Trump Officials Misrepresented Wildfire Data to Increase Logging
“As wildfire experts have repeatedly explained, you can’t log or even ‘rake’ our way out of this mess. The Trump administration and the interior department are pushing mystical theories that are false in order to justify gutting public land protections to advance their pro-industry and lobbyist dominated agenda.”
Internal communication between Trump administration officials revealed Washington manipulated scientific data in order to promote the California logging industry. The Guardian obtained emails in which they blamed pollution on California wildfires instead of fossil fuels. In doing so, the Trump administration sought to boost the logging industry.
The line of messaging is that by cutting down more trees, there will be less to burn and consequently less destructive fires. Appointees within the Department of the Interior also selectively released emissions data to skew public opinion in favor of the timber industry.
One such man was James Reilly, director of the US Geological Survey (USGS). Reilly pressed for data that would portray excess forests as the culprit in order to generate more demand for logging.
“I need to get a number for total CO2 releases for the recent CA fires and a comparison against emissions for all energy in US … Tasker from the boss [former interior secretary Ryan Zinke]; back to me ASAP,” Reilly wrote.
As Jimmy Tobias wrote for The Guardian, efforts to portray wildfires as a main source of air pollutant began in August 2018. In one email, Reilly commented that statistics he asked for were” interesting” and said he would cherry-pick the data because it “makes a good story.”
The Trump administration has repeatedly offered its own advice on what could be behind persistent wildfires, not only in California, but even across the globe in Australia. At times, he as even offered unfeasible solutions, such as raking the forests clear of leaves.
Zinke has played a critical role in spreading Trump’s messaging. After his agency procured emissions data requested by Reilly, Zinke signed off on a press release titled “New Analysis Shows 2018 California Wildfires Emitted as Much Carbon Dioxide as an Entire Year’s Worth of Electricity.”
In it, he blamed an excess of “dead and dying timber” and called for “proper management,” which, according to Washington, includes ‘mechanical thinning’ — presumably increased access for logging companies.
Scientists and analysts are in disagreement, however, in that an abundance of trees causes more wildfires and that chopping them down will magically solve the problem.
“As wildfire experts have repeatedly explained, you can’t log or even ‘rake’ our way out of this mess,” said Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of the Western Values Project. “The Trump administration and the interior department are pushing mystical theories that are false in order to justify gutting public land protections to advance their pro-industry and lobbyist dominated agenda.”
The Trump argument is that wildfires cause climate change, more so than burning fossil fuels, but the science-backed reality is that the reverse is true: climate change causes more wildfires. Researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) found that manmade conditions help help foster an environment suitable for fires.
“Overall, the 57 papers reviewed clearly show human-induced warming has already led to a global increase in the frequency and severity of fire weather, increasing the risks of wildfire,” said Dr. Matthew Jones, senior research associate at UEA and lead author of the study.
Data published by USGS was also a “blatant political manipulation of science,” according to Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist and cofounder of the John Muir Project. To Muir, the data released by USGS overinflated CO2 emission data from the wildfires and is not supported by any other evidence.
More concerning to other scientists The Guardian consulted was the presentation of the data and the comparison to California electrical emissions in particular.
“The comparison of fire to electrical emissions [in California] was not explained or justified”, Harmon said. “Picking other sectors would have left an entirely different image in the reader’s mind…If the comparison had been made nationally it would have been found that fire related emissions of carbon dioxide were equivalent to 1.7 percent of fossil fuel related emissions.”
A USGS spokesperson responded to The Guardian’s report, saying the emails from Reilly were “intended to instruct the subject matter expert to do the calculations as quickly as possible based on the best available data at the time and provide results in clear understandable language that the Secretary could use to effectively communicate to a variety of audiences.”