Blame for wildfires gets pinned on ‘environmental extremists’

Montana’s lawmakers slight climate change as a main driver for the state’s blazes.

 

This story was originally published by HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue traveled to Zinke’s home state of Montana on Thursday to join members of Montana’s Republican delegation for an on-site briefing on a large wildfire south of Missoula, which the group blamed not chiefly on drought and climate change, but on mismanagement resulting from lawsuits by “environmental extremists.”

The Lolo Peak Fire was ignited by lightning in mid-July and has since burned more than 34,000 acres, prompting hundreds of evacuations and destroying two homes and several outbuildings. One firefighter was killed working the fire on Aug. 2 when he was struck by a falling tree. As of Thursday, the blaze was 14 percent contained.

By Aug. 25, the Rice Ridge fire north of the town of Seeley Lake had grown to nearly 18,100 acres and was just 16 percent contained.

At a briefing at the Lolo Peak Incident Command in Missoula, Zinke and the others spoke of the importance of getting ahead of wildfires by better managing forests, as well as the threat they say certain environmentalists pose to that effort. “Montanans are saying, ‘We are tired of breathing the smoke. We are tired of seeing these catastrophic wildfires,’” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. “Either we are going to better manage our forests, or the forests are going to manage us.”

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., said forest fires in Montana have become all too common and that better management will result in healthier forest, more wildlife and hunting, and less frequent and intense fires. “Everyone benefits,” he said. “Conservation benefits and our communities benefit. We all benefit. And yet we’re tied up in knots through extensive and ridiculous permitting processes, and frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremists.”

Daines echoed that sentiment, saying that the Libby Loggers — the mascot of the school in Libby, Montana — could be renamed the “Libby Lawyers,” apparently implying that the town’s timber mills have been replaced by lawyers working for “extreme environment groups” fighting to stall and stop efforts to clear dead and dying timber. 

In June 2015, when still a Montana congressman, Zinke introduced a bill to limit what he described as “predatory lawsuits funded by out-of-state special-interest groups” against timber projects on U.S. Forest Service land. The bill would have required a plaintiff to post cash bonds to cover the Forest Service’s defense costs, with the plaintiff getting the money back only if it proved victorious. 

Removing dead trees and thinning forests are common tools for helping to prevent wildfires. But scientists have shown climate change is driving up temperatures and triggering longer wildfire seasons in western states. Last year, researchers from Columbia University and the University of Idaho found that climate change has been fueling wildfires in the western United States for decades.

As HuffPost previously reported, President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget calls for a $300 million reduction to the U.S. Forest Service’s wildfire fighting programs, another $50 million in cuts to its wildfire prevention efforts and a 23 percent reduction in funding for volunteer fire departments.

Montana climatologist Kelsey Jencso told Montana Public Radio last week that a long period of observation is needed to tell if Montana’s current wildfire season is the result of climate change, but that the smoke currently blanketing the state “is certainly what the future [of climate change] may look like.”

Asked Thursday if climate change has anything to do with the intensity of fires in recent years, Perdue said there have also been major fires in the eastern part of the country at certain periods of time. “There obviously is climate change, temperature change, weather change. And we have to deal, we have to adapt to it. And we have to manage the forest,” he said. 

Perdue added that steps should be taken to minimize the threat regardless of the cause. “We can’t affect what the weather is or anything else, but we can affect how we manage these forests to reduce the impact of forest fires.” 

In an apparent attempt to dismiss the role of climate change, Daines pointed to the Great Fire of 1910, which “burned three million acres (in Montana and Idaho) and killed enough timber to fill a freight train 2,400 miles long,” according to the Department of Agriculture. 

“The climate has always been changing, we go through warmer cycles, cooler cycles, droughts, excessive precipitation,” Daines said. “We are in a warm cycle right now, we are in drought conditions here in Montana. And consequently, we’re having a severe fire season.” 

Trump and several members of his Cabinet have dismissed the threat of climate change and the role humans are playing in driving up global temperatures. And the administration has worked expeditiously to derail America’s actions to combat climate change and roll back environmental regulations.

Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have denied the role carbon dioxide emissions are playing in driving climate change. Zinke has said glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park started melting “right after the end of the Ice Age” and that it has “been a consistent melt.” He also dismissed the notion that government scientists can predict with certainty how much warming will occur by 2100 under a business-as-usual scenario. 

Listen to the full press briefing here, recorded by Newstalk KGVO. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...