Zinke says environmentalists prefer burning forests to managing them

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said “radical environmentalists” would prefer to see entire American forests burn to the ground than allow a single tree to be cut down — a moment before saying he doesn’t want to point fingers.

Zinke spoke to reporters on a conference call to discuss the catastrophic Camp Fire in Northern California, which has burned more than 150,000 acres.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, right, speaks at a news conference held with California Gov. Jerry Brown, left, after touring the fire ravaged town of Paradise, Calif., on Wednesday. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Although he had attacked environmentalists in his response to the Ferguson Fire in Mariposa County last summer, Zinke abstained from blaming political opponents while touring what remains of Paradise, Calif., last week with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

But Zinke’s goodwill was short-lived and he condemned “environmental radicals” again on the far-right “Breitbart News Sunday.” He blamed them for preventing the removal of dead and dying timber that become fuel to California’s wildfires. When asked to identify these radicals, Zinke urged the press to simply “look at who’s suing.”

“Every time there’s a thinning project out, who’s suing? Everyone should recognize certainly that the density of dead and dying trees is higher, the density of trees is higher, and there’s active forest management principles that we should use to mitigate these devastating forest fires,” Zinke said.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, center, visits decimated Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills, Calif., on Thursday. (Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP)

“But when lawsuit after lawsuit by yes, the radical environmental groups that would rather burn down the entire forest than cut a single tree or thin the forest. And it’s easy to find who is suing and who promulgates these destructive policies.”

Zinke didn’t call out any environmental groups by name, and his critique could apply to many — he’s been on the receiving end of a steady stream of lawsuits. Environmentalists have called him a “disaster for the environment.”

Alyssa Roberts, a spokesperson for the League of Conservation Voters, argued that the midterm election results suggest that the American people are not on his side. More than 550 successful state and local candidates, including nine governors-elect, have committed to moving toward 100 percent clean energy, she said.

“Blaming environmental protections for California’s tragic wildfires is beyond shameful — especially coming from an administration that refuses to accept climate science,” Roberts told Yahoo News. “Secretary Zinke is parroting the climate denier in chief, President Trump, in a desperate attempt to save his job. But voters just overwhelmingly affirmed that we believe in science and want climate action. It’s time for Zinke to go.”

Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said Zinke still has a lot to learn about sound forest management.

Residences leveled by the wildfire line a neighborhood in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 15. (Photo: Noah Berger/AP)

“Preventing fires like these means listening to scientists, professional firefighters and local communities. It means putting healthy forests and protecting people — not corporate profits — first,” Cohen told Yahoo News. “And it means taking real action to fight the climate change that is making these fires more dangerous and destructive. The stakes are way, way too high here for us to allow these fires to become a cover for unsustainable types of logging and other practices that can put forests at risk and make these fires worse.”

The Camp Fire, which incinerated Paradise, 80 miles north of Sacramento, began on Nov. 8 and is 70 percent contained. It consumed 151,373 acres and destroyed more than 10,300 homes. As of Sunday night, authorities had uncovered the remains of 77 victims, and almost 1,000 people are still missing. It is by far the deadliest wildfire in California’s history.

Over the years, the ferocity and frequency of wildfires have increased for various reasons, including forest mismanagement and climate change. Zinke has been reluctant to use the phrases “climate change” or “global warming” but does acknowledge that temperatures are getting hotter, the fire season is getting longer (now it’s all year long), and the state is in the midst of a prolonged drought. Whether or not he explicitly recognizes it, all of those factors are affected by climate change.

On the press call, Zinke said radical environmentalists pose a threat to communities like Paradise by keeping forests unhealthy by opposing logging. He said the Department of the Interior should have more authority so it does not have to submit environmental impact statements, which are required by the National Environmental Policy Act, “to cut a tree.”

“Public land is for the enjoyment and the benefit of the people and not special interest groups,” Zinke said. “And what we’ve seen in the last decade is that the special interest groups are really exercising their very tight agenda.”

Search and rescue personnel search a destroyed home for human remains in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 16. (Photo: John Locher/AP)

Environmental groups have long opposed the commercial logging of large, healthy trees and dispute that it would help prevent fires. It’s true that removing dead undergrowth would be beneficial, but conservationists say that cutting the largest, most fire-resistant trees would leave saplings and other smaller fire-vulnerable trees exposed.

“By systematically migrating out the largest trees over the last 100 plus years, managers in the national forests have created a much more flammable forest,” Niel Lawrence, a former director of the NRDC’s forest advocacy initiatives, told Yahoo News.

In a statement, Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s lands protection project, said, “Perhaps it’s the numerous investigations, the potential criminal charges eating at him, or the fact that he still doesn’t even know what department the Forest Service is under, but Ryan Zinke would best be served by focusing on the people rather than making disgusting and dangerous accusations.”

The Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture.

Also this month, the Woolsey Fire in and around Malibu killed three people, charred 96,949 acres, and is 96 percent contained. The Hill Fire in Ventura County burned 4,531 acres and is 100 percent contained.

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