Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, touring neighborhoods devastated by the Carr Fire, stepped up the Trump administration’s push Sunday to remove more trees from national forests as a means of tamping down fire risks.
“We need to manage our forests, we need to reduce the fuels,” Zinke said as he overlooked Whiskeytown Lake in the vicinity where the Carr Fire began July 23.
Starting a two-day tour of the Redding area, Zinke also took a shot at environmental groups that he said are standing in the way of aggressive forest management. In some cases, environmental groups have successfully used litigation to block or curtail logging operations on public lands.
“The public lands belong to everybody, not just the special interest groups,” he said as he stood in front of a largely destroyed neighborhood in the Keswick Estates area of west Redding.
Zinke’s visit came about a week after President Donald Trump enraged environmentalists by suggesting in two tweets that California’s environmental policies had worsened fire hazards by depriving firefighters of water and leaving the forests too dense. Cal Fire officials said they have plenty of water.
Zinke seized on the forestry issue, saying, “This is an example, the president’s right. This is an example of we have to actively manage our forests.”
Some environmental groups have acknowledged that forests have grown too thick and should be managed with occasional cutting as well as planned or “prescribed” burns when fire risks are low. Gov. Jerry Brown has put more than $90 million of additional forest-management funds into the fiscal 2019 budget, and groups such as the Public Policy Institute of California and the Little Hoover Commission, the state’s in-house think tank, have called for more aggressive forest management.
But environmentalists fear the Trump administration is using the horrific 2018 fire season as a way to clear-cut treasured forests.
“They’re using the opportunity of fires ... to advance some backward-looking approaches to the environment,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, in an interview.
Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, said forest management “as Ryan Zinke and others describe it is an indiscriminate cutting.”
He and others added that Zinke’s argument misses the point about the Carr Fire and some of the other destructive blazes that have hit California this year: They started in shrublands, not thick forests.
Phillips said the Trump administration also is ignoring the root cause of the rash of wildfires this year: climate change, which has stretched out the fire season.
The Trump administration has sparred repeatedly with California officials over climate-related issues, including rules governing greenhouse gas emissions from cars. Zinke, asked about climate, said, “It doesn’t matter whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change. What is important is we manage our forests.”
Later he added, “This is not a debate about climate change. There’s no doubt the (fire) season is getting longer, the temperatures are getting hotter.”
He also denied any suggestions that he wants to see wholesale logging operations on public lands. “No one loves public lands more than me,” he said. Forests can be thinned without “destroying our habitat (and) making sure our endangered species get protected,” he said.
“We’re not advocating widespread logging.”
McClatchy has reported that the Trump administration has proposed reducing the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service’s fire-prevention budgets. Zinke, however, said he’s been directing funds to removing dead and dying trees.
At Whiskeytown, Zinke pointed across lake to a forested area that suffered fire damage but wasn’t destroyed. What saved the forest, he said, was the fact that it had been subjected to prescribed burns and mechanical cutting in prior years.
“This is an example,” he said. “You can see where treatment was done.”
He added that he and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who will join Zinke on Monday, will ask Congress for authorization to streamline procedures for clearing out dead and dying trees. Some of those trees can be salvaged for timber, he said, and their removal will help reduce fire risks.
The Carr Fire, which forced the evacuation of 40,000 Redding-area residents, had burned 191,211 acres and was 59 percent contained as of Sunday, according to Cal Fire. It has been blamed for eight deaths.
“Looks like Iraq. Devastating,” said Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, as he walked through the area in Keswick Estates where the “fire tornado” whipped up winds of 160 mph and toppled electrical transmission towers.
He also met with neighbors whose homes survived — and some who were digging out the rubble of where their homes used to be.
“I’m glad at least everyone’s safe,” he told Patti Jo Peters, who was shoveling through rubble at her brother’s destroyed home, looking for stray belongings, in the community of Keswick.