Federal land agencies and Congress need to pave the way for more active forest management, including timber harvest

People often like to talk about when the smoke clears.

The words are typically associated with some sort of revelation or moment of enlightenment after a significant event or set of circumstances has passed.

Well, in Crook County it appears that the smoke has finally cleared — literally. Though some wildfires have yet to completely burn out, the sky is once again white and blue. Taking a deep breath doesn't remind anyone of standing alongside a campfire.

But with the smoke clearing in the literal sense, it is time to wonder if the smoke will ever clear metaphorically. Will federal land agencies and members of Congress ever figure out the right buttons to push to put an end to what seems to be an annually worsening problem?

Those who are old enough to think back to the 1990s and deeper into the past would probably say without much hesitation that summers in Central Oregon were not always like this. Sure, a major fire or two would hit the area every few years and people would suffer through it, but nobody had to accept the fate of multiple weeks of hazy, hazardous air. It wasn't part of the season the way it is now.

It seems that changes done in the name of forest health now cause more harm than good. The latest example is a proposed rule change from the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Department of Environmental Quality. The agencies have suggested a one-hour threshold for a certain level of smoke particulate during prescribed burns.

The intent is good — reduce the amount of smoke in the air during controlled and necessary forest treatments that eliminate fuels and help prevent catastrophic wildfires down the road. However, constricting the highest smoke concentration to such a small time window would essentially make the treatment option impossible to conduct. Fortunately, the proposal includes an exemption to the provision if an entity has developed a community response plan. Several local agencies are urging ODF and DEQ to keep that option in its final rules.

Meanwhile, the majority of Crook County and Prineville's leaders as well as some of its representatives in the Oregon Legislature and in Congress have insisted for years that federal lands agencies need to commit more money and resources to active forest management. Going further, some would prefer to see that effort manifest in more timber harvests — particularly trees in excess of 21 inches in diameter. And to be clear, nobody is advocating for cutting old growth trees.

Of course, any changes to that end frequently face legal action from a conservation organization or other party and stall such work for years if not indefinitely.

The real irony of the situation is that the people who are fighting so hard against timber harvest — reasonable timber harvest — as an option are doing so to keep the forest healthy and habitable by fish and wildlife. Yet, a quick drive toward Mitchell or over the Santiam Pass reveals countless acres of scarred, black landscape littered with snags. How can that be a healthy forest? Is this a suitable environment for fish and wildlife?

The smoke has cleared — again. The moment of clarity is once again staring the same people in the face that has for years. Will they act on it? Will they pave the way for more active forest management or some reasonable timber harvest that is immune to legal action? They need to or we are all in for a lot more smoky summers.

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