By RYAN ZINKE
Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish Republican who previously served as a state senator and Montana’s congressman, is the U.S. secretary of the interior.
The flames of the Ferguson Fire in California have become the latest symbols of a seemingly perennial challenge of fighting fires in the West. I just returned from the Ferguson Fire camp, where I met with firefighters who are working to combat the fire as it bears down on Yosemite National Park and its visitors, workers and nearby residents.
President Donald Trump has taken decisive action, issuing an emergency disaster declaration for California as dozens of wildfires rip through the forests and communities that populate the area.
There are currently about 100 wildfires burning across the west, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate.
Many have lost all but the clothes on their backs. We are just now hitting the peak of a traditional fire season and already this year we have seen about 5 million acres of land and thousands of structures destroyed.
We’ve lost friends and neighbors, including firefighters who dropped everything to respond to the call to duty. Their service and sacrifice will never be forgotten. The fires are burning hotter and more intense, due in part to hot and dry weather and in part to the fuels that overload our forests. These fuels fill forests from the floor, where highly-combustible, dry pine needles act as kindling to jump-start the tiniest spot fire, all the way up to the crown where beetle-killed trees dot the mountains like matches. In between the floor and the crown, there are years’ worth of dead logs, overgrown shrubs, and snags, which many firefighters call “widow makers” because they are so deadly. The buildup of fuels is the condition we can and must reverse through active forest management like prescribed burns, mechanical thinning and timber harvests.
THERE ARE three reasons for active forest management: First, it is better for the environment to manage the forests.
Wildfires produce smoke and emissions. The release of gases and particles can negatively affect air quality. Fires also damage watersheds, and as we see fires burning hotter and longer, the soil is actually becoming scorched and sterilized, preventing regrowth. In addition, while many of the frivolous lawsuits waged to stop timber harvests cite habitat as a concern, environmental litigants are little concerned when an entire forest burns to the ground and the habitat and wildlife are lost.
Second, active forest management is good for the economy. Logs come out of the forest in one of two ways: They are either harvested sustainably to improve the health and resilience of the forest (while creating jobs), or they are burned to the ground.
Jobs matter, and logging has long been a cornerstone of rural economies. Fortunately for all, these economic benefits go hand-in-hand with our goal of healthy forests.
Third, and most important, the active management of our forests will save lives. 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.
Every year we watch our forests burn, and every year there is a call for action. Yet, when the 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 DEPARTMENT of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, through the Forest Service, fight wildfires together. This year, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue secured a bipartisan fix to the way firefighting is funded.
The fix helps ensure we have the necessary resources to maintain forests and helps ease the recurrence and severity of wildfires.
At the Department of the Interior, which manages one- fifth of the nation’s land through the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies, we are taking a hands-on approach to manage our forests and prevent wildfire.
Last year, I signed a Secretarial Order mandating aggressive fuels management and protecting structures that lie within the wildland-urban interface. We are also using drones like never before to monitor and contain fires.
As we saw in the case of the Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park, all it takes is one stray ember to burn an entire building down. We have learned from our mistakes. I saw how the new superintendent of Yosemite National Park, Michael Reynolds, is leading the way and cleaning up much of the overgrown forest floor, getting rid of the fuels that would cause the park to go up in smoke.
Radical environmentalists would have you believe forest management means clear-cutting forests and national parks. 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. 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.
We owe it to the firefighters we have lost, like Cal Fire bulldozer operator Braden Varney and National Park Service Arrowhead Interagency Hotshot Captain Brian Hughes, 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.