In recent days, Ryan Zinke, US Secretary of the Interior, has been making headlines with his remarkably wrong-headed remarks about the US West’s horrific season of wildfires, blaming them on eco-terrorists. As with President Trump’s tweets of two days earlier in which he made the baffling statement that California was pumping fresh water into the Pacific instead of using it to fight fires, Zinke is so wrong that it is literally incredible that he could believe what he is saying.
The verbal brushfire started with an op-ed piece in USA Today.
“The fires are burning hotter and more intense, due in part to hot and dry weather and in part to the fuels that overload our forests. These fuels fill forests from the floor, where highly-combustible, dry pine needles act as kindling to jump-start the tiniest spot fire, all the way up to the crown where beetle-killed trees dot the mountains like matches. In between the floor and the crown, there are years’ worth of dead logs, overgrown shrubs and snags, which many firefighters call ‘widow makers’ because they are so deadly. The buildup of fuels is the condition we can and must reverse through active forest management like prescribed burns, mechanical thinning and timber harvests.”
Let’s avoid the grammatical analysis and stick to the intended meaning. Grammar flames are so 1980s message boards, after all.
He’s completely correct about forest management being an issue. Underbrush, beetle-killed trees, and lots of pine needles everywhere are a reason why wildfires are more of a problem today. Not letting fires burn does mean that the conditions for wildfire increase rather than decrease. Letting people continue to develop further and further into wildfire territory does put a lot more people at risk and leads to aggressively fighting even more fires rather than simply preventing them from spreading. While active forest management can mean a lot of things, the science behind it is sound and global.
However, it’s in the follow-ups where he jumps the shark. In the same piece, he lays the blame on the environmental movement.
“Radical environmentalists would have you believe forest management means clear cutting forests and national parks.”
There are certainly extreme positions in the environmental movement. They aren’t the reason why the forest is poorly managed, however. Cutting of older trees and leaving scrap and low-value lumber behind creates the conditions for wildfires, and that’s fully in the forestry companies’ hands.
But it is the follow-on interviews where he goes further into the deep end (bolding mine).
“On Breitbart News radio on August 11, Zinke doubled down. ‘We have been held hostage by these environmental terrorist groups that have not allowed public access, that refuse to allow harvest of timber,‘ he said. ‘The result is these catastrophic fires that are causing death.’ […] The next day, Zinke told California NBC affiliate KCRA, ‘I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth — this has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management.'”
In the first interview. he ascribes a tiny subset of Earth First!-ers with the power to stop active forest management across all 13 western states. Let’s examine that a bit more. This map is from the Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination Wildfire viewer. Stop for a moment and look at the number of fires burning across the western USA and into Canada in August of 2018.
Beyond the rather ludicrous power that Zinke appears to think a rag-tag bad of environmentalists have, here is the real problem with that: Eco-terrorism in the USA peaked almost 20 years ago with a grand total of 163 incidents in one year across the entirety of the United State. These weren’t just tree spikers however. The 163 includes all of the incidents against logging companies, factories, research facilities and fur companies. Every animal liberation action is in there. Every rabbit rescue is in there.
Only 40% of the incidents represented in this chart are by environmental groups, not animal rights groups. And while California, Oregon, and Washington State had a large percentage of the environmental-specific incidents, the other ten western US states had low levels of incidents. How exactly are the wildfires in those states the result of the handful of incidents from decades ago?
How exactly is a movement which saw four incidents of eco-terrorism including animal rights actions in 2012 preventing access to forests by forestry companies?
And then there is this statement: “this has nothing to do with climate change.”
That’s in line with the rest of the current Republican administration’s position on global warming and climate change, but let’s look at some more data, shall we? On the right is a snippet of a Union of Concerned Scientists of the USA infographic on the link between climate change and wildfires in the USA.
How exactly are the tiny number of eco-terrorism incidents making the forest fire season 2–3 months longer?
Of course, the UCSUSA isn’t basing its concerns on its imagination, but on actual scientific studies:
- The Age of Western Wildfires
- Regional climate trends and scenarios for the U.S. National Climate Assessment. part 9. climate of the contiguous United States. NOAA Technical Report NESDIS
- The heat is on: U.S. temperature trends
- United States Geological Survey (USGS). 2013. Federal wildland fire occurrence data
- Effects of climatic variability and change on forest ecosystems: a comprehensive science synthesis for the U.S. forest sector
- Impacts of climate change from 2000 to 2050 on wildfire activity and carbonaceous aerosol concentrations in the western United States
- Climate Change and Wildfire in Canada
- Fine‐resolution climate projections enhance regional climate change impact studies
- etc. etc. etc.
Zinke is blaming a relatively small and historic concern for incredibly wide-spread wildfires today. It’s hard to imagine him taking his statements seriously, yet he has been repeating them whenever asked. And he’s going further to deny the scientific reality of climate change and its effect on wildfire. Why might he be doing that?
The obvious question is “Who benefits?” And the answer is the forestry companies which will be benefiting from the newly announced White House policy that will see increased logging.
The gap between reality that the United States Secretary of the Interior could hear from any of the top bureaucrats who work for him and his statements is so broad that it can only be ascribed to venality of some sort. Especially for a man with a BSc in Geology and two master’s degrees.