Indefinitely Wild

Two Enviro Lawyers Fact-Check Ryan Zinke’s Fire Op-Ed

Last week, the Interior Secretary outlined his ideas on what causes wildfire. Here's what he's right and wrong about.

Zinke talks about the lives lost to fires, but his and the administration's policies are going to kill more firefighters. (Wes Siler)

Last week, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke penned an op-ed for USA Today on the wildfires currently ravaging California. In it, he coins a very politically correct term for logging—“active forest management”—and claims that expanded logging could help prevent future fires, if only environmentalists would stop with their “frivolous” anti-logging lawsuits. 

Could expanded logging really help reduce the severity of western wildfires and are lawsuits filed by environmental groups really costing firefighters’ lives, as Zinke claims? I called the environmental lawyers in question to find out. 


Zinke Claims: Logging Is Good for Local Economies

“Jobs matter and logging has long been a cornerstone of rural economies,” writes Zinke. “Fortunately for all, these economic benefits go hand-in-hand with our goal of healthy forests.”

Environmentalists Agree: It is

“Forest management is a very important part of many rural economies, particularly in the west,” notes Susan Jane Brown, of the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC), one of the organizations which frequently litigates public-land policies. She cites logging in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest as an example, explaining that in Grant and Harney counties, logging accounts for 86 percent of all private employment

“It's also notable that logging provides better pay than most tourism-related jobs,” says environmentalist Sam Evans, of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). “A service job isn't a one-to-one replacement for a logging job.”

But both lawyers are also careful to explain that logging can’t, and shouldn’t, be thought of as the only benefit local economies derive from their national forests. They pointed me toward these studies conducted by the Headwaters Economics Group, a non-partisan land management research organization, which describe a long list of economic benefits related to the presence of public lands. In short, healthy forests, parks, and wilderness contribute to booming populations, employment, and personal income in local communities.

So sure, public lands creates tourism, service, and recreation jobs, but it also attracts investment and businesses to the rural areas it surrounds. 


Zinke Claims: Fires Destroy Logging’s Inventory

“Logs come out of the forest in one of two ways,” says Zinke. “They are either harvested sustainably, to improve the health and resilience of the forest (while creating jobs), or they are burned to the ground.”

Environmentalist Disagree: Fires Create Lumber

“This simply isn’t true,” says Brown. One of her specialties is post-fire logging and she explains that fires often result in massive economic windfalls for the logging industry. 

Take the Rim Fire, for instance, which burned 257,000 acres of forest outside of Yosemite National Park in 2013. Immediately following the blaze, logging companies harvested 135 million board feet of marketable timber from public lands in the burned area. That’s 55 million board feet more than the current annual timber target for the area’s Stanislaus, Sequoia, and Sierra national forests combined. 


Zinke Claims: Logging Would Have Saved Lives in the Carr and Ferguson Fires

“The active management of our forests will save lives,” says Zinke. “The Carr Fire in northern California has already claimed half a dozen lives, and the Ferguson Fire has taken the lives of two firefighters. Sadly, these are not the only wildfire casualties this year.”

Environmentalists Disagree: Forests Are Too Huge to Control

Earlier in his piece, Zinke defines “active management,” as “prescribed burns, mechanical thinning and timber harvests,” but goes on to only justify and defend logging. Can logging really prevent forest fire?

“We’ve logged about 17 million acres of forest in the last 15 years, and at the same time over 100 million acres have burned,” says Evans. “If you want to log with the purpose of fire reduction, you have a really high chance of guessing wrong.”

Of course, that’s assuming that a logged area isn’t at risk of wildfire, which is not the case. The brush and saplings that grow in cleared forests actually burn much easier than old growth timber

“Logging isn’t often followed up with prescribed burning, which is what the best available science says must occur in order to actually reduce wildfire risk,” says Brown. 

“Buildup of fuels was not caused by a lack of logging; it was caused by a history of fire suppression,” adds Evans. “Prescribed fire is the most important, and probably the only practical way to prevent catastrophic fire.” 

But even that isn’t enough, given the sheer scale of the problem. Our national forests cover 190 million acres. Spot treatment with prescribed fires can’t possibly come close to clearing excess fuels from all of them. And, unless we clear cut all of that, then burn the resulting brush, logging won’t eliminate the problem either. Given the very limited nature of our prevention options, trying to say that logging, or prescribed burning, or anything else could have prevented a specific fire would require peering into the future through a crystal ball. 


Zinke Claims: “Frivolous” Litigation Prevents “Active Management”

“Every year we watch our forests burn, and every year there is a call for action,” says Zinke. “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.”

