The experts aren't explaining why 95 percent of the large wildfires are on federal forest lands.

COURTESY PHOTO - Jim GeisingerFederal agency representatives, academics and certainly our liberal political representatives are already touting "climate change" as the cause of this summer's catastrophic wildfire season.

Recently The Outlook published an op-ed written by Oregon Wild Executive Director Sean Stevens ("Logging is a cure worse than disease," Sept. 19) promoting the same theory. Stevens points to rising temperatures, extended drought and a lengthening fire season as the reasons for the unusually large and numerous wildfires. I am not going to debate whether the climate is changing. What I am certain of, however, is that the climate influences all lands the same when, in fact, significant changes occur. Climate change does not differentiate between private, state, federal or private forest lands.

I think we can agree that these influences affect all ownerships the same, can't we?

So why aren't the experts explaining to us why 95 percent of the large wildfires are on federal forest lands?

While the data changes daily, if not hourly, the State Forester has reported that approximately 672,500 acres have burned in Oregon this fire season. About 632,500 acres have burned on federal land and less than 40,000 acres on land protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry, primarily private land and forests managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The Forest Service and the Department of Forestry are in charge of protecting roughly the same amount of land, between 15 million and 16 million acres. So, why this huge disparity if climate change is the cause of the catastrophic wildfire season?

We believe the answers are pretty simple.

First, it is becoming widely accepted that 25 years of benign neglect of our federal forests is finally coming home to roost. Active management of these resources has all but stopped since the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species and the Clinton Administration turned the U.S. Forest Service upside down with the Northwest Forest Plan and other administrative actions.

Active management, including thinning the forests and reducing fuel, will help prevent large destructive fires.

Second, there are few loggers actively engaged in managing federal forests. They are no longer "out in the woods." Prior to the Clinton Administration, loggers were the first respondents to most fires on federal forest lands. They were minutes away from ignition points and performed initial attack duties. They are no longer there. Consequently, it often takes hours for initial attack resources to arrive at the scene of the fire, if they do at all.

Which brings up reason number three. The "let it burn" policy is antiquated in modern society. It is irresponsible for the Forest Service to allow fires to burn unattended when neighboring properties are at risk. The Chetco Bar Fire, the Whitewater Fire and the Indian Creek Fire all started from lightning strikes in federally designated Wilderness Areas. They were left unattended for weeks and each of them blew up into major conflagrations destroying private property and other public lands. This policy needs to be reevaluated!

Finally, and this is the heavy political lift, the federal doctrine of sovereign immunity needs to be revoked. Currently, when a fire originating on federal forest lands crosses onto adjacent properties, the federal government is held harmless and immune from any responsibility for damage done to its neighbors.

But, if a fire originating on private land crosses onto federal land, the private landowner will be held accountable for damages to federal property, assessed heavy fines and maybe even jail time.

Does this sound fair to you?

The playing field must be leveled. Perhaps the Forest Service would be a little more aggressive in extinguishing fires on land under its jurisdiction if it knew it would be responsible for damages inflicted on its neighbors.

Jim Geisinger is executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers. He has been a resident of Estacada for 27 years, and both of his children have attended, and graduated, from Estacada schools.

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