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Ignoring timber has burned us economically

By Shannon Wingear

Guest Columnist

A few weeks ago I was driving and 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 ‘60s 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 when the timber crews were working in the summer (like they used to in the old days) that the road infrastructure was there already 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.

The last 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 “tourism” will save our state. But, don't manage, and “Let 'er burn” results in a moonscape along with smoky conditions each summer. Not attractive to tourists. Tourism never really brings in family-wage jobs, but mostly service-industry lower-wage jobs, like 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 except 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. The tax revenue generated by these jobs pays for additional firefighting; I don't think these jobs are economically sustainable.

Shannon Winegar, of Madras, has been a resident of Oregon all of her life. Her dad made a living cutting timber in Oakridge. Her brother was a timber faller who converted over to construction when the timber industry crashed. He is currently employed as a timber faller this summer fighting fires.



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