- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke moved Tuesday to combat the spread of catastrophic wildfires by clearing more trees, a policy switch that represents a dramatic departure from nearly three decades of hands-off management in the federal forests.

He released a department-wide memo calling on supervisors and managers to “think about fire in a new and aggressive way” by clearing the dead and dying trees and vegetation that have overrun the federal forests and heightened wildfire danger.

“This Administration will take a serious turn from the past and will proactively work to prevent forest fires through aggressive and scientific fuels reduction management to save lives, homes, and wildlife habitat,” said Mr. Zinke in a statement.

His policy directive comes with Western states battling one of the more destructive wildfire seasons in recent years. Currently, 62 large wildfires are burning in nine states, led by 20 in Montana, with more than 48,000 blazes searing 8.1 million acres so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Mr. Zinke said recent damaging wildfire seasons have been described as “the new normal,” but that it was “unacceptable that we should be satisfied with the status quo.”

“It is well settled that the steady accumulation and thickening of vegetation in areas that have historically burned at frequent intervals exacerbates fuel conditions and often leads to larger and higher-intensity fires,” said Mr. Zinke. “These fires are more damaging, more costly, and threaten the safety and security of both the public and firefighters.”

Mr. Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue have expressed frustration with the thicket of federal regulations and environmental appeals that have snarled efforts to thin the forests, including those under the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Interior directive allows forest supervisors to seek assistance by contracting with “capable resource managers in the private sector,” which would presumably include loggers working in the shrinking U.S. timber industry, a provision likely to meet with resistance from environmentalists.

“It makes little sense to be thinning to protect structures when we see flames on the ridge and smoke in the air—fuel management is more effective when undertaken before fires break out,” Mr. Zinke said.

Environmental groups have resisted calls for more tree-cutting, arguing that forests have a natural fire cycle and that the increased danger from destructive infernos stems from climate change.

“The assumption that more logging would reduce large fires is invalid because climate/weather drives wildfires and trumps all logging/thinning efforts,” said George Wuerthner, a fire ecologist with the Foundation for Deep Ecology in San Francisco, in an email.

He said the large fires responsible for most of the burned acreage “also burn through thinned forest, clearcuts, etc. because they are being driven by winds. Fuel reductions do not halt them.”

Instead of widespread fire suppression efforts, environmental groups have called for more targeted treatments around buildings and homes focused on saving lives and property.

The Sierra Club posted a Sept. 7 analysis of the Western wildfire situation headlined, “Wildfires burning through the West are terrifying—and necessary, too.”

“Fire isn’t destruction; it’s renewal. The mosaic of forest types left behind in fire’s capricious path create stronger, more diverse ecosystems rich with life,” said Aaron Teasdale in the article. “Western forests need fire like rainforests need rain.”

Still, Western Republicans frustrated with the “let it burn” approach said Mr. Zinke’s more aggressive directive on forest management was long overdue.

“I’m heartened to finally have an Administration that’s focused on actively managing and addressing the on-the-ground conditions that are contributing to our historic wildfire crisis,” said House Natural Resources Committee chairman Rob Bishop.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, said that “[t]reating our landscapes mitigates wildfire risk, increases firefighter safety, and makes our forests and rangelands healthy and resilient. We can no longer delay the implementation of this important work.”

Rep. Bruce Westerman, the Arkansas Republican who sponsored the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, said emergency action by the executive branch was needed, given that more than 50 million acres are currently at risk of catastrophic wildfires.

“Management actions taken by Secretary Zinke today will not completely stop the risk, but it is an important step forward in our fight to turn unhealthy, overgrown, and infested forests into thriving, healthy ecosystems,” Mr. Westerman said. “I commend Secretary Zinke for recognizing this emergency situation and taking steps to address prevent further loss of life and property due to these preventable, catastrophic wildfires.”

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