Trump errs in threat to withhold federal funding from California over fires

President Donald Trump is threatening to withhold federal funds from California unless the state changes its policy on forest management.

There’s been criticism of Trump’s tweet – with most people and politicians complaining about the apparent tone deafness of his avowal. The President did tweet later he wanted people to listen to evacuation orders and hoped God would bless all those affected by flames.

Trump is correct in criticizing California’s forest management policy. Little Hoover Commission – a state oversight agency – wrote in February the state needed to be more proactive in its forest management and be willing to use prescribed burns as a tool to keep more deadly fires from happening.

Californiaís forests evolved with fire and were shaped by fires. Though the increasing number of homes built in or near forests means fire cannot feasibly be returned to the forest everywhere, prescribed fire, where possible, should be used to treat forests. Prescribed fires work in calm condions that prevent fire from burning out of control and limit smoke and carbon emissions.

The agency opined the current fire danger is due to a multitude of circumstances including drought, the infestation of Bark Beetles, and too many trees. They also blamed the federal government for several rules between 1911 and 1935 which required immediate action to putting fires out, instead of trying to manage them.

This included the 1911 Weeks Acts, which funded state fire prevention and suppression efforts. This effort essentially quashed experiments of preceding decades when settlers in California and elsewhere in the West and South used Native American methods of prescribed burning, known as light burning, as part of land management. Eventually, all fire was viewed as a threat to forests, and the “debate was resolved in favor of aggressive fire control,” wrote U.S. Forest Service officials. In 1926, U.S. Forest Service rules required that all fires be controlled before they exceeded 10 acres. In 1935, it adopted its 10 a.m. policy, in which sufficient resources were to be assigned to fires to put them out by 10 a.m. the next day.

Leave it to government to muck something up – and make things worse.

The problem with Trump’s promise to withhold funding is he’s taking a page from the Obama Administration playbook of using federal funding to bludgeon states and localities into changing policy. The Departments of Justice and Education suggested in 2016 there could be problems for school districts regarding transgender students if they didn’t follow “guidance” from the feds.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, schools receiving federal money may not discriminate based on a student’s sex, including a student’s transgender status. The guidance makes clear that both federal agencies treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of enforcing Title IX.

“There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “This guidance gives administrators, teachers and parents the tools they need to protect transgender students from peer harassment and to identify and address unjust school policies. I look forward to continuing our work with the Department of Education – and with schools across the country – to create classroom environments that are safe, nurturing, and inclusive for all of our young people.”

The implication from both Obama and Trump is simple: follow what we (the federal government) say or lose money. California should be encouraged to change its policy regarding wildland management. But the threat of not getting money from the feds should be a major problem for anyone who believes in smaller, weaker government on all levels. All it’s doing is encouraging future presidents to exert executive muscle to get the states in line – if they’re doing something contrary to the policy of the executive. What is to prevent another administration from tying federal funds to say gun policy or business regulation?

There is a solution to this, but it’s doubtful Republicans and Democrats will show any interest: repeal the laws currently on the books. There is no reason the Weeks Act (or the following Clarke-McNary Act) should exist – especially since it’s obvious the passage has hurt more than helped when it comes to wildland management. California’s laws on wildfire management should be changed – not because the federal government is threatening to withhold money – but because they’re bad policy. Voters should also get rid of the party in power if they refuse to change said policy (amusingly, Little Hoover Commission suggested educating people in California about the benefits of prescribed burns as a way to change policy).

I have zero belief this will actually happen in the next 50 years, but voters could end up surprising me. Just…don’t fall into the trap of believing the federal government should boss everyone around when it comes to this issue or other issues. Of course, I’m also not optimistic that will happen either.