WILLITS, 10/20/18 — A few days ago President Trump made a series of impromptu comments during a cabinet meeting, denouncing the management of Californian wildlands, while also threatening to halt federal funding for fire suppression. You can see our previous coverage and watch the video here.
In a brief interview with The Mendocino Voice on Thursday Congressman Jared Huffman, who represents Mendocino County and the North Coast, responded to Trump’s remarks and elaborated his views on the politics of wildfire.
Here is that interview, lightly edited for clarity.
MV: What do you think about the president’s remarks at the cabinet meeting?
HUFFMAN: It’s very disappointing. This is a president who really doesn’t understand how to lead when it comes to communities that have been devastated by natural disasters.
We’re still dealing with the horrific impact of last year’s firestorm, this year’s firestorms, in other parts of California — and this is the last thing we need: a president who doesn’t understand the facts on the ground and just wants to play politics and try to punish California.
HUFFMAN: Well, we’re already working on that and of course we need to do better management of our forest lands — but President Trump’s statement is completely counterfactual. The fires that we’ve had this year did not start in the areas where we have a lot of dead trees from the drought or from, frankly, the impacts of climate change — which he denies the existence of — there were other causes.
MV: What do you say about the need for increased management of forests?
And he also…most of this problem is on federal land — it’s U.S. Forest Service land, BLM land. So once again, everything he says is counterfactual, preposterous on its face and we’ll spend another media cycle talking about how silly that is, instead of working together to solve problems.
MV: And what is the solution to this problem?
HUFFMAN: If you’re talking about the firestorms of the each of the last two years, neither of these involved forests that were overgrown and somehow weren’t being cut because of environmental laws. That’s the narrative that [Trump] wants to perpetuate — right? But that has nothing to do with the fires we’ve experience in the last couple years.
In fact, if you look at the Thomas Fire in southern California that was largely on scrub land, there weren’t even trees to cut.
[The Mendocino Complex also didn’t start in forest] although it made its way into the Mendocino National Forest. The Carr Fire this year burned right through Sierra Pacific lands which are some of the most cut-over lands you’ll find in California. So if cutting trees is going to spare you from wildfire, tell that to the people of Redding, because it didn’t work out that way.
Everything the president has said about this is reckless, counterfactual and essentially preposterous.
MV: What do you think of the Democrats’ chances for taking the House of Representatives in the midterms?
HUFFMAN: Excellent! In fact, [I’m in] Orange County California, where I’m campaigning with one of our fantastic Democratic candidates, Michael Levin — he’s going to flip the seat that has been held by Darrell Issa. So we are no only going to going to turn the House blue — we’re going to raise the average IQ by about 20 points.
MV: So if you take the House, what are the policies that you’ll pursue, and the policies the federal government can enact, to support California on this issue?
HUFFMAN: Let me address the disconnect between the rhetoric that President Trump has and the reality on the ground: There are all sorts of projects moving forward right now, where we’ve struck the right balance — we’ve found agreement between the environmental community and other stakeholders, and we’re actually going in and thinning and clearing.
We need a lot more of that to happen in certain parts of the state, but it costs money. You have to have scientists who can do the NEPA reviews [National Environmental Policy Act*], and get the environmental process done in a timely way, and if you don’t do good quality work there you might get yourself sued and the project might not happen. So this is where we have a huge disconnect, because President Trump, at least in his first two years, proposed gutting the NEPA teams for the Department of the Interior and for the Forest Service.
He just wants to claim that we should repeal all our environmental laws, and go clear-cut all our forests. That’s not going to happen. But there are projects we can do, and they’ll make a difference. And with a little support from this administration we could do a lot more.
MV: Have you found bipartisan agreement with colleagues from other western states on this wildland management issue?
HUFFMAN: Well there’s agreement that we have a problem. Unfortunately, [the Republicans’] answer to that in each of the last several Congresses has been to gut the environmental laws as a sort of pseudo solution. I hope in, a Democratic Congress, we can be more thoughtful. I’m determined to develop a Democratic response to this problem, that I hope will have strong bipartisan support. You don’t need to choose between having an Endangered Species Act, and managing for forest resiliency — you can have both.
MV: What do you think about the actions and statements of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke?
HUFFMAN: Unfortunately, he has kind of fallen in line with the president on some of these reckless statements. Literally as the Carr Fire was burning and as the Mendocino Complex was taking off they were trying to suggest that all of this was because environmentalists were somehow diverting all our water out to the ocean. And therefore we couldn’t fight fires with it. It was nonsense. And every fire professional in California called them out for it, but Secretary Zinke has been somewhat culpable in some of that misinformation.
*Similar to California’s CEQA law, on a federal level.
This interview as conducted by The Mendocino Voice’s managing editor, Adrian Fernandez Baumann, while sitting in a pick-up truck watching a small wildfire be contained and extinguished by the Little Lake Fire Department, Cal Fire and the Chamberlain Creek inmate hand-crew. The interview took about five minutes, and occurred in between updating a breaking news story on the fire, and interviewing the on-site Cal Fire chief for additional details.