Escalating his criticism of California’s fire management strategy, President Trump threatened Wednesday to withhold unspecified funding from the state.
The comments at a Cabinet meeting were vague on details — but they nonetheless sent federal forest managers across the state scrambling to figure out what the implications may be for their programs.
“I say to the governor, or whoever is going to be the governor of California, you better get your act together,” Trump said at the meeting. “We’re just not going to continue to pay the kind of money we’re paying because of fires that should never be to the extent.”
It is unclear what funding the president is suggesting he would withhold — whether for forest management or firefighting on federal land, aid and reimbursements to state agencies after fires, or something else entirely.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s remarks come two months after he inaccurately suggested in a tweet that California’s environmental laws were preventing firefighters from accessing water they needed to douse wildfires — a proposition rebutted by firefighters and forest managers alike.
This time, he blamed “incompetence” for causing the federal government to pay out “hundreds of billions of dollars.”
“It’s a disgraceful thing. Old trees are sitting there, rotting and dry. And instead of cleaning it up, they don’t touch them,” Trump said of the state’s land management programs.
“I think California ought to get their act together and clean up their forests and manage their forests,” he said.
It is not clear whether the president was outlining changes in federal policy or campaigning against a state he has cast as an adversary ahead of the midterm election.
His comments left federal and state forest managers uncertain — both about the specific funding Trump is addressing and, were money to actually be withheld, what it would mean for forests and the people who live near or in them.
Paul Wade, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in California, said Trump’s comments Wednesday triggered “a brief discussion between us and Washington.”
He declined to elaborate, except to say: “This is of national importance, and it affects the entire Forest Service. Our team is looking into this and trying to figure out how to respond.”
“It’s hard to say, exactly, what he’s talking about,” said Scott McLean, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection deputy chief, referring to the president’s comments.
McLean said if the federal government pulled funding, state and private lands would largely be immune. The real problem, he said, would be in the national forests, which are not under Cal Fire’s jurisdiction.
Last year, 1.4 million acres in California burned, about 745,000 of them on federal land. So far this year, 1.366 million acres have burned, with about 742,000 on federal land, “and we’re not finished yet,” McLean said.
The state funds several programs that allow Cal Fire to remove dead trees and brush, as well as perform controlled burns, McLean said. And it allocated $443 million for emergency fire funds, which have already been used. The agency has asked the state for $243 million more.
Federal wildfire funding generally comes after a major fire, McLean said, and is used for aid and rebuilding, not fire suppression. These funds, which are accessed as federal grants via the Federal Emergency Management Agency, pay for 75% of the recovery costs incurred during a major fire.
These funds do not come from the U.S. Forest Service, which has its own firefighting force and in some cases suppresses fires on federal land. The agency has seen its budget slashed by more than $1.5 billion over the last two years, according to federal documents.
Environmentalists reacted quickly to Trump’s latest comments suggesting he is trying to use fire prevention as an excuse to raid California’s forests.
They contend he is making a move to open ecologically sensitive public land for timber production, as well as for potential solar, wind, broadband infrastructure, mining, off-road vehicles and grazing uses.
“Trump’s threat to cut off funding is profoundly dangerous,” said Chad Hanson, a research ecologist and spokesman for the John Muir Project, adding that research suggests increased logging can escalate fire intensity, damage wildlife habitat and put “human lives at risk in communities near wildlands.”
“Instead of creating inroads for timber interests in our public forests, we should be focusing resources on making homes and structures fire-safe,” he said.
Timber industry and advocates, including Reps. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) and Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove), argue that environmental laws and activists are to blame for declines in timber sales — and an increase in forest fires — throughout the West.
They say the problem could be solved by lifting what they describe as burdensome regulations that have curtailed timber harvesting in national forests.
It’s a notion Trump appeared to endorse in his comments Wednesday and in his tweets earlier this year. Critics say it is also driving a U.S. Forest Service plan to allow commercial logging of healthy green pine trees for the first time in decades in the Los Padres National Forest north of Los Angeles, a strategy the agency says will reduce fire risk.
Unfortunately, said McLean, the Cal Fire spokesman, the real issue is “Mother Nature. After five years of drought, our vegetation is as dry as it’s ever been.”