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Ryan Zinke’s claim that “environmental terrorists” are to blame for wildfires, explained

Poor forest management is a key driver of fires, but it’s not activists that are standing in the way.

Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Massive infernos continue to rage across much of the West. California’s Mendocino Complex Fire is now the largest in state history, covering more than 317,900 acres as of Thursday.

Fires are a natural occurrence in many woodlands and are essential to a healthy ecosystem. But the growing scale and destruction from these fires stems from human activity.

What kinds of human activity? According to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, environmental terrorists.

“[Fires] have been getting worse,” Zinke said in an interview with Breitbart News Saturday. “We have longer seasons, hotter conditions, but what’s driving it is the fuel load. And we have been held hostage by these environmental terrorist groups that have not allowed public access, that refuse to allow the harvest of timber.”

I asked the Interior Department who these terrorists are and they pointed me toward Zinke’s August 8 editorial in USA Today, where he said that radical environmentalists “make outdated and unscientific arguments, void of facts, because they cannot defend the merits of their policy preferences year after year as our forests and homes burn to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.”

Environmentalism is a recurring scapegoat in the Trump administration. Earlier this month, Trump blamed “bad environmental laws” for amplifying wildfires.

But researchers say this ire is pointed in the wrong direction. And in Zinke’s zeal to blame conservationists for deadly fires, he conspicuously sidestepped larger human-caused factors driving the current rash of wildfires, including climate change.

Activists have tried to block commercial logging, but that’s not what’s driving these fires

One example of radical environmentalism the Interior Department cited was the Pickett Hog timber sale near Medford, Oregon. Environmental activists sent 29 formal protests to the Bureau of Land Management and organized rallies to stall the harvest of Douglas Firs and Ponderosa Pines spread over 318 acres. During that time, many of the trees for sale burned down naturally, which the Interior Department said could have been avoided had companies gone in to remove decaying trees.

However, the opponents of the timber sale said they’re in favor of strategically thinning forests by cutting down high-fire-risk trees and removing dry vegetation. “We have done a lot of work supporting quite a bit of active management and we believe there is a lot of work to do in the forests,” said Joseph Vaile, executive director of KS Wild, a group that contested the sale. “What we oppose is the logging of old growth forests.”

He explained that younger and smaller trees tend to pose higher fire risks, but older trees, many of which have survived previous forest fires, are the ones that are valuable to timber companies. Harvesting these stalwarts can actually increase fire risks as more flammable vegetation accumulates.

And groups like KS Wild are pushing for even more aggressive interventions to reduce the damage from forest fires, including tactics like prescribed burns, where fires are deliberately ignited in some areas to prevent fuel from accumulating. “We need a lot more of it,” Vaile said.

The interests of the timber industry don’t always align with the health of forests

Matthew Hurteau, a climate change and forest fire researcher at the University of New Mexico, pointed out that often the trees most in need of removal have little commercial value, so even when companies have permission to cut them down, it may not be worth the expense. There are forests that have been cleared for thinning but haven’t been harvested because they’ve drawn little commercial interest.

At the moment, California has more than 100 million dead trees, a mass die-off driven by years of drought and insect infestations. These trees are like giant matchsticks, but there are so many of them that need to be removed that processing facilities like sawmills have been swamped across the state. Dead and decaying trees are also not that valuable for timber companies.

In sum, environmental groups do want to stop certain types of logging, but many of the highly flammable trees stay rooted in forests because it’s not cost-effective to bring them down.

And let’s be abundantly clear: Human activity is a major factor increasing the severity and the damage from wildfires. From the power lines and the campfires that spark them, to preventing smaller fires, to building in dangerous areas, to warming the overall climate, humans are making fires worse at every step.

“There’s a fire suppression problem, there’s a climate change problem, and there’s a human development problem,” Hurteau said.

Zinke meanwhile acknowledged the role of rising temperatures in wildfire risk, but equivocated about climate change. He told KCRA in Sacramento that the wildfires have “nothing to do with climate change.”

Then on Thursday, he pulled a 180:

Many scientists agree that climate change is a critical factor in wildfire risk. “Both anthropogenic climate change and the legacy of land use/management have an influence on U.S. wildfires and are subtly and inextricably intertwined,” reported the federal government’s US Global Change Research Program.

And in a study published in 2016, a research team reported that human-caused climate change has doubled the burned forest area in the United States over the past 30 years.

If Zinke is looking for someone to blame, he may want to look at his own boss. For the second year in a row, the Trump White House proposed eliminating the Joint Fire Science Program, a research initiative across six agencies, including the Interior Department, to improve forest management and help firefighters. It’s especially alarming given that fire seasons are getting longer and conflagrations are becoming more destructive.

“[The Joint Fire Science Program has] done this fabulous job of talking science and taking it to the end-user,” said Matthew Davies, a soil, vegetation, and fire researcher at the Ohio State University. “It has directly contributed to saving lives.”