Despite his cocksure, grandiose buffoonery reminiscent of William Jennings Bryan, Greg Gianforte cannot body slam his way out of wildfires. Wildfire is not a reporter, nor will it select you to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform with a conviction of assault.
It's not the first time Gianforte has claimed to be a scientific expert. He donated heavily to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, popularizing the myth that dinosaurs and humans existed together and Noah wrangled them onto his Ark. Paleontologist, Jack Horner, said, “It’s not a science museum ... There’s nothing scientific about it.”
After his election, Gianforte, along with being a supporter to an allegoric museum, became an expert on fire ecology after his appointment to the Committee on Natural Resources. The self-declared apostle of wildfire, has never studied the science of forestry or fire, participated in firefighter training, served on the fire line, or performed in a leadership role on a wildfire.
During his Forest Jobs Tour, Gianforte stated, “What we need to do is ... manage our forests ... thinning them, we end up with better habitat, we end up with more wildlife ... healthier forests, and we have jobs in our mills and fires are less intense and they don’t spread as quickly.” On a visit to Lincoln to discuss the area's wildfires he declared he wanted to improve forestry management where fires don't even start in the first place.
These ascendant views have no scientific evidentiary support. According to University of Montana forest ecologist Andrew Larson, “… under extreme weather conditions, your past logging … might not affect it at all and sometimes it can have the exact opposite effect.” Logging can increase surface fuels, and in the absence of a canopy, fuels dry out quicker and may burn more violently.
Fire is a natural cycle, occurring long before Gianforte’s fantasies of Dinotopia existed. These forests evolved with fire to propagate, bolster health, forge nutrient successions, and nurture biodiversity, and they’re not going to revise to Gianforte’s armchair quarterbacking.
Gianforte’s ancestors, who were dinosaur buckaroos and teamsters, would have witnessed fire on a larger scale than we see today. Dinotopia didn’t have Nomex, hardhats, fire shelters, water tenders, masticators, fire engines, pumpkins, Mark 3 fire pumps, Pulaskis, helicopters, airplanes, and Incident Command Systems founded on socialistic principles to deal with disaster and emergency.
University of Montana's Dean of Forestry, Tom DeLuca, said, "Thinning a forest doesn't create a no-fire, or asbestos forest. It does not create a system that does not burn. On a windy, hot day, a fire will carry ... regardless of whether its been thinned or not. It does not change the behavior."
Larson, Higuera, and DeLuca agreed the main reason for this year’s fire season was the sustained, draconian drought, which spawned conditions for “climate enabled” fires during one of the warmest, driest summers on record. Gianforte misesteems the role climate influences fuels and how extreme weather can create conditions during a wildfire that become treacherous for people fighting them.
The age-old demand to put out fire once detected is repeated. Higuera responded, "We will fail if that is the goal. Most of these ecosystems ... have evolved with fire. We expect them to burn. We need them to burn if we want them to continue to exist. It’s like trying to stop an earthquake. Trying to stop a volcano ... the goal can’t be to have no fire. That’s gotten us into trouble ...”
Gianforte assumed wildfire burns because of environmental litigation that blocks logging. Higuera countered, “That’s generally not what’s driving this. It’s the drought.”
Larson added, “The environmentalists are not responsible for … fire burning. And had the (thinning project) advanced; it’s very likely that the site would be burning today.”
Climate models predict wildfire will escalate in frequency, burning more violently during prolonged seasons. Larson, Higuera, and DeLuca warn it’s what's to be expected.
Notwithstanding Gianforte's wildfire rhetoric, fires burn where grazing occurred on private property; refer to the Lodgepole Complex in Montana this summer. Fires burn where logging happened on Forest Service land, refer to the Pioneer Fire in Idaho last year. Fires burn where logging reigned, then wildfire blazed, and then, another wildfire ignited, as on the Glacier Rim Fire in Montana in 2015.
Log and graze? Wildfire isn't buying in.
Matthew Chappell is an animal packer leader for the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho and owns a farrier business in Condon, Montana.