CLOVIS, Calif. — Here in the town dubbed the “gateway to the Sierras,” the haze from the Ferguson Fire is fading as Yosemite National Park prepares to reopen, but the debate over how to stop wildfires from razing the state again next year continues to smolder.
California’s catastrophic wildfire season has illuminated the yearslong stalemate between those who want to cut back the overgrown, beetle-infested national forests and environmentalists who have axed efforts to fell more trees, blaming the destructive fires on climate change.
Now the Trump administration is moving to break the logjam. As he tours one California fire site after another this summer, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has pressed for more active forest management while throwing cold water on the climate-first approach.
“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth,” Mr. Zinke told KCRA3 in Sacramento on Sunday. “This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management.”
His comments fueled the ire of the environmental movement, including the Center for Western Priorities, which accused him of “either being willfully ignorant or purposely deceptive.”
“Any politician ignoring the role a warming climate plays in record-setting wildfire seasons loses all credibility as an honest broker,” said center deputy director Greg Zimmerman. “Instead, Zinke is in California using an ongoing natural disaster to push an unpopular political agenda.”
Elsewhere, Mr. Zinke has insisted that no matter what your take on global warming, the light-touch approach to thinning the national forests is doing more harm than good.
Wildfires have devastated 695,313 acres in California this year. The Mendecino Complex Fire, the largest in state history and one of nine major blazes still roiling the state, was 70 percent contained Monday after having burned 331,339 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
In West Redding, where the massive Carr Fire was 61 percent contained Monday after having burned 201,680 acres, Mr. Zinke said that “we’re going to actively manage our forests, reduce the fuel load, and make sure that when we do replant, we replant diversity of species.”
“The president’s right. This is an example of, we have to actively manage our forests,” the interior secretary said in video from The Sacramento Bee. “I’ve heard the argument of climate change. It doesn’t matter whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change. What is important is that we manage our forests.”
In December, the U.S. Forest Service announced that California had set a record with 129 million dead trees on 8.9 million acres, the result of a five-year drought and beetle-kill, but that its tree mortality task force had removed only about 1 million.
Meanwhile, the logging industry has continued its free fall, with timber harvesting dropping by 80 percent in the past 40 years, as projects in the national forests are killed or delayed by “frivolous litigation from radical environmentalists who would rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods,” as Mr. Zinke put it in a Thursday op-ed.
Environmentalists have swung back by accusing the administration of using the wildfires as a pretext to prop up the ailing timber industry.
Kirin Kennedy, Sierra Club associate legislative director for lands and wildfire, accused the Trump administration of continuing to “exploit wildfires in California for political gain.”
“[I]nstead of addressing or even acknowledging climate change’s role in exacerbating wildfires, the administration is using fire as cover to serve special interests,” Ms. Kennedy said. “Moving to increase logging and weaken protections for endangered species like salmon risks local and outdoor economies and ignores the need to reduce climate pollution, which is absolutely essential to ensuring the long-term safety of our communities.”
The National Resources Defense Council said the massive California wildfires “underscore the need for #California to double down on our convictions on climate” by fighting, for example, the Trump administration’s recent move to lower federal fuel-efficiency standards on vehicles.
President Trump took heat last week for conflating the California water shortage and wildfires in a tweet blaming activists for diverting water supplies needed to fight fires. Fire specialists say a lack of water isn’t the problem.
Mr. Trump made it clear he wanted to see more active forest management by saying, “Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!”
Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican who toured the Ferguson Fire last month with Mr. Zinke, argued that devoted climate change activists should be the first to embrace more timber harvesting in the name of thinning the national forests.
He cited the greenhouse gas emissions from out-of-control wildfires as well as the beneficial carbon-absorbing properties of healthy trees. A well-maintained forest in the Sierras should have 80 to 100 trees per acre, he said, but that figure is closer to 300 per acre in the national forests.
“Accepting their premise for the sake of argument, forest fires and dead trees make a mockery of all the laws aimed at reducing carbon emissions,” said Mr. McClintock. “A burning or decaying forest releases enormous amounts of carbon into the air. A growing forest absorbs enormous amounts of carbon.”
Unfortunately, said Mr. McClintock, environmentalists are “perfectly all right with dead forests that are ultimately consumed by wildfire. That’s what their policies have produced.”
A former congressman from Montana, Mr. Zinke has made forest health a priority. He issued a secretarial order last year directing the department to “adopt more aggressive practices” to head off catastrophic wildfires, including “robust fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques.”
“We have dead and dying timber,” he said. “The density of our forests is too high. The fuel load is too great.”