Gianforte snubbed as Biden announces wildfire initiatives

Gianforte and Idaho’s Little push for active management in letter to White House

By: - June 30, 2021 12:22 pm

Gov. Greg Gianforte tours the Robertson Draw fire in Carbon County (Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office).

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte didn’t get the invite to attend a meeting of western state governors at the White House on Wednesday to discuss a worsening forest fire threat across the region, which is once again set to experience a costly and severe fire season amid record-high temperatures, widespread drought and a weather system that’s made June look more like August.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced the meeting last week, planning to bring together state leaders, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Biden Administration cabinet members. The meeting came as the White House announced a bolstered effort to fight fires and better support wildland firefighters.

But neither Gianforte or neighboring Gov. Brad Little of Idaho made the list, which includes both Democratic and Republican governors from states across the West, including Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, as first reported by the Spokesman-Review of Spokane. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was at first not planning to attend due to a scheduling conflict but has since said he’ll participate by phone.

Gianforte spokesperson Brooke Stroyke said Tuesday that the governor did not receive an invitation to the meeting, but did not say whether he sought an explanation from the White House. Idaho Gov. Little relayed the same to the Idaho Capital Sun, a sister organization of the Daily Montanan.

All of the western governors who did not receive invitations are Republicans, and a spokesperson for President Joe Biden did not answer questions about why they weren’t invited. Gianforte and Little weren’t the only western governors not to make the cut — Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, a state beset by devastating fires and astronomical temperatures, also isn’t attending the virtual meeting.

“The President is looking forward to meeting with Governors of several of the states impacted by wildfires — as well as private sector partners — who will bring a range of perspectives to best inform the discussion about federal-state partnerships on addressing wildfires and strengthening prevention, preparedness and response efforts,” the White House said in a statement in response to questions about the Wednesday meeting.

By early June, when state and federal officials told Gianforte that severe drought would make all of Montana especially susceptible to fire by August, more than 30,000 acres in the state had already burned. And within a few days, several fires around the state — especially the human-caused Robertson Draw Fire, which has to date burned around 29,000 acres outside of Red Lodge — would more than double that total.

Republicans Gianforte and Little wrote Biden on Wednesday expressing disappointment at their lack of invitation and encouraging the White House to embrace collaboration across agencies and levels of government to fight forest fire.

“As our nation’s western states confront an already severe wildfire season, each western governor faces challenges unique to his or her state and brings to bear unique experiences,” the letter reads. “While we are encouraged to learn you will meet with eight western governors to discuss the federal government’s response to wildfires, we were disappointed to learn not all western states who face a harsh wildfire season will be at the table. It is critical to engage governors fully and directly to have a productive discussion about how the federal government can improve its wildfire response and prevention efforts.”

The two also pushed for a strategy of active forest management — meaning deliberately reducing fuels, thinning the forest and conducting prescribed burns — and called for an “aggressive initial response” to fires.

To have an aggressive initial attack or response to a fire is to allocate assets to extinguish the fire as quickly as possible, regardless of its size or the possible ecological benefit of letting the blaze run its course. The subject was a source of contention between Gianforte and a fire management officer with the National Park Service at a June briefing, with the agency telling Gianforte that despite his urging it would not immediately extinguish all fires in park land.

“While western states will spend the coming months fighting wildfires alongside federal partners on the ground, it is critical we have a federal partner in the White House who is willing to do what needs to be done year-round to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires,” the governors wrote. “The federal government must work with states to actively and meaningfully manage our lands to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.”

The Democratic Biden Administration announced several initiatives to help combat the rising severity of forest fire in the run up to the meeting Wednesday, saying in a memo that “climate change is driving the devastating intersection of extreme heat, drought, and wildland fire danger across the United States” along with previous land and fire management decisions.

The initiatives include boosted staffing at the Department of Interior, extended seasonal hiring of temporary firefighters, new technology and retention incentives and temporary bonuses to boost federal firefighter pay to above a $15 an hour minimum, with Biden saying he’ll work with Congress to pass a more permanent wage increase. The Administration also pointed to proposed increases in funding to treat hazardous fuels and money set aside in the federal infrastructure package still making its way through the process to invest in forest management and infrastructure. However, Biden backed down on promises to invest in fighting climate change in the plan, leaving congressional Democrats to pursue those measures through a budget reconciliation bill.

“Since 2015, the United States has experienced, on average, roughly 100 more large wildfires every year than the year before – and this wildfire season is already outpacing last season in terms of the number of large fires to date,” the memo says.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.