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Trump ignores climate change, offers handouts to timber industry in wildfire executive order

Commercial logging has been found to increase wildfire risk.

President Trump views damage from wildfires in Paradise, California on November 17, 2018. CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
President Trump views damage from wildfires in Paradise, California on November 17, 2018. CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Nowhere in an 1,800-word executive order to address forest management and wildfires — quietly issued on Friday — does President Donald Trump draw a connection between climate change and increased wildfire risk. Instead, critics say it looks like a potential handout to the logging industry.

Extreme heat and years of ongoing drought, both linked to climate change, are contributing to the frequency and severity of wildfires across the western United States. But in his executive order, Trump instead cites concerns about regulatory obstacles to fighting wildfires and the value of logging to prevent future fires.

The executive order, titled “Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and other Federal Lands to Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk,” calls on the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to reduce “regulatory barriers” to getting rid of “hazardous fuels” that contribute to wildfires.

As part of his wildfire fuel reduction plan, the president ordered the easing of regulations in order to allow for the harvest of least 3.8 billion board feet of timber –a measure of volume of lumber — from lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and another 600 million board feet of timber on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property.

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The timber industry stands to come out a big winner if Trump’s executive order is implemented. The figures in the executive order represent a large increase in the amount of timber harvested on federal lands in recent years. In 2017, the Forest Service harvested more than 2.9 billion board feet of timber. And in 2016, the BLM harvested more than 233.2 million board feet of timber for sale.

But experts contend boosting the level of logging on federal lands will not help the growing wildfire threat. In fact, commercial logging and road building have been found to increase wildfire risk.

And ignoring the impact of climate change on more dangerous wildfires, along with actively working to undermine efforts to tackle greenhouse gases, won’t help matters either environmentalists and scientists say.

“Instead of promoting divisive legislation to weaken environmental laws, the administration should work with the new Congress to give the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior the funding they need to reduce fire risks and properly manage the national forests and public lands,” Mike Anderson, senior policy analyst for the Wilderness Society, said Sunday in a statement.

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An open letter signed by scientists and land managers in late August stated that Trump administration proposals to remove environmental protections to increase logging in response to wildfire concerns are “misinformed.”

“The recent increase in wildfire acres burning is due to a complex interplay involving human-caused climate change coupled with expansion of homes and roads into fire-adapted ecosystems and decades of industrial-scale logging practices,” the experts wrote in their letter.

Denise Boggs, director of the California environmental group Conservation Congress, criticized Trump’s executive order for ignoring the role of climate change. She also attacked the call for more logging as a remedy for worsening wildfires

“All the fire ecologists are saying the same thing: You can’t log your way out of this situation,” Boggs told the Sacramento Bee. “Logging in the back country is just a gift to the timber industry.”

The absence of climate change references in Friday’s executive order is reminiscent of Trump’s visit to Northern California in November following the catastrophic wildfire known as the Camp Fire where the president ignored the role of climate change in the growing intensity of wildfires.

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Rather, Trump recalled Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto telling him that his country doesn’t have the same problem with fires because it spends “a lot of time on raking and cleaning.”

Trump was referring to the practice of thinning forests that become overgrown after decades of fire suppression. But equating Finland and California, many critics said, was a bit of a stretch.

Many of the wildfires in California don’t occur in forests, but in chaparral, or shrub land. Months of drought has turned such brush into easily ignited kindling.

Three months earlier, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited California to tour the devastation from another wildfire. During his tour, Zinke also dismissed the role played by climate change in the growing wildfire threat. The Interior secretary was visiting areas near Redding, California that were devastated by August’s Carr Fire, which killed several people and forced tens of thousands to evacuate.

“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management,” Zinke told reporters.

The Carr Fire was the sixth most destructive on record in California. It burned more than 200,000 acres and killed seven people. And the Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, killing at least 85 people and destroying nearly 14,000 homes.

Elsewhere in the executive order, Trump calls for a reduction in the time required to comply with the Endangered Species Act in order to allow for more logging and other efforts the administration contends will reduce wildfires.

The president ordered his administration to identify methods “to more effectively and efficiently streamline consultation under the Endangered Species Act.”

Trump’s order to work around the Endangered Species Act followed a directive sent out by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fishery division in August to use California’s water supply for firefighting instead of for other uses, like protecting endangered marine species.

With Trump and Ross prioritizing firefighting needs above the water allocation requirements under the Endangered Species Act, there is concern from scientists and environmental law experts that the Trump administration is seeking to favor agricultural interests over protecting endangered species.

“Secretary Ross’ directive is forcing NOAA to sideline scientifically-sound water management procedures for endangered species, thereby setting a chilling precedent,” the Union of Concerned Scientists stated in a September blog post.

According to Boggs, environmental groups are expected to file lawsuits against the Trump administration if it allows an increase in logging on federal lands.