The Trump Administration Wants to Roll Back Environmental Protections to Help Fight Fires

New farm bill provisions would eliminate environmental protections for forest management, without addressing the wildfires' biggest driver: climate change.
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Before Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke toured the charred remnants of Paradise, California, on Monday, he echoed President Donald Trump's call for aggressive wildfire management policies in the 2018 farm bill. The new provisions would eliminate environmental protections in the name of fighting fires—all without addressing climate change, the biggest driver behind the Camp fire and its predecessors, according to expert consensus.

The fire fight is the latest partisan battle holding up the overdue farm bill. After the last one lapsed in October, Pacific Standard reported that debate had stalled over work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and cuts to federal conservation programs.

Now, Zinke is calling for Congress to support measures in the conservative House version of the farm bill, the Hill reports, which would roll back environmental restrictions on forest management projects such as forest thinning, dead tree removal, and controlled burns, according to the Sacramento Bee.

"California is a tinderbox," Zinke wrote in a CNN op-ed on Monday, citing drought, warm temperatures, forest management, and expansion into the wildland-urban interface—but not climate change, which has doubled the area of forest in the United States vulnerable to fire since the 1980s.

According to a Congressional Research Service assessment, the House bill promises these projects will "reduce the risk of wildfire on [Forest Service] or public lands," through tree removal, livestock grazing, prescribed burns, and other strategies. But these provisions are not solely aimed at preventing wildfires: The projects would also enable "the sale of forest products impacted by a catastrophic event on [Forest Service] or public lands," the report says.

Moreover, environmental groups and forestry experts say these strategies would harm ecosystems, without reducing fire risk. In August, a group of forest ecologists said in a letter to Congress that the House bill "ignores the critical role of climate change in driving today's wildfires and focuses on accelerated commercial logging and road building—which generally exacerbate fire risk—with little consideration of impacts on water quality, wildlife, or recreational values."

In his CNN column, Zinke pushed back against claims that these policies would enable "large-scale logging." But he also defended the lumber industry: "Jobs matter, and the timber industry has long been a cornerstone of rural economies. Fortunately, these economic benefits go hand in hand with our goal of healthy forests."

Research, however, has shown the opposite: While prescribed burning and fuel reduction can help, studies show post-wildfire logging actually increases fire risk, while harming sensitive species and depriving forests of important ecological benefits.

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