Every fire season, logging corporations repeat tired old lies about the need to salvage burned timber on federal lands. We're told that chainsaws are needed to help heal the land, generate tax revenues and prevent carbon emissions.
We see the same claims following this year's fires. But the science and economics are clear: salvage logging adds insult to injury to damaged forests and sucks money from taxpayers' pockets to subsidize profits for the timber industry. Moreover, salvage logging contributes far more carbon into the atmosphere than the fire itself, making global warming worse and raising the risks for more fires in the future. Sure, burned lands, if left alone, will certainly add carbon emissions for a while as the wood decays and before new forests get established. But logging these areas would add much, much more. For every ton of carbon temporarily stored in wood products made from salvaged logs, many more tons of carbon are released along the way due to the carbon-intensive nature of the logging and wood products process. Logging is, in fact, the single greatest source of carbon emissions in Oregon. But leaving dead trees where they are to help heal the land will result in most of the stored carbon staying on site and replenishing soil productivity.
As this fire season concludes, the focus should not be on salvaging burned timber on federal lands but doing something about a much more urgent problem highlighted by this year's fires: the vast network of highly flammable tree plantations and recent clear-cuts on corporate lands. Decades of post-fire assessments, research and testimonials from firefighters on the ground have told the sad tale of how fires that may have been manageable turn catastrophic when they hit the tinderboxes on corporate forestlands. In hot, windy conditions, slash filled brush fields in recent clear-cuts and dense plantations of small trees with thickets of dead branches below the thin canopy create the perfect conditions for fast-moving firestorms. In each of the massive westside fires last month, this pattern unfolded just as it has during every intense fire season in the past.
In mid-September, Gov. Kate Brown announced an investigation of PacifiCorp for its role in igniting Oregon's historic wildfires and their $1 billion damages. It may be huge. In California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PGE) was forced into bankruptcy last year after being held liable for $30 billion for fires blamed on its equipment. But Big Timber's role in the disaster should be part of her investigation as well. While this recent spate of wildfires did not ignite as a result of logging operations, the fact that their severity, rate of spread and ability to be suppressed were all worsened by the hazardous conditions maintained on corporate forestlands should factor into the investigation.
Forcing Big Timber to pay its fair share of the state's $1 billion wildfire disaster will incentivize better practices to reduce future threats to communities and risks to shareholders as climate change accelerates. This means longer harvest rotations, re-establishing big, fire resistant trees where they have been eliminated and adopting alternatives to clear-cutting. To protect Oregon's rural communities, the era of clear-cuts and timber plantations must come to a close and be replaced with these climate smart forest practices.
John Talberth is president and senior economist for the Center for Sustainable Economy. Ernie Niemi is President of Natural Resource Economics in Eugene.
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