With a partial government shutdown looming, President Trump quietly issued an executive order that expands logging on public land on the grounds that it will curb deadly wildfires.
The declaration, issued the Friday before Christmas, reflects Trump’s interest in forest management since a spate of wildfires ravaged California last year. While many scientists and Western governors have urged federal officials to adopt a suite of policies to tackle the problem, including cuts in greenhouse gases linked to climate change, the president has focused on expanding timber sales.
The executive order instructs the secretaries of agriculture and interior to consider harvesting a total of 4.4 billion board feet of timber from forest land managed by their agencies on millions of acres, and put it up for sale. The order would translate into a 31 percent increase in forest service logging since 2017.
The president wanted to sign an executive order on the issue during his trip to California in mid-November, said one individual familiar with the matter, but it wasn’t ready for his signature.
In addition to removing trees, Trump asked his secretaries to remove forest brush and debris that help fuel fires from more than 4 million acres and treat another 1.5 million acres to control tree-destroying pests. The order, published last week in the Federal Register, does not specify a deadline to accomplish the president’s goal.
University of Colorado Boulder Professor Jennifer Balch said in an email that while treating federal forests makes sense near homes, that policy prescription won’t make a serious dent in the size and intensity of wildfires out West. These fires have increased fivefold since the 1970s as temperatures have risen and snowpack has shrunk. Just 2 percent of lands treated by the Forest Service between 2004 and 2013 experienced a wildfire.
“We can’t log our way out of the fire problem — thinning all the forests is not possible,” the fire ecologist said. “And even if it were, it won’t stop fires in the extreme weather that is happening more frequently, and will in the future.”
The Camp Fire’s massive impact came into sharp focus Sunday, as the utility PG&E filed a notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission suggesting it would file for bankruptcy because it faces more than $30 billion in liability in connection with the state’s wildfires. The company’s CEO, Geisha Williams, also stepped down Sunday.
Many California residents fault PG&E’s power lines for the wildfires that ravaged the state last year, and the matter is under investigation.
A piece published Nov. 30 in Geophysical Research Letters found that human-induced climate change now influences a fifth of the world’s fires.
Balch noted that the executive order did not address some kinds of the vegetation that makes communities vulnerable to fire, such as the chaparral that spread a fire in November that destroyed hundreds of Malibu-area homes. “You can’t log shrubs,” she said.
Despite the fact that the Forest Service is shuttered, officials there have given loggers permission to keep operating on existing sales — which was prohibited during both the 1995 and 2013 shutdowns — and are now exploring holding new auctions even if the government remains closed.
Agency officials informed staffers Thursday to figure out what it would take to bring back some furloughed employees for new timber sales, according to a federal official who was not authorized to speak on the record. Meanwhile, the important work of removing small vegetation and dry brush that serves as kindling for fires is not being done because of the shutdown, the longest in history as it enters its fourth week.
Employees working without pay and those funded by unspent appropriations from last fiscal year are managing the current harvests, the official said. Timber technicians who go through the forests to mark which trees should be cut are receiving their regular salary. But holding new sales would involve substantially more staff, the official noted.
Trump has repeatedly blamed devastating wildfires out West on poor forest management, rejecting the idea that climate change could be leading to a longer and more intense fire season in the United States.
Standing in the devastated town of Paradise, which the president mistakenly called “Pleasure,” Trump said the United States should follow the example of Finland, which spends “a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem.”
Trump said he was paraphrasing comments by Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, but Niinisto later said raking never entered the discussion.
Trump was livid about criticism of his “raking” comments during that trip and has watched videos and polled advisers about forest management, according to a senior administration official who asked for anonymity to speak frankly.
The president has regularly asked advisers how he could punish California for what he deems as poor forestry. Trump has been told repeatedly that he cannot take away money that has already been appropriated for the disaster, according to individuals familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly. Advisers have argued that taking such money from California would only hurt the citizens — not the elected officials he wants to punish.
On Wednesday, the president tweeted that California receives “billions of dollars” for its wildfire recovery efforts and that he was poised to cut off that money unless the state changes its forest management practices.
“Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money,” Trump stated. “It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”
Tree harvests reached a peak on land managed by the Forest Service in the late 1980s at 12 billion board feet before sharply declining when officials realized that the rate of extraction was unsustainable for forest health. They fell to as low as 1.9 billion in 2009 but have crept back upward since, to 2.5 billion last year. Those figures do not include land managed by Interior.
Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, which includes companies and trade groups that manufacture wood products, paper and renewable energy from federal forests, said in an email that it makes sense for the harvest to continue. “The Forest Service timber contract doesn’t mention lapses in appropriations as a reason to shut down timber sales,” he said.
“Federal timber sales are a critical part of the nation’s timber supply and support hundreds of thousands of jobs in places where good-paying work is hard to find,” he said. “We appreciate the service of those who are being asked to work without the certainty of a paycheck.”
In his order, Trump asserted that “active management of vegetation is needed to treat . . . dangerous conditions on Federal lands but is often delayed” because of regulations such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act that call for impact studies and reviews.
As in other initiatives, the president asked Interior and Agriculture department officials to use expedited authority approved by Congress to fast track that process, including limiting the amount of public input such as comments on proposals.
“For decades, dense trees and undergrowth have amassed in these lands, fueling catastrophic wildfires,” the order said. “These conditions, along with insect infestation, invasive species, disease, and drought, have weakened our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands, and have placed communities and homes at risk of damage from catastrophic wildfires.”
Trump told Interior and Agriculture to partner with states to determine a path forward. Both the Forest Service and Interior declined to comment on the order Friday.
The governors of three states that are deeply impacted by wildfires — California, Washington and Oregon — applauded the order but said it lacked teeth because of inadequate funding.
“It is constrained by current appropriations,” said the letter, dated Jan. 8. “We all must acknowledge that without significant additional federal investment, these partnerships have too little impact on changing the catastrophic reality of wildfire season on the West Coast.”
Asked about the letter, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said in a statement said that just spending money to treat forests is not enough. “This administration’s wildfire policy will never fully address the challenge we face until it confronts the devastation wrought by climate change alone,” he said.
In the past, Forest Service officials have expressed concern that public officials continue to allow developers to build businesses and homes on the edge of forests in the absence of stricter federal and state regulations against the practice. It was happening despite the warming climate, drier conditions, particularly in the West, and a fire season that has grown from about eight months to year-round.
Two million homes bumped up against wildlands in the West in 2015, the majority in two states with the highest risk, Washington and California, according to Headwaters Economics, an independent nonprofit group that studies wildfire prevention. The group predicted that number would keep growing.
“Our public lands are supposed to be managed in a way that benefits the people,” said Sam Evans, national forests and parks program leader for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s office in North Carolina. “Trump’s executive order does the exact opposite, by putting policies in place that cater to industry interests.
“It’s not telling the agencies to increase the number of communities protected from fire risks,” Evans said. “It’s telling them to put more logs on trucks, while cutting out environmental review, transparency and accountability to the public.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.