Utah Sen. Mike Lee says California wildfires caused by mismanagement, not climate change

(Noah Berger | AP file photo) Firefighter Cody Carter battles the North Complex Fire in Plumas National Forest, Calif., on Sept. 14, 2020.

Sen. Mike Lee said Wednesday that the wildfires ravaging California and Oregon are not because of climate change, but from mismanagement by federal officials.

“Cycles of burning and regrowth are completely natural. They aren’t a new feature of climate conditions as some would have us believe,” Lee, an attorney by training and experience, said as he chaired a hearing on several bills by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forest and Mining.

“These fires weren’t unpredictable,” Lee said. “In fact, they were predicted.”

But he said bureaucratic rules have largely stopped such things as controlled burns to eliminate extra growth and fuel that could have prevented fires from burning hotter and spreading farther.

“Management of our forests has regrettably become hamstrung, partly by regulations promulgated by bureaucrats often operating many thousands of miles away from the lands that they’re in charge of administering,” he said.

Lee’s comments are contradicted by many experts and scientists, who say the West Coast wildfires are incontrovertible evidence of climate change.

“The racing flames show how climate change is affecting the nation’s most populous state, experts said," according to an article published Aug. 24 in Scientific American. "Hotter temperatures, less dependable precipitation and snowpack that melts sooner lead to drier soil and parched vegetation. Climate change also affects how much moisture is in the air,” said Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist.

Even fellow Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis recently called on his GOP colleagues to stop dismissing climate change as a nonissue or hoax, saying the evidence is clear and the party will lose the next generation if it persists in denying the problem.

Lee once famously used a poster of Ronald Reagan riding a dinosaur while firing a machine gun to ridicule the Green New Deal and declared the simple solution to climate change as having more babies. On Wednesday he complained that rules related to the Clean Air Act, for example, stopped controlled fires in areas of high pollution, which he says may have led to wildfires that created even more pollution.

“They [bureaucrats] may favor reactive short-term fire suppression at the expense of heightened long term risks,” Lee complained.

Lee’s point about the dangers of fire suppression are echoed by many experts, including Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. But Park, quoted in Wednesday’s New York Times, said the U.S. Forest Service in recent years has been trying to rectify the mistakes of the past through increased prescribed or “controlled” burns.

Some studies, though, indicate that prescribed burns, while being used increasingly in the southeastern United States, have remained relatively flat in other parts of the country, including the West.

Lee blames the lagging use of controlled fires and other proactive measures on the threat of litigation.

“Management of our forests has moved away from proactive measure, largely out of fear … of being sued,” the Utah Republican said. “This, in turn, has led to bigger fires, threatening greater numbers of lives, livelihoods and homes.”

Lee said research shows that fires in prehistoric California burned about 8 million acres each year. But men have cleaned out far less excess fuel in recent years.

“Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency of land managers burned on average 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres,” he said. “That is a tremendous gap between the natural cycle and what our forest management efforts have provided.”

Among many bills considered at the hearing was one by Lee to designate a mountain near Elk Ridge in Utah County as Miracle Mountain, because the fast-moving 2018 Bald Mountain wildfire miraculously stopped there and saved the city.

“This bill memorialized the events,” Lee said. “Better forest management can reduce the severity of wildfires and reduce the risk to fire-prone communities. We need a range of management tools to cut the red tape and curb frivolous litigation that has stalled fuel reduction projects and efforts to remove dead and dying trees from poorly managed federal” lands.

The Trump administration supported the designation of Miracle Mountain. Chris French, deputy chief of the Forest Service, testified that it recognized that the “mountain now holds special significance to residents of Elk Ridge City and is referred to locally as ‘Miracle Mountain.’”