Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
 / Updated 
By James Rainey

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s claim that “environmental terrorist groups” created the conditions that enabled California’s wildfires triggered substantial blowback from environmental groups, who chastised the Trump administration official for downplaying the role of climate change in the blazes.

Zinke said in a radio interview with Breitbart News that environmental extremists were preventing the government from properly managing forests ― leaving excessive fuel on the ground for the deadly blazes.

The statement is just the latest as the Trump administration moves aggressively to open more public land to natural resource extraction, including logging.

Zinke later equivocated on his view, telling reporters on Thursday that “of course” climate change was among the reasons for the string of wildfires. But the interior secretary’s precise position remained unclear, as he hours earlier had gone on Fox Business and cast doubt on the notion of humanity’s role in warming the planet.

“There’s no dispute that the climate is changing, although it has always changed,” Zinke said. “Whether man is the direct result, how much that result is, that’s still being disputed.” In fact, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists have concluded that humanity’s burning of fossil fuels has unleashed carbon dioxide and other gases that have warmed Earth substantially.

“Zinke’s inability to understand basic fire science is leading him to turn to dangerous and inflammatory quips,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program. “Name calling and finger-pointing won’t change the truth that climate change is exacerbating wildfires. The long-term safety of our communities relies on reducing carbon pollution. The only danger here is from Zinke’s failure to act.”

Ecologists and forestry experts cite a litany of reasons for the string of damaging wildfires that have plagued the West in recent years, with reduced logging seldom coming near the top of the list.

Tim Brown, director of the Western Regional Climate Center and a climate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, cited three factors as the primary drivers of the proliferation of damaging fires: an increased drying of chaparral and forests because of higher temperatures driven by climate change; past fire suppression efforts that have left excessive amounts of fuel on the ground; and an increase in the number of people living near wild lands.

“My concern is that we make sure we are addressing the real science when we have these conversations,” said Brown. “Not every place is the same. Not every place burns the same.”

The controversy swirled around Zinke’s remarks on Thursday, as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue unveiled a “more aggressive” approach to management of national forests. The policy pledged to work closely with state, local and tribal governments to determine how to clear dangerous growth and to open the way for logging.

Environmentalists said it remained to be seen how balanced the approach in national forests would be. But some initially said it seemed more rational than the outbursts from the interior secretary.

“It’s a breath of fresh air to see science, instead of politics, inserted into forest and fire management,” Kirin Kennedy, the Sierra Club’s deputy legislative director for lands and wildlife, said in a statement. “We know that climate is changing fire season; we know that focusing on defensible space around buildings can limit damage; we know that allowing fire to function naturally is good for our forests and communities. The longer Ryan Zinke continues to ignore these facts, the greater the risks to homes and families.”

Environmentalists and forest managers said that much of the land that has burned in California would not be made safer by opening the way for more logging. That is because the predominant fuel in many areas is chaparral and scrub brush, not the trees coveted by the logging industry.

California policy makers have come up with a variety of proposals for lessening the fire threat in the state. Primary among them is “using fire as a tool” — including sparking controlled burns to reduce the amount of fuel for future wildfires.

CORRECTION (Aug. 17, 2019, 11:10 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program. He is Athan Manuel, not Manual.