Politicians vs science

Ideology was on display at a grandstanding event on the Lolo Peak Fire.

Secretary Sonny Perdue, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Congressman Greg Gianforte and Senator Steve Daines got a briefing from the fire management team, and then held a short press conference.

Senator Daines repeated a refrain that Montana Republicans have been saying for years: That lawsuits from extreme environmental groups are preventing the U.S. Forest Service from carrying out logging and thinning projects that would remove trees and prevent wildfires… “It is the lawyers who are – funding for these extreme environmental groups — who are having a tremendous impact, devastating impact on allowing us to move forward here on some common sense timber projects,” Daines said.

Both Perdue and Congressman Greg Gianforte pointed to a 5,000 acre logging project called the Stonewall that was approved by the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest outside Lincoln in 2016. That was then put on hold in January by a judge responding to a lawsuit from the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council. That area is now burning as part of the Park Creek fire sparked by lightning this summer.

But, after listening to audio of the press conference this afternoon, the dean of the Forestry School at the University of Montana, Tom DeLuca, cautioned against expecting too much from a timber sale or wildfire  fuel management projects…  On a windy, hot day, a fire will carry right through that understory or in those crowns regardless of whether it’s been thinned or not. It does change the behavior…  There are also studies that try to quantify how much more severe wildfires are in recent years due to climate change. DeLuca says it’s clear that human-caused climate change from burning fossil fuels is making fire seasons longer and more intense.

Sen. Daines says, “We go through warmer cycles, cooler cycles, droughts, excessive precipitation. We are in a warm cycle right now, we are in drought conditions here in Montana consequently we’re having a severe fire season.”

(Climate scientist Steve) Running says.., “”What I heard is the kind of evasive response, ‘yeah weather’s always changing and we’ve had dry seasons and fire seasons before,’ and so the implication that there’s nothing really new and this is just part of natural cycles. Of course in the climate change research community we’ve well documented in dozens and dozens of peer reviews papers that the fire season’s getting longer and overall we’re burning more acres than in the past and that we’re on a trend of longer fire seasons and bigger fires,” Running says…  It’s always the case that if you pick any one year out you can say there’s been other years like this, but when we study climate, we’re studying decades, multi-decadal trends, and we clearly document multi-decadal trends of longer, warmer summers and more, bigger fires.”

At least Perdue agreed, “There obviously is climate change …”

12 Comments

  1. In the Missoulian coverage of the same dog-n-pony show it was reported that:

    “[Montana Congressman Greg] Gianforte said the federal Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows those who successfully sue the government to recover their legal costs, needed reform to reduce “frivolous lawsuits.”

    “It’s been hijacked by environmental extremists who use it to create a business model to shut down almost every forest management project here in the state,” Gianforte said. “Over 50 percent of planned forest management projects in the state are challenged in court, tied up, and ultimately they burn.”

    That statement from Rep Greg Gianforte needs a serious fact-check. As people may recall, in the recent past the Washington Post’s Fact-Checker needed to dig into logging lawsuits lies from Montana politicians and even award Senator Jon Tester Four Pinocchios for repeated lies about public lands logging lawsuits.

    Oh, isn’t this ironic?!?

    Literally a few hours after Greg Gianforte referred to Montana citizens, and his constituents, who ensure the government follows the law when logging on our public lands as “environmental extremists”…..

    Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte was literally photographed for his “mug-shot” and fingerprinted after he plead guilty to assaulting (ie “body-slamming” a reporter on the eve of the Montana special election that put him in office.

  2. Could it be that burning up our cool green forest and turning them into dead trees and rocks with no shade is making global climate change worst? Could dumping billions of tons of carbon into the air from burning forests be contributing to global warming? Could it be that millions of trees that are no longer turning carbon dioxide into oxygen because they are dead be also contributing to global warming?
    We set aside our pubic forests to protect the environment. As it turns out, instead of protecting them we spend billions burning them up.
    Could it be that we need to take a different approach?
    Another hot, very smokey day Oregon.

  3. Jon, ” politicians” aren’t one thing, and “science” isn’t one thing. The idea that certain politicians are “against” an abstraction called “science” is an idea made up by some folks to make a complex situation seem simple and attract more supporters. Scientists are on both, many and all sides of this argument.

