Two top officials of the Trump administration, winding up a tour of fire-ravaged Redding, insisted Monday that removing dead trees and thinning forests, not addressing climate change, are the keys to dealing with California wildfires.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, pressed by reporters about climate change and the state’s record-setting blazes, were quick to pivot the conversation back to forest management.
At a press conference at a U.S. Forest Service base, Perdue held up a historical graph of wildfire activity, showing a previous spurt of big blazes that ravaged the state before a quieter period started in the 1920s.
“Has it happened before?” said Perdue, whose agency oversees the Forest Service. “Yes, it has.”
Zinke and Perdue toured Redding, where the Carr Fire has been blamed for eight deaths, as at least one prominent California Democrat scolded the Trump administration for downplaying the effect of climate change.
“As California breaks one wildfire record after another, we need to speak the truth — in order to mitigate these fires, we must combat the effects of climate change,” U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is considered a potential candidate for president in 2020, said in a tweet.
The causes of California’s intense fire season have become increasingly controversial. Climatologists and many state officials believe rising temperatures, by drying out vegetation earlier in the year, have lengthened and intensified the fire season. Environmentalists have accused the Trump administration of exploiting the wildfires to pursue widespread timber harvests.
“They’re promoting fear-based forestry,” said Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project, a nonprofit organization. He said House Republicans have passed legislation that would significantly ease restrictions on timber harvests, although its prospects in the Senate are uncertain.
Zinke, however, said the legislation would merely pave the way for “sustainable” and responsible thinning of forests.
While acknowledging that temperatures have risen, Zinke and Perdue repeatedly refused to link climate conditions with California’s fire risks.
“Its not ‘climate change equals fires,’ ” Zinke said. “It’s a variable in a longer equation that includes (tree) density, mortality ... fuel loads, species.
“Whether you are a proponent, opponent, believer or non-believer, it doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility to take care of public lands,” Zinke added.