Trump administration promises teamwork — not more money — to reduce fire risk

“It’s not ‘climate change equals fires.’ ” Trump officials call for forest thinning to reduce wildfire risk

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talk about the Carr Fire and how they believe forest management is necessary to cut wildfire risk.
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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talk about the Carr Fire and how they believe forest management is necessary to cut wildfire risk.

Trump administration officials unveiled a new plan Thursday to reduce the risk of forest fires, acknowledging “the urgent need to dramatically increase preventative forest treatment” that can keep fires from burning out of control.

The plan, which emphasizes state and local collaboration, was short on details, however. It does not address politically sensitive issues like climate change, which Democrats and scientists argue is at the root of the problem, or the role of environmental reviews for logging projects, which conservatives want to sidestep. And it did not address the possibility of additional funding, suggesting the burden to pay for the new efforts could fall to the states.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue just returned to Washington from a tour of California, including a stop in Redding to review the damage from the Carr Fire. He cited the state’s raging wildfires in his argument for the new approach. “These horrible events … are stark reminders of the immense forest fire health crisis in this country,” Perdue said in remarks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol.

As he did in California, the former Georgia governor refused to address the role that climate change is playing in the worsening fire seasons across the West. “If you want to debate the cause you can do that, we’re focusing on what we can do today in order to mitigate the impact,” Perdue said Thursday.

That, he said, includes increasing “the number and size of our projects, access larger landscapes and cross boundaries” between state and federal land. And “frankly, we cannot do this ourselves,” said Perdue, whose agency oversees the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s got to be done in shared stewardship with our states and local communities.”

The agency didn’t provide any goals or metrics for what the plan hopes to achieve, in terms of acres managed or projects completed. “What we’re really announcing today is the beginning of a collaboration of forming those plans,” Perdue explained. Asked how much the initiative will cost and who’s paying, he replied, “sitting down and talking, we don’t think has, necessarily, a quantitative figure associated with that.” As The Bee has reported, the Trump administration proposed slashing forest management budgets in recent years, although Congress has ignored those requests and provided modest funding increases.

Congress also reached a bipartisan breakthrough in the spring to change the way the federal government budgets for firefighting. Beginning in fiscal year 2020, the Forest Service will no longer have to borrow from its regular budget for to cover firefighting costs, a practice that slowed the agency’s ability to pursue forest management projects.

Perdue and a bipartisan group of senators from Oregon, Washington, Montana and Alaska touted the strategy as the “next step” from those reforms. And they suggested that greater collaboration is likely to save the government money down the road, or, at least, “get more done with the same cost that we’re expending today,” Perdue said.

As Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington pointed out, fighting ever larger and more frequent wildfires is costing the taxpayers more and more money. “I think we’re spending somewhere over $2 billion on fire suppression,” Cantwell noted, “and the point is, if you do some treatment in advance … can you reduce that cost? We’ll have to see what this yields as far as savings.”

“Dramatically increasing” forest management projects, as Secretary Perdue called for, will still require investments on the front end, however.

He suggested, for example, that state foresters could provide “much of the manpower” needed to conduct prescribed burns and other types of programs designed to eliminate dead trees and overgrown trees and brush from the forests — vegetation that is particularly vulnerable to fires. But forestry experts in Northern California have told The Sacramento Bee that the state doesn’t have the specially trained personnel needed to manage such controlled burns on a large scale. “To do that you really need the people with the expertise,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley. “We have some, but not enough.”

Recruiting and training those people takes both time and money.

A coalition of stakeholders expressed support Thursday for the general concepts in the administration’s strategy, but as Western Governors’ Association Executive Director James Ogsbury noted, “the devil is in the details.”

The Nature Conservancy’s Director of U.S. Government Relations Karen Onley said in a statement that the group supported the focus on “reducing fuels and improving forest conditions,” which she called “the best strategies for lowering the threat of catastrophic wildfires.”

“We look forward to working with Congress on the next steps to support this work,” Onley continued, “including in its spending decisions.”

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