    Note that DeLuca says “it does change the behavior”. He’s basically saying the fire will go through and behave differently, which is exactly the point of fuel treatments based on the definition. As we’ve seen, these changes can help suppression efforts, reduce negative impacts of fire or both. So it the politicians said ” make fires easier to fight” instead of “prevent”, would everyone agree?

    • Hi Sharon,

      I have great respect for Dr. Tom DeLuca as a soils scientist. That’s his training and he’s an excellent soil scientist. However, as you’ve repeatedly pointed out on this blog over the past few years when it comes to other scientists talking fuels reduction, I’m not sure that Tom’s off-hand comment as a in a press interview really means that fuel reduction and logging “does change the behavior.”

      Having spoken with, and worked alongside Dr. DeLuca a time or two over the years, I’m pretty darn confident that he’d see much more eye to eye with our perspective on these issues, than yours, or the timber industry’s or the politicians.

      For example, you may want to see “Interactive effects of historical logging and fire exclusionon ponderosa pine forest structure in the northern Rockies,” which Dr. DeLuca worked on with Cameron Naficy, who was our staff ecologist at the time.

      Finally, for the record, here’s the full transcript featuring Tom DeLuca from the Montana Public Radio segment:

      But, after listening to audio of the press conference this afternoon, the dean of the Forestry School at the University of Montana, Tom DeLuca, cautioned against expecting too much from a timber sale or wildfire fuel management projects.

      “You have to look at, where were the largest fires in Montana this summer? And where were they in Washington two summers ago? They were in scrubland and rangeland. Thinning a forest doesn’t create a no fire, or asbestos forest. It does not create a system that won’t burn. It will potentially change the fire behavior on the forest, reduce the severity, perhaps make it more defensible space, but it will not stop fire. On a windy, hot day, a fire will carry right through that understory or in those crowns regardless of whether it’s been thinned or not. It does change the behavior.

      “I agree with the notion that there’s a lot of forests that are in an unnatural state because they were in a managed forest but then management was discontinued on it, to a great degree on federal lands because of environmental regulations and also litigation. So it is correct that there’s a lot of acreage that’s in rough shape that will burn under a higher-severity condition than it would naturally,” DeLuca says.

          • Still punishing dead foresters? Yep, the staple of the eco-industry is to blame the past, to block the present. That is their solution, is to let forests burn, from human-caused wildfires…. and anything else bad that happens. We cannot preserve our way to forest resilience, without burning the forests to a crisp but, that is their plan. Ask Hanson! He LOVES human-caused fires!

          • So if the timber industry did do a pretty darn good job of getting rid of most of the 200 to 400 year old trees why are we spending billions burning up those that are left instead of trying to persevere them?

      • So there are fuel treatments (1)
        Scientists including DeLuca, say that they can (of course “potentially”) change fire behavior- after all that’s the point of designing them! Including reducing severity and making it easier for suppression crews to work and give them more options. (2)
        We all agree on 1 and 2 (I think).

        Regardless of whether (some R politicians in Montana) say they will “prevent fire” when they mean something more nuanced (reduce acreage due to more suppression possibilities, have fewer negative fire effects), litigation has tied up fuel treatment projects which would otherwise have gone forward. as deLuca says “to a great degree on federal lands because of environmental regulations and also litigation.” (3) I think we agree on this also.

        I don’t disagree with anything deLuca says, except the idea of an “unnatural state” but I give him the benefit of the doubt because he has to work with many others who believe in this idea. To me they are a form of shorthand for more complex ideas that don’t fit within short news stories or press releases.. Here’s some examples:
        “fuel treatments prevent fires”
        “logging in the backcountry”
        “unnatural” state

  4. Maybe if we simply agree that “prevent” wasn’t the right word to use, we can move forward. Many of us regular folks know that concept isn’t correct. Maybe substitute ‘mitigate’ for “prevent” and things might seem more accurate? Preserving fuels, both live and dead, for the next inevitable human-caused wildfires doesn’t seem like a good idea, to me. It’s not cost-effective investment in our Forests.

  5. The point of my headline (I concede that it was supposed to attract attention in kind of the same way the politicians were) was that politicians are politicizing science for ideological reasons. “Prevent” may have been an intentional overstatement to mislead the uninformed (or worse, are our legislators themselves informed?). Nothing new about all this. However, fire borrowing was another topic of that discussion, and probably the main reason legislation has not fixed that problem is because these politicians keeping linking that solution to this pro-logging, anti-lawsuit ideology and agenda.

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