Week 131: Trump Is a Few Firefighters Short of a Full Department

Plus, the administration’s culture of secrecy is under investigation, and Ryan Zinke is now working for oil and gas companies (officially, I mean).

July 26, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth (Trump photo: Gage Skidmore)

Stop, Drop, and Tweet

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is a busy, busy man. He’s relocating hundreds of jobs in the Bureau of Land Management in an attempt to wipe expertise and institutional memory from the agency. He’s reportedly meddling in species conservation efforts on behalf of his friends in real estate. He’s inviting four-wheelers into sensitive desert ecosystems and trying to build roads through Alaska’s wilderness.

There’s so much on Bernhardt’s plate that he forgot to do something important: hire firefighters to battle the ever-worsening infernos that threaten the West every year. According to a report this week in the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. Department of the Interior is supposed to employ approximately 1,600 seasonal firefighters to handle the surge in wildfires that occurs every summer. But this year, Interior managed to hire just 1,359.

A shortfall of nearly 250 firefighters is a major problem. Last year California experienced the worst wildfire season in the state’s history. It scorched a staggering 1.8 million acres, a 38 percent increase over the prior year. More than 100 people perished, and tens of thousands of homes and businesses burned.

On Twitter, President Trump blamed the historic conflagrations entirely on California, but nearly every expert immediately rebutted his claims. Climate change (which Trump has denied and mocked) and human settlement patterns contributed to the fires, and California had already taken the fire suppressions steps that Trump accused it of ignoring. Most significantly, the Department of the Interior controls 60 percent of California’s forests. So Trump’s own administration is responsible for suppressing large swaths of the fires, and it has failed.

Now, after lecturing to the Twitterverse about fire management and the importance of putting wildfires down, the Trump administration has neglected to take the most basic step imaginable: hiring firefighters.

Here’s the kicker. The Interior Department employs most of its seasonal firefighters in January, in order to train them in time for the summer wildfire season. Remember what happened in January? A record-setting, 35-day government shutdown, brought on by President Trump’s demand that Congress pay for his precious border wall. The same shutdown that Trump allegedly told confidants would benefit him politically. The same shutdown that he tweeted wasn’t really hurting the country all that much.

And now we find out that the shutdown prevented the Interior Department from hiring people who protect our businesses, our homes, and our lives. Now you know whom to tweet at when California is burning and there aren’t enough firefighters to put out the blazes.

Secrecy Under Scrutiny

One of the hallmarks of President Trump’s administration has been the attempted suppression of information to which Americans are lawfully entitled: Requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have gone unanswered, and secret meetings between cabinet members and industry leaders have routinely been omitted from official calendars. There have been few consequences for the administration’s penchant for obstruction and secrecy—until now.

The New York Times reports that the Interior Department’s inspector general opened an investigation this week into whether top department officials violated federal law by delaying or preventing the release of public documents. We don’t yet know the full details of the investigation, but the IG is probably concerned about recent revelations that the department subjects FOIA requests to a secret second layer of review by political officials. While FOIA rules allow departments to set up their own processes, there is no reason for political appointees to have the power to prevent the release of a document—it’s either publicly accessible under the law or it isn’t, and career officials are in a far better position to make that decision than politicians.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also attracting the unwanted gaze of overseers. The EPA, like Interior, has introduced a political review into its FOIA process, and senators are concerned. Republican and Democratic legislators have written to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler about the policy, noting that it appears to “run contrary to the letter and spirit of FOIA.” (That’s a fancy way of saying “It’s illegal.”) Also this week, senators introduced a bipartisan bill—I had to look up how to spell bipartisan, since I haven’t used the word in so long—seeking to overturn the agency’s FOIA procedures.

Ol’ Predictable

Here’s a story that will surprise no one. Remember when Ryan Zinke told the oil and gas industry, “Our government should work for you”? Well, now the former Interior secretary, who left his post late last year in disgrace and under a cloud of ethics scandals, is working as a consultant for fossil fuel companies—the very industries he was supposed to be regulating while leading the Interior Department. Some of his clients were even donors to his political campaign when he ran for Congress in 2014.

While Zinke claims his current activities, which don’t include lobbying, are legal, the brazenness of his career decisions is still shocking. As far as we know, Zinke remains under investigation for some of his actions as interior secretary that could have personally benefited him, and prosecutors have empaneled a jury to look into claims that he lied to federal investigators regarding a potential casino on Indian lands. The way he has leaped into the arms of the same industries he was accused of already being in bed with doesn’t look good. Then again, Ryan Zinke—he of the backwards cowboy hat and MAGA socksnever cared what you thought of him anyway.

Stop David Bernhardt

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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And every extra day it lasts, the deleterious effects on our national parks, food inspections, and toxic waste cleanups grow bigger (and more difficult to stop).

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While his fellow Cabinet members struggle to fill key positions, Ryan Zinke is staffing the Interior with former lobbyists for oil and gas companies.

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