Trump administration falsely blames lawsuits for forest fires

The following guest column appeared in the Missoulian today, and was written by Mike Garrity with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

It is clear that the Trump administration is leading on one thing: making stuff up. Ryan Zinke, Sonny Perdue, Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte followed Donald Trump’s lead in using alternative facts in their recent press conference near the Lolo Peak Fire. The Trump administration apparently believes that it is because of lawsuits that we have forest fires during this exceptionally hot, dry and windy summer.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies is a powerful group and we fight hard to preserve forests, but we certainly don’t control the weather or the warming climate. Moreover, there is no lawsuit in the Lolo Peak area, and the Lolo Peak area has already undergone extensive logging.

In the Trump administration’s alternative reality, climate change has nothing to do with forest fires because, as Trump has pronounced, “global warming is a Chinese hoax.” The 2014 National Climate Assessment estimates wildfires in Montana will increase by 400 percent to 700 percent in the next 50 years if climate change is not addressed.

Protecting old growth forests from logging is one way to do this. National forests absorb an astounding 10 percent of the carbon that America creates and unlogged and old growth forests absorb the most.

The politicians at the Lolo Peak Fire press conference could do something about the main driver of wildfire — they could commit to addressing climate change – starting with participation in the Paris Climate Accord. But instead they promote more coal burning and taxpayer-subsidized logging on public lands, which will only exacerbate climate change.

The Trump administration has even complained that our lawsuit temporarily pausing the Stonewall timber sale resulted in the wildfire burning in the northern part of the Stonewall project area. Not surprisingly, their argument is not supported by facts. That wildfire started with a lighting strike outside of the planned treatment units, so the fire would have started regardless of whether the project units were logged. Indeed, natural wildfires regularly burn in this area, as evidenced by the fact that the Park Creek fire is now surrounded on three sides by formerly burned areas, which have mostly stopped the spread of this fire. Significantly, it also does not appear that any of the timber sale’s commercial logging units have burned.

These fact-challenged politicians also claimed that we have shut down half the timber sales in Montana, a contention that even the U.S. Forest Service denied. Instead, our region of the Forest Service has met 89 percent of its timber logging targets over the last 15 years and the target has been increasing almost every year. 2017 is not over yet, but a February Great Falls Tribune article titled “Logging in Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest best in decades” reported that loggers had never seen this much timber available.

These politicians also neglected to mention that the state’s largest wildfire — 270,000 acres that destroyed 16 homes in eastern Montana — burned mostly through grasslands, not forests, which is probably why they held their pro-logging press conference in front of Lolo Peak rather than in eastern Montana.

The Trump administration calls it “frivolous” when citizens prevail in lawsuits forcing the government to comply with its own laws. To the contrary, it is the basis of our democracy and civil justice system that citizens have the power to force the government to follow its own laws. So despite the barrage of lies, insults, fear-mongering and scapegoating directed at us, we will not back down. We will continue to fight to protect and conserve our priceless public lands and the fish and wildlife that depend on them for survival. Join us.

16 Comments

  1. A wise old friend of mine I used to work with at Missoula Youth Homes used to love to tell the kids she counseled “out of crisis comes opportunity.” So can I talk a little bit more about framing?

    It’s been a long time since I’ve completely agreed with a Mike Garrity statement, but I do agree with this one. Too often, I feel, AWR frames the Forest Service as a “bad actor” that is out there intentionally “breaking laws.” I’ve voiced my objection to this in the past. A LOT of valuable allies are driven away.

    Now, enter the Trump administration. The Overton window lurches further right. Most those big bad actor functionaries in the Forest Service are looking like they espouse pretty sane policy in comparison. Good allies. Thus, I appreciate the shift in framing Mike uses, to wit:

    “The Trump administration calls it ‘frivolous’ when citizens prevail in lawsuits forcing the government to comply with its own laws. To the contrary, it is the basis of our democracy and civil justice system that citizens have the power to force the government to follow its own laws.” — Notice the shift to “The Trump administration” and “force the government to follow it’s own laws.”

    Bravo. Out of crisis comes the opportunity to shift the frame from the USFS as enemy … to that of ally.

