Claims that climate change is behind the wildfire smoke coating parts of the East Coast don’t tell the whole story, according to former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
Smoke from wildfires in Canada traveled as far as South Carolina, casting a thick haze that caused air quality in New York City and Washington, D.C. to drop to record lows. Many environmental activists and liberal politicians, like President Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, blamed climate change.
“To be candid, if you look at these issues throughout the United States and Canada, over time, it’s possible that climate is changing,” Bernhardt told Fox News. “At the same time, you can say that forest management practices in many places have contributed greatly to having a much higher fuel load, and fuel loads are a large driver of catastrophic wildfire.”
“Those factors are not necessarily mutually exclusive,” the former Trump administration Cabinet secretary added.
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Bernhardt said climate change has been a factor in causing the fire season to last longer. Scientists have also said that climate change has worsened conditions that can lead to wildfires, like heat and drought.
But poor forest management, such as leaving old growth and brush, is also an important contributing factor, according to Bernhardt.
“If you don’t use methodologies to clear some of that excess product out, that just is sitting there, literally, as a tinderbox box for a match,” he said. “In this case, what we’re seeing from Canada … is fires that are largely caused by lightning, strikes with an element of a very, very high fuel load.”
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While Bernhardt said both climate change and forest management can play roles in wildfires, current and former political figures have often cast exclusive blame.
Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, tweeted that the wildfire smoke in the Big Apple showed “how unprepared we are for the climate crisis,” ending her message with a hashtag for the Green New Deal.
Meanwhile, Bernhardt’s predecessor and fellow Trump administration alumnus Rep. Ryan Zinke said he had “zero sympathy for D.C. politicians complaining about the smoke.”
“Whether you’re a climate change activist or denier, it doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility to manage our forests,” the Montanta Republican tweeted. “And if you don’t manage our forests, this is what happens. So welcome to Montana, Washington D.C.”
Bernhardt similarly said “this experience on the East Coast is really a wake-up call for the people in Congress and others” that wildfire smoke regularly has a serious impact on air quality in the Western United States.
“Washington, D.C. and New York just got a little bit of a taste,” Bernhardt, a Colorado native, told Fox News.
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The former Interior secretary suggested several ways to reduce forest fuel loads, such as forming better collaboration between government and private forest owners to create firebreaks — gaps in vegetation or other combustible material.
Better timber management would reduce overall forest density, as well.
“You can see very significant differences between privately managed forests that take advantage of these practices and federal and state lands that don’t,” Bernhardt said. “The consequence of catastrophic fire are so different and so significant.”
He also recommended shifting firefighters from seasonal employees to year-round so they could spend more time using controlled burns or other methods to decrease fuel load.
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In May, Bernhardt published a book, “You Report to Me,” which included some of his experiences in the Trump administration and highlighted how civil servants vastly outnumber of political appointees. In some instances, he saw career bureaucrats take steps to resist the administration’s policies.
But Bernhardt said he saw the opposite when it came to former President Trump’s emphasis on improving forest management, even though the chief executive faced criticism for his position.
“I actually had a career civil servant who had been working to clear and reduce fuel loads in a national park,” the former Interior secretary said. “He sent me a series of photographs of the work that they had done.”
Bernhardt said he showed those images to Trump.
“The reality is that most people that work on these lands have a very good sense of what the true impact of catastrophic wildfire is and the causes and the need to address the fuel load,” Bernhardt said.
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