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Bigger tree harvest could reduce scope of wildfires

The recent lightning-caused fires in southern Oregon and many other spots in Oregon and Washington are Mother Nature’s warning to us.

We can’t simply lock up federal forest land in the Pacific Northwest as the environmentalists have succeeded in doing since the 1990s by using the Endangered Species Act and the federal courts as their sledgehammer in forcing their misguided vision of an environmental utopia of uncut forests and increased old-growth trees.

The combination of smoke and air inversion caused by these big fires in southern Oregon is choking the residents of this area.

As an asthma sufferer, I’m glad to not live there anymore. But it’s not just the health of locals that is being put at risk. The Oregon Shakespearean Festival had to close down the outdoor Elizabethan stage, a major tourist attraction for Oregon. Having traveled to Ashland for many plays, I can feel Ashland’s pain.

So when I hear “enviros” bleating about how the region has transitioned from a timber to a tourist economy, I laugh my most cynical laugh.

These southern Oregon counties are on the verge of being bankrupt and needed a state bailout even before these fires began. More importantly, the timber jobs destroyed were family wage and union jobs, not low paying, low skill service jobs of the tourist industry. It’s one of the reasons poverty in southern Oregon is a growth industry!

I grew up in Roseburg and worked for the U.S. Forest Service for three summers (1960-63) in the Umpqua National Forest east of my hometown.

Two of those summers, I camped at a Forest Service lookout on top of Pig Iron Mountain, just east of the Toketee Ranger Station, picking off lightning strikes that were potential fires. In my two years, most of the strikes — hundreds of them from early June to early September — set off minor fires of several acres in size, not like the big ones now.

At that time, Roseburg was the “timber capital” of the United States, because more board-feet of harvested timber from Forest Service land ended up being cut in the seven mills in my hometown and smaller mills of Douglas County than anywhere else. It was a time when “clearcutting” was king, and the industry had full range of movement. Since the 1990s, we’ve reversed direction to the point where no timber is cut on federal land owned by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.

Now Congressmen Peter DeFazio (D), Kurt Schrader (D) and Gregg Walden (R) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D) are working on separate House and Senate bills to open up harvesting of timber on the former O&C lands in southern Oregon. If they are successful, this will boost the timber economy of this part of Oregon to balance the tourist industry.

A larger harvest will cut the fuel source, which makes these fires so much bigger than they were back in my day as a lookout.

Until then, southern Oregon counties will continue to lose revenue, which means schools, public safety and other public services will be cut.

The indirect costs of lost revenue will be born by school-age kids, their impoverished families as well as those working in the tourist industry who depend on folks like you and me who want to see a play in Ashland, fish the Rogue River, camp along the Umpqua River, do some whitewater rafting or hike and bike in southern Oregon.

Do I want to return to the age of “clearcutting?” No way!

But closing down the forests out of some puritanical environmental mindset is stupid public policy and bad economics. Timber harvests can be managed in a more sensible way. There is a middle ground, and I hope our congressional delegation finds the “sweet spot” here and gets a dysfunctional Congress to pass a reasonable bill that can help turn around southern Oregon’s economy.

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus,

Department of Politics and Government, at Pacific University in Forest Grove.




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