Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed “radical” environmentalists for blocking efforts to clear forests of dead and dying trees that have fueled destructive and deadly wildfires in California.
Work to manage forests and prevent wildfires has been stymied by “lawsuit after lawsuit by — yes — the radical environmental groups that would rather burn down the entire forest than cut a single tree or thin the forest,” Zinke said Tuesday. During a conference call with reporters, Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asked Congress to give the federal government more authority to clear trees and conduct controlled burns that can pare forests of fire-fueling underbrush.
President Trump later issued a statement calling on Congress to pass legislation “to improve forest management and help prevent wildfires.”
Zinke stressed he didn’t “want to finger point,” and cited a number of factors that have contributed to the blazes, including hotter temperatures, drought conditions, excessive underbrush, and a bark beetle infestation. But he maintained that special interest groups have pushed an agenda favoring pristine forests that has resulted in a “buildup of fuels.”
Experts say forest management can mitigate some wildfire risk but isn’t a panacea.
Perdue and Zinke said they want Congress to expand the availability of an existing “Good Neighbor” program so that Indian tribes and county governments can collaborate in forest restoration activities. They also asked lawmakers for more power to waive required environmental analysis.
The White House said in a fact sheet that Congress also needs to expedite salvage operations after catastrophes and management activity on Forest Service lands surrounding at-risk communities.
Both the House- and Senate-passed farm bills would broaden the Good Neighbor program. But lawmakers are still negotiating environmental waivers. The House-passed farm bill would create 10 so-called “categorical exclusions” allowing forest management activities to be waived from environmental analysis, but the Senate version of the legislation is more limited.
The scale of these wildfires “requires more authority,” Zinke said, adding that the waivers could expedite projects to thin forests and improve the accessibility of forestland. “We’re not talking about clear-cutting” forests, he said.
The appeals come as firefighters are struggling to control blazes that have swept across California.
Environmentalists argued Zinke’s criticism is misplaced and ill-timed.
“The blame game at this juncture — when we are still digging dead people out of the rubble — is pretty callous,” said Susan Jane Brown, an attorney with the Oregon-based Western Environmental Law Center. “We are a nation of laws, and when conservation organizations feel like the federal government has violated those laws we sometimes do resort to the federal court system in order to redress those grievances.”