.
Agee said he’s viewed plenty of “terrible” forest management efforts that actually worsened the threat of wildfire, including ones that land managers claimed were excellent. “I think exactly that scenario is going to happen if Secretary Zinke’s language as was stated is followed,” he said of the op-ed.
In fact, it was a reactionary policy decision made in the wake of another massive fire, a century ago, that led to the state of forests today. The 1910 fires in Montana, Idaho, and Washington led to a policy of wildfire suppression that harmed eco-systems and, according to many forestry experts, allowed fires to grow bigger when they did happen. An imperative to protect marketable timber helped motivate that decision.
As the debate over how to manage wildfires rages, Trump’s 2019 budget would slash funding for wildfire sciences. And the administration continues to eliminate climate policies meant to avoid increasingly severe droughts, which will in turn create more wildfire fuel.
At Thursday’s White House Cabinet meeting, Trump praised Zinke’s wildfire rhetoric. “Ryan, you’re saying it’s not a global warming thing, it’s a management situation,” Trump said, highlighting the aim of extracting trees. “Instead of removing them — gently removing them, beautifully removing them — we leave them to burn.”
Jeffrey Kane, an associate professor of fire ecology and fuels management at Humboldt State University in Northern California, condemned the administration’s dismissal of global warming. “It’s completely absurd not to consider that climate change is happening and that we are experiencing clear impacts of climate change,” he said. “These types of fires that occur in California and other parts of the West are completely consistent with our expectations and they will continue.”
Kane added, “If I was able to use the president’s style and vernacular, I would say he’s an enemy of science.”