Park ranger cosplay enthusiast Ryan Zinke has had himself a couple of weeks. In the midst of a catastrophic summer of wildfires, the Secretary of the Interior has tied himself in knots trying to figure out how to talk about the role of climate change in driving those fires.
Over the course of the past two weeks, he has alternately blamed the fires on fuel loads, environmental groups (or in Zinke parlance, “environmental terrorists”), bark beetles and the resulting dead trees, and poor management. He has said climate change plays a role, and noted that the climate is always changing and humanity’s impact is unclear.
What is clear is Ryan Zinke is a confused man caught between opposing forces of science and politics. Let’s take a minute to relive his agony.
Wednesday, August 8
Zinke’s grab bag of wildfire views first went on display in a USA Today op-ed, penned on the day it became clear the Mendocino Complex would be the largest conflagration in California’s history.
The title? “Wildfires seem unstoppable, but they can be prevented. Here’s how.” The premise? Fires are burning more intensely because of poor forest management and hotter, drier conditions.
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A fair statement to be sure, but his solution is to more actively manage forests while calling out “radical environmentalists...[that] make outdated and unscientific arguments, void of facts, because they cannot defend the merits of their policy preferences year after year as our forests and homes burn to the ground.” He also invoked the loss of firefighter lives to discredit these unnamed foes, which is pretty gross.
Friday, August 10
From the pages of USA Today a committed Zinke plunged forward, unleashing his next string of confused comments at Steamboat Springs, an idyllic Colorado resort town. He stopped in to address the Freedom Conference, hosted by the conservative Steamboat Institute. In it, he blamed the uptick in fires on “environmental terrorists that don’t like you and public land.”
Protestors interrupted his speech twice, asking the secretary about his climate change views. The first time, he told a protestor to be polite as the man was escorted out. The second protestor stood up as Zinke was talking about energy dominance, to which Zinke replied, “You haven’t served and you don’t understand what energy is. I’d like to see your child fight for energy.”
Later, Zinke gave an interview to the Steamboat Pilot and Today. Before the journalist could even ask a question, he launched into an explanation of fire season:
“It is clear that seasons have gotten longer, that the drought, the temperatures has gotten hotter. It is indisputable that the dead and dying timber has been a driving force in the scale of these fires...It is a perfect storm where, whether you’re a believer in climate change or not, it doesn’t relieve the responsibility of government managing the forest.”
He later went on to discuss how logging is actually something environmentalists should get behind because a forest is not an ecosystem but a balance sheet:
“There are billions of board feet on on the forest floor rotting. If you’re an environmentalist, that carbon, one from the catastrophic forest fire and two the rotting timber.”
Sunday, August 12
As the Mendocino Complex fire charged toward spawning the biggest single fire in California history and Redding residents continued to cleanup after the horrific Carr Fire, Zinke visited the state of California. While there, he chatted with local press. In remarks while visiting the Carr Fire, the Sacramento Bee reported that Zinke said the following:
“It doesn’t matter whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change. What is important is we manage our forests. This is not a debate about climate change. There’s no doubt the (fire) season is getting longer, the temperatures are getting hotter.”
Well, it does matter, but we’ll get back to that in a bit. Because in a televised interview with local television station KCRA, Zinke took a hard right turn:
“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management.”
Monday, August 13
The media train kept rolling on Monday with a call to Breitbart Radio where we got a mashup of all these comments to-date:
“[Wildfire seasons] have been getting worse. It’s a result of we have longer seasons, hotter conditions...”
I and the vast majority of scientists are with you, Zinke. Can’t wait to hear how this will factor into your vision for managing fires.
“But what’s driving it is the fuel load. And we have been held hostage by these environmental terrorist groups.”
“Whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change, it doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility to remove the dead and dying timber and manage our forests, so you don’t have these catastrophic burns.”
Just launch me into the sun.
Thursday, August 15
After a few quiet days, Zinke came back to serve up a final three course meal of word salad. It started around 6 a.m. with a visit with Fox Business, where he told Neil Cavuto the old denier classic that we’ve heard both Rick Perry and Scott Pruitt (RIP) use on national television:
“There’s no dispute that the climate is changing, although it has always changed. Whether man is the direct result, how much that result is, that’s still being disputed.”
He later added that “it’s clear...temperatures are higher, the season’s longer.”
Ahead of a cabinet meeting, he visited with the press pool at the White House. Asked if he acknowledged that climate change is part of what’s driving California’s wildfires, he said “of course.”
Then in said cabinet meeting, he offered these remarks about the real issue of wood rot:
And whether you’re a global warmist advocate or denier, it doesn’t make a difference when you have rotting timber, when housing prices are going up, when a lot of Americans are right at that border of affording a house, and yet we are wasting billions of board feet for not being able to bring them to a local lumber mill. It is unconscionable that we would do that to our citizens.
The Fox fanatic running this country also let it be known which part of Zinke’s remarks he had heard, noting “and, Ryan, you’re saying it’s not a global warming thing, it’s a management situation.”
And that, my friends, is what this is really all about. The Trump administration has invested a lot of effort into ensuring that the fossil fuel industry has as many opportunities as possible to drill for oil and gas. Zinke has helped spearhead a number of those efforts from his perch at the Department of the Interior. He has also rescinded its climate change planning policies, further ensuring that “active management” of forest doesn’t mean considering the risks climate change poses.
Of course, continuing to emit carbon like there’s no tomorrow will make climate change worse, and that will increase the risk of more catastrophic wildfires. Admitting climate change is a big driver behind the intensification of wildfire season would mean actually doing something about all that carbon pollution.
The fires are also a politically expedient way to attempt to take control of California’s water use, including water that helps endangered species that the Department of the Interior is supposed to protect. The administration has also used the fires as a way to ram through an attempt to increase logging on U.S. Forest Service lands, something the Department of Agriculture (which oversees forests) is now trying to do.
That same plan also mentions how the climate has changed without explicitly talking about what caused said changes, showing that the Zinke’s Department of the Interior is hardly the only agency trying to cope with reality.