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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed so-called "radical environmentalists" for wildfires like the one that recently became the largest in California's history. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)

Exploiting Climate-Fueled Disasters on Behalf of Logging Industry, Zinke Pilloried for Blaming Wildfires on 'Radical Environmentalists'

"Climate change, longer fire seasons, and way more people in the West all play a part" in increased wildfires, according to experts—but not an absence of timber industry clear-cutting

Julia Conley

Instead of addressing the root causes that scientists and experts say are fueling some of the unprecedented wildfires now ravaging communities in California and other western states, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is himself under fire on Wednesday after penning an op-ed that critics argue shows the top Trump official exploiting the ongoing infernos as a way to push the business interests of logging companies and other extractive industries.

"Radical environmentalists," he argued on USA Today's opinion page, are to blame for blazes like the Mendocino Complex Fire, which became the largest in the state's history this week, due to their calls to protect federal lands and national monuments instead of opening them up to loggers, ranchers, and the fossil fuel industry.

"Every year we watch our forests burn, and every year there is a call for action," Zinke wrote. "Yet, when action comes, and we try to thin forests of dead and dying timber, or we try to sustainably harvest timber from dense and fire-prone areas, we are attacked with frivolous litigation from radical environmentalists who would rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods."

The former Montana congressman's op-ed was slammed by critics on social media—as was CNN's interpretation of Zinke's proposal. The cable network published its own article describing the Interior Secretary's aim to clear forests as a "proactive approach."

While containing wildfires and stopping them from forming may require multi-pronged efforts, Zinke's idea of "forest management"—which includes  allowing logging companies to clear more forests—would do little to help, according to wildfire expert Michael Kodas.

"A logging company would like to come in and remove the big, granddaddy trees that are really valuable as timber," Kodas told Wyoming Public Media on Tuesday. "Most of what needs to be removed from these forests are brush, scrub, small, spindly trees that have been sick that have almost no economic value.”

Instead, Nate Hegyi wrote, "according to Kodas, climate change, longer fire seasons, and way more people in the West all play a part."

Three scientists writing at the Guardian also focused on the climate crisis as the major cause of wildfires which Zinke and President Donald Trump have failed to mention as the Mendocino Complex and other fires have raged.

"Declining spring snowpack and increased evaporation have reduced the moisture available to plants later in summer and autumn," wrote Daniel Swain, Crystal Kolden, and John Abatzoglou. "The fire season itself is lengthening: not only have autumn and spring temperatures risen, but there are signs that California's already short rainy season is becoming further compressed into the winter months. We are truly burning the candle at both ends."

Zinke's op-ed is just the latest sign that the Interior Secretary is pushing to give favorable treatment to industries at the expense of public lands. The piece was published two weeks after the Washington Post reported on "thousands of pages of email correspondence" which showed how Zinke and his aides "tailored their survey of protected sites to emphasize the value of logging, ranching, and energy development that would be unlocked if they were not designated national monuments."

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