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Ryan Zinke: Climate Change Has 'Nothing to Do' With California Wildfires

Politics
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke working with Sequoia Kings Canyon NPS fire crew on a burn pile to rid mechanically cleared fuel. U.S. Department of the Interior

Much like his boss, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will blame anything but climate change for California's ongoing wildfires and insists that clearing trees will help reduce the risk of fires spreading.

"I've heard the climate change argument back and forth," Zinke, who is currently touring communities devastated by the massive Carr Fire, told Sacramento's KCRA. "This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management."


In an op-ed last week in USA Today, Zinke wrote that "active forest management" including prescribed burns, mechanical thinning, timber harvests and logging will help prevent large forest fires.

The interior secretary was echoing President Donald Trump's tweet last week that included the firefighting tidbit, "Must also tree clear." (The widely criticized tweet also falsely accused California lawmakers for diverting water needed for firefighting into the Pacific Ocean.)

Zinke also accused "radical environmentalists" for blocking forest management practices.

"Every year we watch our forests burn, and every year there is a call for action," he wrote in the USA Today op-ed. "Yet, when action comes, and we try to thin forests of dead and dying timber, or we try to sustainably harvest timber from dense and fire-prone areas, we are attacked with frivolous litigation from radical environmentalists who would rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods."

There is some merit to the argument that clearing trees can starve a fire by removing the fuel. However, as The New York Times explained, the issue has become politically polarized: "Republicans in Congress have sought to loosen environmental restrictions to allow more thinning. Democrats and environmentalists argue the practice will open the door to expanded commercial logging and threaten wildlife."

Indeed, during his interview with KCRA, Zinke touted the economic benefits of logging.

"The irony is we have billions of board feet that is rotting on our forest floor, where we are importing lumber, and that lumber could be better utilized for people to build houses, lower the price and make it affordable for people to build a home," the former Montana congressman said.

Dan Jacobson of Environment California told KCRA he is skeptical of Zinke's intentions.

"Business groups come in and say, 'Oh we need to manage the forests,'" Jacobson said. "And that's their code word for, 'We need to cut everything down.'"

Experts and officials have linked California's string of wildfires to population growth and development, years of prolonged drought that have dried vegetation and climate change.

"We need to deal with the reality that climate change is a big part of the problem," Paul Mason, vice president of Pacific Forest Trust commented to KCRA.

ABC News senior meteorologist Rob Marciano explained that a prolonged heatwave and high temperatures exacerbated the spread of the Carr Fire, one of the most destructive in state history.

"Even by July standards, this is an unusually long July heat wave with triple-digit heat in areas for three weeks straight. And the night that the fire went off, temperatures were well above 110 degrees. In cases like this, there's an undeniable link to climate change," Marciano said.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) said the key issue in managing wildfires is climate change.

"Contrary to his tweets, the Trump administration's anti-environment policies, not California's pro-environment reforms, will make matters worse and hurt our planet for generations to come," DeSaulnier wrote in an op-ed for The Hill on Friday.

There are more than 100 major active blazes in the country right now, with 30,000 first responders battling wildfires that have burned more than 1.6 million acres of land.

Scientists recently warned that Earth may be descending into "hothouse earth," where increasing temperatures cause larger and more frequent wildfires.

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