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The Trump Administration’s New Wildfire Strategy: Blame the Trees

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke refuses to acknowledge climate change’s role in the California wildfires

Ryan ZinkeInterior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on President Trump's proposed FY2019 budget for the Interior Department, Washington, USA - 13 Mar 2018US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke arrives to testify at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on US President Donald J. Trump's proposed FY2019 budget for the Interior Department, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 13 March 2018.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

President Trump’s Cabinet members have a habit of doing all they can to undermine the mission of the agency they’ve been tapped to lead. OMB Director and acting Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Mick Mulvaney has practically dismantled the entire latter office, and is currently looking to end safeguards protecting active-duty service members from financial predators. Housing and Urban Development head Ben Carson announced Monday that he is effectively ending the Fair Housing Act, which stemmed housing segregation. Ousted Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt simply didn’t believe in climate change. And now, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has taken to blaming the historic and very much still-raging forest fires in California on just about everything other than the historic temperatures plaguing the state.

Most notably, Zinke thinks there are just too many damn trees.

“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change,” Zinke told a Sacramento TV station while visiting California over the weekend. “This has to do with active forest management.”

By “forest management,” Zinke means allowing the logging industry to raze protected federal land. The debate over tree-thinning has long been contentious, and Zinke is now blaming the fires on the liberal environmentalists looking to preserve national forests and their wildlife, which Zinke has been charged with overseeing. He hasn’t been doing a very good job so far. He recently released a plan to gut the Endangered Species Act, and has generally viewed federal land as a resource for the fossil-fuel industry.

“They don’t want to be informed. They don’t want to do the research,” Zinke said of the so-called liberal “environmental terrorists” during an event last week in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. “They go to the same little trough of Kool-Aid every day. And they don’t want to expand their paradigm and look at the actual facts.”

It’s Zinke, of course, whose paradigm remains fixed in place. The evidence points overwhelmingly to climate change as the reason the wildfires have been so devastating. “It’s not rocket science,” Michael Mann, an atmospheric science professor at Penn State, told PBS NewsHour. “You warm the atmosphere, it’s going to hold more moisture, you get larger flooding events, you get more rainfall. You warm the planet, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. You warm the soils, you dry them out, you get worse drought. You bring all that together and those are all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires.”

As HuffPost points out, 15 of the largest 20 wildfires on record in California have occurred since 2002. “It is our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires,” Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told HuffPost.

Zinke blaming the wildfires on trees is like someone getting drunk, convincing themselves they can walk on water, attempting to do so, drowning and then blaming the ocean.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that President Trump feels similarly to his Interior Secretary. Last week, he fired off two tweets on the issue, which appear to have represented the extent of his consideration of the problem.

In addition to expressing a need to “tree clear,” Trump blames a lack of available water, which in reality is not an issue. Several officials have debunked the president’s claim. “We have plenty of water to fight these wildfires,” Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of California’s state fire agency, told the New York Times. “Let’s be clear: It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.”

Nevertheless, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last week issued a directive for California water to be prioritized for fighting fires over wildlife conservation. What the state actually needs to help combat wildfires is more federal funding. As the fires have grown worse in recent years, money normally used for preventative measures like clearing brush has been diverted to fighting the blazes. The government isn’t picking up the slack. “California is investing millions and millions of dollars in fuels management,” A. Leroy Westerling, a wildfire expert from the University of California at Merced, told the Washington Post. “It would be great if the federal government would step up and do the same.”

While the Trump administration’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge climate change may be a boon for the energy industry, the environment is suffering and people are dying. Even as the wildfires rage, the administration is proposing cuts to wildfire science funding. “A wildland fire [budget] cut is a human health cut,” University of Arizona professor Donald Falk told Reveal.

On August 2nd, the administration lifted another middle finger toward climate scientists when it unveiled a plan to axe Obama-era pollution regulations, most notably in regard to auto emissions. The plan also aims to curtail the ability of states like California to institute their own pollution standards. “For Trump to now destroy a law first enacted at the request of Ronald Reagan five decades ago is a betrayal and an assault on the health of Americans everywhere,” said California Governor Jerry Brown, a frequent target of Trump’s invective, according to the Times.

The plan will only exacerbate the effect climate change has had on the state’s wildfire epidemic. “Without standards to curb current emissions levels or the other proactive work California is doing, global temperatures could rise by over four degrees in the coming decades,” Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) wrote last week for The Hill. “This change in temperature will certainly lead to more natural disasters including an increased risk of wildfires.”

In the meantime, Zinke offers his thoughts and prayers.

Though he railed nonsensically about California’s water management practices, President Trump has yet to offer condolences for those whose lives have been destroyed by the fires.

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