Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is calling for a more proactive approach to preventing wildfires, as his department says around 100 fires rage in the western United States.
Zinke, whose department manages about one-fifth of land in the U.S., is also making clear what his call to "actively manage our forests" does not entail.
"Radical environmentalists would have you believe forest management means clear cutting forests and national parks," the former Montana congressman wrote Wednesday morning in an op-ed published by USA Today. "But their rhetoric could not be further from the truth. They make outdated and unscientific arguments, void of facts, because they cannot defend the merits of their policy preferences year after year as our forests and homes burn to the ground."
His op-ed comes after confusion about President Donald Trump’s claim that California’s water, which could be used for firefighting, was instead "being diverted into the Pacific Ocean." Zinke’s spokeswoman, Heather Swift, said the department’s practice is to not comment on Trump’s Twitter posts. Over the weekend, Zinke issued his own tweet that blamed "frivolous" lawsuits for hurting his department’s efforts to fight wildfires.
Zinke’s approach does involve logging, but in a targeted way to thin overgrowth, Swift explained.
Forestry scientists may prescribe the removal of every fourth tree, for example, or mark those infected with tree-killing beetles. Trees killed by beetles, she noted, are dead and dry but can remain upright, giving fires a path to expand upright to the surrounding growth.
Zinke’s approach also calls for removing some underbrush from the woods — which acts as kindling for large fires — and for clearing a perimeter around buildings, such as residential developments. A layer of pine needles on the ground around a national park lodge, for example, can allow a fire to spread to the structure.
Zinke issued a secretarial order last season, and the approach is being taken in parks like Yosemite, where the popular valley area is currently closed because of the nearby Ferguson fire. Park workers there are clearing out dead timber from the forest floor in the area, hoping to deprive the fire of fuel should it spread.
Zinke has seen the prevention efforts firsthand as Interior secretary. In his prior role as a U.S. congressman, Zinke witnessed the controversy that can arise when environmental interests, local residents and land managers are at odds over how to protect the forest. That was on his mind when he wrote in a tweet this weekend, "We must be able to actively manage our forests and not face frivolous litigation when we try to remove these fuels."
Wildfires, he noted in the op-ed, can be bad for the environment.
"Wildfires produce smoke and emissions," he wrote. "The release of gases and particles can negatively affect air quality. Fires also damage watersheds, and as we see fires burning hotter and longer, the soil is actually becoming scorched and sterilized, preventing regrowth."
"In addition," he continued, "while many of the frivolous lawsuits waged to stop timber harvests cite habitat as a concern, environmental litigants are little concerned when an entire forest burns to the ground and the habitat and wildlife are lost."
Read Zinke’s full op-ed here.