President Donald Trump’s administration unveiled a new forest management strategy on Thursday that drew praise from some environmental groups and skepticism from others.
The 28-page plan produced by the U.S. Forest Service emphasizes a need for working more closely with states on an “all-lands, all-hands approach” to reduce the increasing severity of forest fires like those currently burning throughout California.
“To truly protect our forests and communities, we must increase the number and size of our projects, access larger landscapes and cross boundaries,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. “And frankly, we cannot do this ourselves. It has to be done in partnership with our states and local communities.”
Perdue said that will mean meeting with partners at the state-level to jointly review forest conditions and at-risk communities in developing and prioritizing projects.
The new strategy discusses the history of suppressing fires in landscapes where fire has been a natural part of the ecosystem and how that has contributed to a build up of hazardous fuels in those areas.
It calls for using a host of tools to increase the numbers of acres treated to reduce fuels each year, including prescribed fire, managing unplanned fires, mechanical treatments and timber sales.
This announcement comes after Perdue visited Northern California with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke earlier this week to tour areas ravaged by the Carr Fire that has killed at least eight people, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and burned 335 square miles in Shasta and Trinity counties.
Zinke faced criticism from some groups for comments he made during the visit that seemed to discount the role of climate change on the state’s worsening wildfire seasons and shoulder more of the blame on environmental laws and activists.
The Forest Service’s plan listed “regional changes in temperature, precipitation patterns, and other environmental conditions, along with challenges related to normal forest growth and land use change” in and around national forests as among the driving factors influencing large wildfires, invasive species, droughts, degraded watersheds, insect infestation and disease.
Kirin Kennedy, the Sierra Club’s associate legislative director for lands and wildlife, released a statement Thursday that called the newly released strategy a “breath of fresh air” for its “strong emphasis on science and climate change, and calls for prescribed fire and other proven safety measures.”
Kennedy also took the time to blast Zinke for his most recent comments regarding climate change’s relationship to wildfires in the Western U.S.
“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,” Kennedy stated. “The longer Ryan Zinke continues to ignore these facts the greater the risks to homes and families.”
The Tuolumne County Alliance on Resources and Environment also supported the collaborative approach to forest management outlined in the new strategy unveiled Thursday, according to Melinda Fleming, executive director of the group that advocates for logging, mining and ranching.
Fleming said she believed that giving states and local communities more control over the management strategies for federal forestland is something that’s long overdue.
“From a California resident perspective, with so much land under federal management, the best thing that can always happen goes from the bottom up because we’re the people that live there and have a day-to-day dealing with the resources,” she said. “I think there’s science to back up all kinds of things and that using sound science is always a good idea, but also believe there is practical knowledge from the people who live and work daily with the resources involved.”
John Buckley, an environmentalist who serves as executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, expressed a more mixed view on the new management strategy.
Buckley said the “all-lands approach” has been discussed with the Forest Service for some period of time, but its success will ultimately depend on whether the U.S. Congress provides the appropriate amount of funding to implement the new strategy without undercutting basic environmental protections.
“If the Forest Service in the Sierra Nevada region doesn’t have the staffing and the resources to plan thinning logging projects or to implement prescribed burns, then categorical exemptions or increased authorities are just nice sounding rhetoric,” he said. “What it really boils down to is — will Congress pay to do the necessary treatments to make forests and watersheds healthier and more resilient?”
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