California Gov. Gavin Newsom has pointed out that the state’s wildfires are located primarily on federal land — and he’s right — but now he and other Democratic governors are trying to block the Trump administration’s effort to speed up the clearing of overgrown, tinder-dry forests.
Twenty-three states, including California, Oregon and Washington, sued last month to stop the National Environmental Policy Act modernization, which would thin the regulatory thicket and red tape blamed for slowing down federal projects, including forest management on the government’s extensive Western lands.
The NEPA lawsuit came as no surprise, given that California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has sued the Trump administration 100 times, but critics accused California Democrats of putting their loyalty to the environmental movement and focus on climate change ahead of proven strategies for forest health.
“It’s not just saying, on one hand you want to manage your forest, and then suing the government to stop the management of forests by changing the NEPA requirements, which is what Newsom has done,” H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow on environmental policy at the Heartland Institute, said on a press call. “He goes publicly and says, ‘We want to manage the forest. Let’s cut a deal.’ And then when they take steps to help [manage] the forests, he sues to block it.”
Nobody denies that the dry, overgrown Western federal forests are in bad shape, fueling the wildfires that have now consumed 3.3 million acres in California and nearly 1 million acres in Oregon, with at least another month left in the fire season.
How to combat the wildfires has boiled down to an argument over forest management, which inevitably means tree-cutting and prescribed burns to reduce the fuel load, and climate change, which means reducing carbon dioxide emissions in an effort to combat the drought that has stressed the forests and left them susceptible to beetle-kill.
Mr. Newsom pushed the climate change argument while entering into an agreement last month to match the federal government on treating 1 million acres of federal forest a year to reduce catastrophic wildfire danger. “We are fully committed to working with you on that cause,” he told President Trump.
Of California’s 33 million acres of forest, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management own and oversee 19 million acres, or 57%. State and local agencies control 3%, and families, tribes and companies own 40%.
“One thing is fundamental: 57% of the land in this state is federal forest land, 3% is California,” Mr. Newsom said during his Sept. 14 meeting with the president. “So we really do need that support.”
But he also dinged the president on climate change. He said “the hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier,” and pointed to “heat domes, the likes of which we’ve never seen in our history.”
“Losing 163 million trees to that drought — something has happened to the plumbing of the world,” Mr. Newsom said. “And we come from a perspective, humbly, where we submit the science is in and observed evidence is self-evident that climate change is real, and that is exacerbating this.”
Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, accused Western Democrats of using climate change as a “smokescreen” to obscure the issue of worsening forest health, which he dated back to the 1990 endangered species decision on the Northern spotted owl that decimated the Pacific Northwest timber industry.
“In the case of people like Gov. Newsom or Gov. [Kate] Brown in Oregon, they aren’t responsible for those policies, but they don’t want to have to confront those policies and do anything to support changes in those policies,” Mr. Ebell said. “They’re hiding behind climate change as well so they can escape the responsibility of doing something to reverse course and take on the environmental pressure groups that have given us this disaster.”
James Taylor, president of the skeptical free market Heartland Institute, called it “troubling and indeed dangerous to blame climate change for wildfires that could have and should have been stifled by wise proactive forest management.”
“Asserting the climate change mantra may prove politically convenient for policymakers to shift attention from their own poor policy decisions, but such misdirection fails to address the root cause of out-of-control wildfires that kill people, destroy ecosystems and destroy people’s lives,” he said.
He noted that NASA satellites have shown a 25% reduction in wildfires around the world since 2003.
“If global warming were to blame for California’s wildfires, we would expect to see a global increase in wildfires, but just the opposite is the case,” Mr. Taylor said.
The federal-state partnership to treat 1 million trees annually is fine, said Mr. Ebell, “but we should be doing 5 to 10 million acres a year throughout the Northwest and California.”
That is where the NEPA modernization comes in. The sweeping overhaul of the 1970 law, which requires the government to consider the environmental impact of federal projects, shortens timelines for reviews, which now average 678 days, and expands the number of exclusions.
The changes are expected to speed up the process for salvage logging on insect-infested or overgrown forests, but critics argued that the rule allows projects to move forward without considering the impact on the environment at large, which could increase wildfire danger.
“Yet again the Trump administration is rolling back vital safeguards and curtailing public input. These changes will not protect our forests from fire, but rather risk their future,” Kirin Kennedy, Sierra Club deputy legislative director for lands and wildlife, said in a June statement.
Mr. Becerra said the Trump administration sought to “roll back critical protections and undo hard-fought progress, particularly when it comes to our environment, public lands and natural resources.”
Even so, the lawsuit hit a speed bump last week when a federal judge rejected the states’ request for a preliminary injunction to stop the overhaul from taking effect. The judge said in a Sept. 11 decision that the states had not made a “clear showing” that they would succeed on the merits.
The lawsuit is continuing, but the result of the order was that the NEPA modernization rule went into effect Sept. 14, giving federal agencies 12 months to revise their procedures in line with the changes.
The overhaul is aimed at providing “more efficient, effective, and timely environmental reviews by all Federal agencies,” said the White House Council on Environmental Quality.