Citizen's View: Healthy forests need healthy management
With over 353,000 acres burning across Oregon, it's time for our leaders to take action and support reforms to our broken system of federal forest management. The Chetco Bar Fire, burning over 177,000 acres alone, and the 35,000-acre Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge are among the nation's highest firefighting priorities as thousands of Oregonians face evacuation and thousands more suffer from toxic wildfire smoke.
There's little doubt our state's top elected officials are working to ensure our firefighters have the resources they need. Yet few of our leaders are talking about how we got to this point, and how we can help prevent such large and severe fires in the future.
Today's forest management policies are not responsive to the dangerous conditions on the ground, where unnaturally overgrown and insect-infested stands are providing fuel for today's megafires.
Much of Oregon's forests are classified as being at high risk of catastrophic wildfire. It's estimated more than 350 million individual trees are standing dead in the 14 million acres of Oregon's national forests. Alarmingly, that's 50 percent more than the live-tree volume on all state and local forest lands.
There's abundant science demonstrating the benefits of active forest management to influence the size and severity of fires. Yet Oregon is not harvesting enough timber, nor reducing fuel loads, to ensure the health and natural resiliency of our forests.
Federally owned forests representing 60 percent of Oregon forest lands now account for only about 15 percent of the state's timber harvest. National forests have a timber harvest rate of only 8 percent of the forests' total growth, and forests are now dying at a mortality rate of 55 percent.
Forest management today is driven by environmental lawsuits and agency "analysis paralysis," which reflect the misguided philosophy that the best way to "protect" our public lands is to lock them up and walk away.
This doesn't serve our rural communities or timber industry, and based on the number of fire-related closures at popular recreation sites this summer, it doesn't serve our tourism industry either.
Additionally, many vulnerable Oregonians are suffering from hazardous air quality, as wildfire smoke fills our valleys. The Centers for Disease Control finds that prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke and fine particulate matter pollution is linked to increased emergency department visits and hospital stays for breathing and heart problems.
We need leadership at the state and federal levels to increase the pace and scale of active forest management. U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley can support measures that curb activist lawsuits and reduce the enormous cost and time it takes for federal land agencies to develop and implement forest health projects. Gov. Kate Brown can expand the use of the federal "Good Neighbor Authority" law that allows the state to do forest management work on federal lands.
Catastrophic wildfire doesn't have to be the "new normal" if our leaders at the highest levels are advocating for solutions that reduce the risks of fire and protect our natural resources, air quality and public health.