    • That’s because the Forest Service is part of the alleged “administrative state.” Federal agencies have a moderating influence on administration ideologies, providing for some continuity in government. The FS may have been seen as dragging its feet on conservation under the Obama Administration, but it will now hopefully resist Trump attempts to revive industrial forestry on national forest lands. (My perception is that ecosystem management has largely displaced that as a core value in the Forest Service, but the bias is still towards active management.)

      • There hasn’t been “industrial forestry” in the Sierra Nevada National Forests since 1993. It took GW Bush four years to make minor changes in the Sierra Nevada Framework. Trump cannot just wave a magic wand to suddenly go back to clearcutting and old growth liquidation. “Industrial forestry” is not thinning-from-below, taking out trees averaging 15″ in diameter. I think the bias is against ALL logging, as some people still think that Federal clearcutting is always mandated. I again remind people about all those Sierra Club folks who truly believe that Giant Sequoias will be clearcut. AND, you can add the Wilderness Society to the bunch who also claim that ‘Bigtrees’ will be cut for massive profits.

      • Hi Jon,
        You said above, “My perception is that ecosystem management has largely displaced that as a core value in the Forest Service, but the bias is still towards active management.”
        So are you saying that (among foresters and such, not line officers) within the Forest Service ecosystem management has supplanted industrial forestry, but ecosystem management still skews toward active rather than passive?

        • Yes (this must have been about the time I stopped getting notifications about replies to my comments). I think most line officers are on board with ecosystem management, too, but active management generates budgets and staff (and active management is what most of these folks were trained to do).

                • Fair question. The term doesn’t appear to be in the agency directives. On the other hand, the national staff responsible for planning is “Ecosystem Management Coordination,” so maybe we should ask what they do.

                  Here’s my simplified view of agency history. Late last century, there was a major shift from an emphasis on what was taken from the national forests (as in board feet) to what was left on the land. That could be broadly described as “ecosystem management.” The 2012 Planning Rule includes a refinement of that idea that tries to be more specific for the purpose of planning, and uses historic conditions of the land as a starting point for defining future management goals for the land.

                  Back to my point, “restoration” is often what the agency determines is needed to get there, and active restoration gives the agency purpose. I think there can be a good case for active restoration when making it happen faster is important, such as fixing the damage to streams from the existing road system, especially where at-risk species need to be recovered. Sometimes “restoration” of vegetation just becomes a label to make active management look more necessary (and funding-worthy).

    • Ah.. Garrity’s framing makes me feel warm and fuzzy toward groups like the CBD and NRDC who are honest about using litigation as a tool to advance policy (conservation or environmental) objectives.

      I don’t agree that lawsuits are frivolous..my interactions with plaintiffs have been that they are very serious indeed. But I also don’t agree with Garrity.

      There are plenty of laws, regulations and policies that various parts of the feds are following or not following and AWR only picks ones that … advance their (conservation and environmental) policy agenda! Was it Stephen Covey who said “your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

      • Say what?

        So, Sharon, you write: “There are plenty of laws, regulations and policies that various parts of the feds are following or not following and AWR only picks ones that … advance their (conservation and environmental) policy agenda!”

        Yes, Sharon, that’s what AWR and the AWR Board of Directors is required to do…follow their mission. What laws is the federal government breaking that you think AWR should sue on? Maybe they could sue on Trump’s Border Ban and the ACLU could sue to protect grizzly bears?

        I fail to follow your logic here, but assume your intent is to take a swipe at AWR. Anyway, do you have any specific comments on anything specific Garrity said?

      • The law is “a tool to advance policy.” In some countries, laws intended to advance environmental policy by regulating or directing governmental behavior are not enforceable, e.g., Canada. Without enforcement, those laws become little more than toothless tigers, mere suggestions that government functionaries ignore when convenient to do so.

        In the U.S., by contrast, Congress has seen fit to build enforcement mechanisms into its body of law, like citizen-suit provisions in the ESA and Clean Water Act and the more general enforcement provisions of Administrative Procedures Act.

        These enforcement mechanisms do not advance the policies sought by Congress if they are not used.

  2. One thing the FS is good at is spending millions of dollars burning up the last of our old growth forests, destroying recreational opportunities, and closing roads.
    I don’t think anyone has seen any changes yet.

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