The Trump administration Tuesday resumed its attack on environmental groups it blames for California’s deadly wildfires — even as policy experts called the criticisms misguided.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, in a conference call with reporters, said litigation by environmentalists has prevented the federal government from implementing common-sense projects that would thin out trees and reduce wildfire hazards. Their comments came as the death toll in the Camp Fire in Butte County has reached 79, with 699 people still unaccounted for as if Monday night.
Zinke was insistent on blaming “the radical environmental groups who would rather burn down the entire forest than cut a single tree or thin the forests.” He and Perdue urged Congress to pass pending legislation that would give their agencies greater latitude to remove trees without doing exhaustive environmental reviews first.
Yet many policy experts, and even the logging industry, now say many environmental groups have relaxed their opposition to forest-thinning projects. A Sacramento Bee investigation in early October showed that while environmental groups once routinely used the courts to block or delay forest-thinning projects, many of them have begun working with the logging industry in recent years.
“The vast majority of the mainstream environmental community is on board,” said Rich Gordon, president of the California Forestry Association, the industry’s main lobbying group in Sacramento. “We’ve been working hard together ... and have good partnerships.”
In October the Forest Service, which reports to Perdue’s Department of Agriculture, gave The Bee a list of 25 forest-thinning projects on Forest Service land in California that environmentalists had tried to scuttle in the past decade.
None of them were in the Plumas National Forest, in the vicinity of where at least one ignition point of the Camp Fire may have been. Cal Fire has said the Camp Fire started either in the Plumas forest or just outside of it.
Gordon faulted the federal government for not spending enough on forest management. McClatchy reported in August that the Trump administration has been proposing carving millions out of the federal budget for management.
Perdue said it will be nearly impossible to fix the forests quickly because so many of them have become badly overgrown. Even if the administration were granted the authority it wants to move more aggressively, “it will take years to catch up because of the neglect and the litigation,” the agriculture secretary said.
Gordon said some groups such as the Sierra Club “still have some very serious concerns about forest management,” but the litigation usually causes delays and modifications of thinning projects, not outright cancellations. Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has become more aggressive on the issue, persuading the Legislature to earmark $1 billion in carbon “cap and trade” funds over the next five years to support forest management programs, largely on private property
Perdue and Zinke insisted they aren’t interesting in tree removal on a mass scale. “We’re not talking about clear cutting,” Zinke said.
Both secretaries plan to visit the Camp Fire burn area next Monday.
Zinke’s criticism of environmental groups was essentially a repeat of charges he made after visiting Redding in August and inspecting the Carr Fire wreckage. It was a departure from the more conciliatory tone he struck after touring Paradise’s ruins last week with Gov. Jerry Brown and FEMA Administrator Brock Long.
During that visit, Zinke declined to repeat President Donald Trump’s claims on Twitter that California was at fault for allowing forest fires. When asked about the poor health of the forests, he spread the blame around more widely. “The Forest Service is guilty, the Department of Interior is guilty, the state is guilty, the court system (is guilty) for allowing these frivolous lawsuits,” he told The Bee.
Trump himself attempted to make peace with Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom in his visit to Paradise on Saturday, pledging the federal government’s full cooperation in recovery efforts while pressing the need for more aggressive forest management.