Ryan Zinke sidesteps climate change in broadside blaming ‘radical environmentalists’ for wildfires

Interior secretary's op-ed follows president's peculiar comments on wildfires.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. CREDIT: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. CREDIT: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump finally took notice of the California wildfires earlier this week when he used the ongoing disasters to attack the state’s water policies and the nation’s environmental laws.

Trump’s perplexing comments were followed by an op-ed in USA Today by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, published Wednesday, that attacked “radical environmentalists” for using litigation to stop the federal government from employing methods to manage forests that they believe are harmful to ecosystems and wildlife.

In their comments on the devastating wildfires, neither Trump nor Zinke mentioned the role of climate change in what is now a virtually year-round fire season and the growing intensity of wildfires.

Zinke argued that fires such as the Mendocino Complex and others in California are burning hotter and more intense “due in part to hot and dry weather and in part to the fuels that overload our forests.”


He said “the buildup of fuels is the condition we can and must reverse through active forest management like prescribed burns, mechanical thinning, and timber harvests.”

Zinke, however, did not attribute any role to climate change in the creation of the hot and dry conditions that contribute to longer wildfire seasons and more intense fires.

Using the USA Today op-ed as a guide, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) on Wednesday tweeted a list of reasons why Zinke believes wildfires have grown worse in the western United States. The list did not include climate change.


“I’d rather hear from scientists about what causes wildfires, but he keeps censoring them,” Beyer said in response to Zinke’s op-ed. The Department of the Interior has been accused of removing mentions of climate change from its website since Zinke took over as head of the agency.

Experts have been debating for years the best methods for protecting forests while preventing forest fires. But experts generally agree that fierce droughts, one of the prime contributors to the lengthening of the wildfire season, are only worsening with climate change.

Echoing Trump’s comments that “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws,” Zinke used his op-ed to make scurrilous claims against environmentalists.

“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,” he wrote.

But as Michael Wehner, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told The New York Times, warming temperatures have led to severe droughts that has caused more dry fuel and more intense heat waves. These changes have created the conditions that have allowed wildfire seasons to start earlier, last longer, and affect larger areas, he said.


Zinke’s idea of “forest management,” including allowing logging companies to clear more forests, would do little to help prevent the intensification and frequency of wildfires in the parched western United States, Wyoming Public Media reported Tuesday.

As it happens, the U.S. Forest Service, an agency inside the Department of Agriculture, is planning to allow commercial logging of healthy green pine trees for the first time in decades in the Los Padres National Forest north of Los Angeles. The Forest Service says the logging, if approved to proceed, will reduce the risk of wildfires.

Environmental groups are opposing the plan to open the national forest to logging, contending it could harm wildlife and water quality.

Based on an interview with wildfire expert Michael Kodas, Wyoming Public Media found that “climate change, longer fire seasons, and way more people in the West all play a part” in the record-breaking wildfires in California.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) agrees with Zinke about the need for better forest management, but calls for a far different type of management. The vast majority of western dry forests are at risk of large, high-intensity fire because of the effects of poor forest management over the past century, the environmental group explains on its website.

“The primary factors that lead to current forest conditions include logging large trees, fire suppression, and livestock grazing,” the CBD says. “Since the beginning of the 20th century, all three of these factors have been present in western forests, and they continue to play a role today.”

On Sunday, Trump made his first public remarks on the California wildfires, claiming that water that could be used to fight the fires was “foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean.” The tweet (which has since been deleted) came just hours after the Trump administration declared the California wildfires a major disaster.

The president’s comments raised eyebrows among state officials and firefighting experts who stated California has plenty of water to fight the wildfires.

Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, responded to Trump’s comments by explaining that “it’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.”