Citing loss of life, destruction and mounting wildfire costs, the secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture on Tuesday pressed Congress for authority to restore health to Western forests – a process they say will take a generation to achieve.
In a conference call with national media, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the devastating California wildfires now serve as a tragic symbol of the poor health of America’s national forests.
Later in the call, Zinke blamed the poor health of the nation’s forests on “radical environmentalists.”
“We’ve talked about active forest management for a long time, but the talking is over and it’s time to act,” Zinke said. “Yes, the temperatures are getting hotter and the seasons longer, but there are active forest management principles we need to go forward on.”
Zinke agreed with President Donald Trump’s recent statements blaming past administrations for failing to manage the nation’s public lands. The devastation, loss of life and expense incurred in California and other Western fires are both “unsustainable and unacceptable.”
“Interior and Agriculture are spending billions (of dollars) every year fighting these forest fires,” said Zinke. “That money could be much better spent on improving infrastructure, our trail system, habitat and conservation. We need to prioritize getting back to an active management system.”
To do that, Zinke and Perdue are urging Congress to expand the Good Neighbor Authority to tribes and counties. That would allow the Forest Service to enter into cooperative agreements with local jurisdictions to tackle watershed and forest projects.
But they’re also looking for the more controversial authority to widen categorical exclusions. Perdue said both departments want to make permanent an expanded exclusion to remove dead and dying timber due to insect and disease, and another for salvage operations.
Perdue said such authority would reduce the severity of wildfires.
“We’d like to use categorical exclusions for fire prevention and post-fire recovery that authorizes larger treatment areas,” Perdue said. “We’re not talking about clearcutting. We’re talking about good forest management that makes sense for homes, that beautifies the forest for water quality and watershed protection, and for wildlife and other recreational activities as well.”
Like Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans representing Montana, Zinke blamed “radical environmentalists” for blocking projects intended to restore forest health.
Though Zinke said last week that now is not the time to point fingers, he told Breitbart News on Sunday that radical environmentalists were entirely to blame for the devastating California blazes, saying “This is on them.”
He continued that stance on Tuesday’s conference call, saying they’ve blocked sensible forest projects that would have prevented several devastating fire years.
“Every time there’s a thinning project out, who’s suing?” Zinke said. “Everyone should recognize that the density of dead and dying trees is higher, the density of trees is higher.
He continued, “There’s active forest management principles we should use to mitigate these devastating forest fires. But when lawsuit after lawsuit by radical environmental groups that would rather burn down the entire forest than cut a single tree or thin the forest – it’s easy to find who is suing and who is promulgating these destructive policies. So yes, I do lay it on their feet.”
At the same time, Zinke admitted to a changing climate, though he didn’t state it directly.
“Yes, there’s a lot of variables and yes, the season is getting longer, the temperatures are getting longer, we’ve had historic drought conditions in California – the dead and dying trees from beetle kill, the density of trees, the amount of underbrush – those things can be mitigated, but we have to work together,” he said.
Even if given authority by Congress, Perdue said it would take a generation to catch up, adding that millions of acres have been neglected over the years.
Priority would be given to the wildland urban interface where the potential for loss of life and structures is the greatest, Perdue said.
“If we had the authority, we could develop a strategic plan,” he said. “Frankly, the sooner we get on it, the better off we are. It will take years to catch up due to the neglect and litigation that stopped us from doing the kind of healthy forest management that needs to be done. We’re way behind the curve.”
Zinke agreed, saying that thinning, road maintenance to improve forest access, conducting prescribed burns and prioritizing high-density areas would be foremost in any management plan.
“This is where federal, state and local managers can all work together,” Zinke said. “This is going to take years. We didn’t get here overnight. This has been a long period of both letting nature take its course on a geological scale rather than human experience.”