BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The heads of the two largest public land agencies in the U.S. signed a memorandum Friday emphasizing cooperation among federal, state, tribal and local agencies in battling wildfires as the main part of the wildfire season arrives.
Secretaries Ryan Zinke of the Interior Department and Sonny Perdue of the Agriculture Department signed the document following a briefing at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
“This is an example of what can happen with collaboration,” Perdue said. “Of what can happen when we work together.”
“It really is about a shared stewardship of our public lands,” Zinke said.
The agreement doesn’t announce any major changes in firefighting strategy for this year’s wildfire season that both secretaries say will be challenging. The objectives of firefighter safety and public safety remain top priorities, and there’s a continued emphasis on a need for efficiency and communication.
As in past wildfire seasons, firefighting resources will be deployed based on human safety, what is being protected and the costs of protection.
“We haven’t heard of any major policy shifts,” said Dan Buckley, chair of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, which deploys the nation’s wildfire fighting resources. “I’m glad the secretaries took time early in their terms to see what we do and how we do it.”
Enthusiasm among Idaho’s elected leaders hosting top officials from a Republican administration for the first time in at least eight years was high, with many expecting significant changes in the future to land management policies having to do with wildfire prevention. About two-thirds of Idaho is federal public land.
“Sitting with these two guys and listening to how they talk about land management and dealing with stakeholders is 180 degrees from what the last administration did,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, after the public signing. “It’s hard to explain in language the difference. It’s a feeling as much as anything.”
Protecting sage grouse habitat has become a key part of wildfire strategy in recent years and a political lightning rod as federal officials try to keep the chicken-sized bird from ending up on the Endangered Species List. Sage grouse are ground-dwellers found in 11 Western states. As few as 200,000 remain, down from a peak population of about 16 million.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has complained bitterly that the Obama administration rejected Idaho’s suggested sage grouse protection strategies as inadequate and instead put in place its own restrictions. He said Friday that “there’s a new sheriff in town, and there’s a whole new idea called collaboration and working together.”
Zinke said he’s interested in working with states on sage grouse, and that a determination needs to be made on “what a healthy sage grouse population should look like.”
However, no specific policy proposals were mentioned at the National Interagency Fire Center or earlier on Friday when Zinke and Perdue responded to questions from about 300 people who gathered at Boise State University.
Perdue did say that forests should be treated like crops, and Zinke said producing more money from Interior Department lands with oil and gas leases could help pay for a backlog of maintenance at national parks.
Zinke initiated his comments by saying he wasn’t an advocate for selling or transferring federal public lands, drawing cheers from the crowd at Boise State.
Both secretaries said they support President Donald Trump’s decision this week to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, though scientists generally attribute the severity of U.S. wildfire seasons in recent decades to a warming climate.
The secretaries said Trump’s decision to exit the agreement had less to do with climate change and more to do with the accord being a bad deal that put the U.S. at a disadvantage when it came to competing with other nations.