The Interior Department is heating up its war on costly and deadly wildfires in the West, junking policies of leaving forests alone and letting piles of deadwood lay to fuel more fires.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said letting nature take its course is costing too much in money and lives, and added that few other countries follow that policy.
Just letting fuel build up, he said, is "inexcusable and shameful because we can actively manage our holdings to remove the dead and dying timber and restore the health of the forest. Other countries do it. German does it."
In an interview with Secrets in advance of issuing a new directive demanding a policy change, he said in the past, "their thinking was let nature take its course. It's the naturalist in extreme." Zinke added, "Nature is on geologic time."
In a memo to department officials last week, Zinke said:
"I am directing you to think about fire in a new and aggressive way. Address the threat of fire in all of your activities, rather than engaging only the fire staff. All land managers across the Department of the Interior (Department) have a responsibility, using the full range of existing authorities, to consider using fuels management to achieve their programs' and units' resource- and land-management objectives. Where dead and dying trees have become hazards that can carry fire across our boundaries or into areas that are a threat to values-at-risk, we must move aggressively to minimize that threat."
Zinke told Secrets that huge wildfires like the one ravaging the Columbia River Gorge are burning "hotter and longer" due to the build up of old and dead logs and vegetation.
Zinke told us that he wants all of that cleaned up and old logs sold. His goal is to "look at a forest as a system and managing it better as a system."
He would sell old and dead timber to contractors, even "mom and pop" local saw mills, rather than let the wood rot. He said that dead timber has "value."
That money could then be used to improve forests, parks and help offset the $11 billion needed to improve the infrastructure of Interior properties.
"We simply cannot afford to continue business as usual. We must do everything we can to address the steady accumulation of fuels on our Nation's public lands and the resulting increased threats from catastrophic wildfires," added Zinke's memo.
Critics are likely to attack the new policy, but in its release of the Zinke memo Interior lined up several key supporters to voice their agreement with the secretary.
"If we don't start managing our forests, the forests are going to start managing us," said Montana Sen. Steve Daines. "The fires burning across Montana are a catastrophe, and we need all available resources to combat this threat. I applaud Secretary Zinke's action to focus resources on attacking wildfires."
Bryan Rice, director of the Office of Wildland Fire, added, "It is critical to fully consider the benefits of fuels reduction in the everyday management activities that we carry out for our public land management objectives, such as clearing along roadsides, around visitor use areas like campgrounds and trails, near employee housing areas, and within administrative site areas subject to wildfire."
Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com