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Watching forests - and living-wage jobs - go up in smoke

While I was driving a few weeks ago, every direction I looked — north, south, east and west — there were large plumes of smoke rising from the multiple fires burning simultaneously throughout Oregon.

I remember back when my father was a timber faller and supported his family in the 1960s and ’70s with a family-wage job. I remember a time when the school districts, especially in the heavily-timbered areas of the Northwest, were rich and well-supplied, almost exclusively from timber receipts and a robust economy that resulted from harvesting timber. Now, after decades of not managing our forests and not utilizing our abundant natural resources, we have a fire patch. Thousands of acres burn all over the Northwest every summer. The tax burden for fighting fires has become enormous.

Our forests are aging and dying, with huge amounts of bug-kill hatching from dead logs. We no longer have fire breaks from cut units of timber. The dead trees, called “snags,” burn like a torch and make firefighting difficult and dangerous. In addition, we are paying more for fighting fires than ever before. My dad said that when the timber crews were working in the summer (like they used to in the old days), the road infrastructure was already there in the mountains; when the fires would start, the timber crews would immediately shut down, bring over their heavy equipment and help fight the fires.

In the past few decades, when family-wage jobs from the timber industry have ceased to exist (and all the stimulus to the local economy that comes from these jobs), the mantra has been that “tourism” will save our state. But the moonscapes and smoky conditions that result each summer from a philosophy of “Don’t manage” and Let ’er burn” are not attractive to tourists. Tourism never really brings in family-wage jobs anyway, but mostly service-industry, lower-wage jobs, such as housekeeping, waiting tables, etc.

The construction boom brings in a certain amount of livable-wage jobs, but eventually that falls in on itself — unless you just have a retirement community. The big irony is, the houses are mostly constructed of materials from all over the world but not from here, where lush, sustainable timber abounds. We get our wood for construction from places like Siberia, New Zealand, Africa and South America. We even take the time to denounce these third-world countries for not using sustainable practices, even while we greedily gobble up their products.

It is a recipe of insanity. Our natural resource in the Northwest is timber. It is a renewable resource. To sum it up economically: Whereas people used to have jobs in many areas of (and from the economic effects of) the timber industry, now the jobs that come in the summer are fire suppression. Paid for by taxpayers. And the tax revenue generated by these jobs to pay for additional firefighting is not economically sustainable.

Shannon Winegar is a lifelong Oregon resident whose father made a living cutting timber in Oakridge. Her brother is currently employed as a timber faller this summer fighting fires.



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