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Aug. 21 guest opinion: Lightning fires are natures warning system

Find middle ground on timber harvest and put people back to work in the woods


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 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.

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 the 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 in the Umpqua National Forest.

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 — 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 very little timber is cut on federal land owned by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.

Congressmen 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.

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



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