Environmentalists Disagree: They Want More Management

“As an environmental litigator, litigation is probably the smallest part of my job,” says Evans. Both he and Brown spend most of their time participating in the years-long review processes that inform decision making on our public lands. And often, Evans and Brown work with the logging industry and other local stakeholders to make those reviews work for everyone. That collaboration is actually a key component of laws like the National Environmental Policy Act

“Look at the George Washington National Forest, for example,” says Evans. “Recently, the Forest Service proposed a management plan that would have essentially maintained the status quo. Timber, wilderness, wildlife, and recreation groups were not satisfied by the status quo, so they united to propose an alternative they all supported—one which included more timber harvest than the forest had been able to accomplish in years. The GWNF was willing to try it, and it worked. This resulted in a very successful project for the timber industry and, remarkably, generated consensus support for a wilderness bill. With stories of success like this, why is Secretary Zinke trying to drive us apart?”


Zinke Claims: Environmental Arguments Are Outdated and Unscientific

“Radical environmentalists would have you believe forest management means clear cutting forests and national parks,” claims Zinke. “But their rhetoric could not be further from the truth. They make outdated and unscientific arguments, void of facts, because they cannot defend the merits of their policy preferences year after year as our forests and homes burn to the ground.”

Environmentalist Disagree: Zinke Is Anti-Science

“This is so wrong that I have trouble figuring out where to start,” says Evans. “No matter the technique, environmentalists are opposed to logging only when it’s in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons.”

“The Forest Service in the West has generally moved away from clear-cutting green trees,” says Brown. “But the Forest Service and BLM do still clear cut after wildfires. Post-fire or ‘salvage’ logging removes all of the burned trees from harvest units, which, by definition, is clear cutting. The best available science indicates that this kind of harvest, which leaves behind small branches and trees without economic value, creates highly flammable conditions. Densely stocked plantations—created by artificial replanting—are more fire-prone than either healthy, native forests or forests left to recover naturally after wildfire.”

As you can see, environmentalists and scientists (who are often one and the same) use scientific research to guarantee that logging remains profitable and sustainable. 

“Secretary Zinke's assertion isn't about science," says Evans. “It’s a claim that environmentalists don't really care about these places, and that we instead are driven by some secret political agenda. That claim is polarizing and toxic. At a time when environmentalists and other stakeholders, including the timber industry, are finding common ground and working together more effectively than ever, it's also incredibly short-sighted and counterproductive.”


Zinke Claims: Environmentalists Are the Enemy of Firefighters

“I’ve visited too many fire camps and spoken with too many experts to know that those who perished fighting these fires could have been saved,” concludes Zinke. “We owe it to the firefighters we have lost… to work harder to improve the health of our forests so their brothers and sisters on the fire line no longer face the same dangers and do not have to pay the same price to keep our families safe.”

Environmentalists Disagree: Resilient Forests Are Safer

“Environmentalists want to help create fire-resilient forests, so that when wildfire does occur, it can be safely managed by professionals,” says Brown. 

As Zinke asserts, healthy forests are key to making fires less extreme and less deadly. But relaxing or eliminating environmental laws, as appears to be the central thrust of his op-ed, is not the way to get there. 

“This issue is not binary,” says Brown. “We can use science-based restoration techniques that create fire-resilient forests, create economic benefit for local communities, and deliver wildlife habitat, clean water, and recreation opportunities for the public. Rather than casting uninformed dispersions, politicians like Zinke should roll up their sleeves and join local people in doing that hard work.”

“It’s not even clear why Secretary Zinke [who runs the Department of the Interior] is weighing in on the management of National Forests [which fall under the Department of Agriculture],” says Evans. “One thinks Secretary Zinke would have better things to do than spread false explanations for forest fires that are barely distinguishable from a YouTube conspiracy theory.”


So, Can Logging Actually Reduce Wildfires?

Here’s the short answer from the Headwaters Economics Group—that non-partisan research firm that provides legislators and industry data on land use. “Logging is only effective at reducing the impacts of wildfire when it’s carried out immediately surrounding houses,” says Ray Rasker, the organization’s director. It’s not the flames from a wildfire that catch houses on fire—it’s the flying embers, so eliminating trees in areas surrounding neighborhoods has a demonstrable impact on the survivability of structures. Elsewhere, logging cannot be shown to reduce the number of fires, or their severity. That was the conclusion of a 2017 scientific study Rasker co-authored.

So, if the science of logging to prevent forest fires is settled, why would Zinke pen an op-ed suggesting otherwise? It turns out Rasker is just as puzzled as I am. 

“Our forests actually have plenty of capacity for more logging right now,” Rasker explained. As of 2012, available timber inventory in the United States is the highest it’s been since at least 1953, and harvest rates the lowest. Inventory is currently growing at twice the rate of what’s harvested. There’s no need for Zinke to lie to justify more logging.

If research makes the case for expanded logging, and if environmentalists like Brown and Evans support expanded logging so long as it’s in the right places, and done for the right reasons, then why is Zinke using deadly wildfires as an excuse to call for an end to environmental checks on logging? To my mind, it can only be because he plans to log in the wrong places, for the wrong reasons. And that could actually make our forests less resilient. 

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