To prevent wildfires, the Trump administration plans to open more US forests to grazing

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The US government plans to use more aggressive forest management to prevent deadly fires like those in California that have displaced thousands in recent weeks.

The moves would include controlled burning, partnering with for-profit companies to cut down trees, and opening up more forest lands to livestock grazing in order to clear underbrush, agriculture secretary Sonny Purdue and interior secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters today (Nov. 20). Any major expansion of their agencies’ powers would need congressional approval and rely on partnerships with state and local authorities and environmentalists, who have been wary of the Trump administration’s anti-conservation push.

Zinke and Purdue are urging Congress to allow more logging and grazing on federal lands in the upcoming Farm Bill by expanding the Good Neighbor Authority, they said. “We’re not talking about clear-cutting but good forest management,” Purdue said, with the aim of protecting forests for wildlife and recreation. The White House is asking Congress to “give us the authority to do what we know how to do, and that’s take care of our environment,” Purdue said.

Zinke, a former Montana congressman, has overseen massive reductions in US parkland and the decimation of the National Park Service advisory board. The Department of Agriculture under Trump has been accused of prioritizing agribusiness over the environment.

Whether grazing actually prevents wildfires from spreading or makes them worse is a topic that has long been contested  in America’s cattle country. Agricultural industry experts suggest that clearing out the underbrush and long grasses prevents fires from spreading, while environmentalists argue grazing animals can result ultimately in more flammable plants spreading over a wider area; some USDA research has been inconclusive.

The Camp Fire and Woolsley Fire have killed scores of people and destroyed thousands of homes in California, renewing debate about whether homes should be rebuilt in dry, wildfire-prone areas. Climate change is only going to make fires in California common, governor Jerry Brown warns.

Earlier this week, Zinke blamed the fires on “radical environmental groups” in an interview with far-right website Breitbart News. He agreed today that “the temperatures are getting hotter and the seasons longer,” but active forest management is necessary immediately.

“The president is right,” he said in an apparent nod to Trump’s comments that California is not “raking” its forests well enough. “It is absolutely a situation that needs to be mitigated.”

The US spends billions every year fighting fires, Zinke added. Thinning trees would save money and could provide commercial benefit for biofuel companies.

“There are some good opportunities there,” Zinke said. He added that he’s “very pro-ranching and pro-grazing.”