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Congress fiddles while forests burn

While Oregon burns, Congress has bogged down in debate over how to lessen the impact of devastating wildfires that have taken a toll on people’s health and the region’s economy.

“The hue and cry from our members — it’s almost deafening,” said Brad Hicks, president and chief executive officer of The Chamber of Medford/Jackson County.

Businesses have reported revenue drops during the summer of smoke of as much as 40 percent, Hicks said. With wildfires becoming more common, the impact on tourism could be devastating, he said.

The 2018 Farm Bill passed by the House of Representative in June is being countered by another version in the Senate, and Hicks fears the final bill will be so watered down that it will have little benefit for local forests.

The House version calls for more active forest management — including more logging, thinning and prescribed burning — to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. The most controversial part of the bill is a provision that would make it easier to log tracts as large as 6,000 acres.

The Senate version also seeks more money for thinning projects but wants to exclude the more aggressive logging provisions in the House bill, which Oregon’s senators say likely would become entangled in litigation.

Hicks, who sent out a letter to his Chamber members urging them to support the House bill, said the economic and health impacts need to be addressed sooner rather than later because the region is already suffering.

He said he carries around a photo of the Crater Lake sign burning in a fire to illustrate what comes up on a Google search for some of the main attractions in Oregon.

“Whether you’re from Norway or Texas or other parts of Oregon, that’s the image they pull up,” Hicks said. “Guess what? They go somewhere else on vacation.”

Like others, Hicks said he thinks the Oregon Department of Forestry does a better job going after forest fires than the U.S. Forest Service on federal lands. He said he’d like to see more state control over fighting forest fires, though that is not a provision in either the House or the Senate versions.

“We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight,” he said. “We need to take measures to stop catastrophic wildfires.”

Both sides in the debate have already drawn battle lines, with environmentalists raising alarms that the House bill, far from protecting forests, would open up vast tracts to commercial logging.

Dave Schott, of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association in Medford, said the 6,000-acre logging allowance would help reduce wildfire threats, but even the House bill falls short of setting the stage for meaningful forest management.

Supporters of the House bill say it would reduce the amount of fuel in forests, which in turn would curtail the number and the scale of wildfires.

Schott said there are examples of forests that have been successfully thinned, citing 3,500 acres of watershed owned by the Medford Water Commission near Big Butte Springs, where much of the water for this valley comes from.

“They did a hell of a job,” he said.

Ashland has also thinned its watershed as a stewardship project, but at $1,000 an acre he said it’s probably not a cost-effective method for forests in general.

“They could have done a similar thing as a timber sale,” he said.

He said he’s concerned about more houses being built near forested areas, particularly for newcomers to the area who aren’t aware of the dangers of wildfire.

“The area that is really, really scary is the Applegate,” he said.

One step the federal government could take is to keep logging roads cleared to help establish control lines in case fires do break out and to provide a way for firefighters to access rugged areas.

“A lot of Forest Service and BLM roads are overgrown,” Schott said. “If we cleared roads out 30 yards on each side, you’d have better access.”

Another effort he suggests is to clear dead trees that turn into particularly flammable fuels in a wildfire.

A third step, which he acknowledged would be controversial, would be to spray herbicides on areas that have burned to control the buildup of brush that provides fuel for fires. The 2002 Biscuit fire, which burned through 500,000 acres, has grown back in many areas, and was the general site of both the 191,000-acre Chetco Bar fire in 2017 and this year’s Klondike and Taylor Creek fires, which grew together and have so far burned more than 193,000 acres.

Schott said he’d also like to see the Forest Service adopt some of the same firefighting tactics as the Oregon Department of Forestry.

With federal lands making up 3,750 square miles of southwest Oregon, the decisions federal agencies make could have a huge impact on this region. But Schott said he’s not sure whether the House bill will survive, and even if most of it does, he still thinks it would just have a modest impact.

“It’s just nibbling around the edges,” he said.

Joseph Vaile, executive director of Klamath-Siskiyou Wildland Center, said the Ashland watershed thinning project has been a success on many levels.

He pointed out that 10 million board feet of timber was sold from the project, which he thinks has greatly reduced the fuel load in that area.

He’s opposed to the House bill, saying that aggressive logging on 6,000-acre tracts will lead to more young growth, which is highly flammable and will promote more energetic wildfires down the road.

“These plantations are essentially fire bombs,” he said.

“If we favor that kind of forestry management, it is setting us up for more extreme fire behavior down the road.”

Vaile points to a 50,000-acre thinning project in the Applegate as an example of the sort of collaborative projects that need to be embraced in Southern Oregon.

Logging operations on some forested lands are not always practical, particularly on steep terrain or sites that aren’t appealing to the timber industry, he said.

“There is a bunch of land out there that is fire-prone but doesn’t have commercial timber around it,” he said.

He noted a thinning project near Sisters, which has mainly Ponderosa and lodgepole pine, was successful in slowing an ensuing wildfire, but also is vastly different than a thinning project near Ashland, where there’s a greater variety of vegetation.

A fire in Central Oregon in August 2017 was stopped before it engulfed the town of Sisters, and many credited a thinning project that was a collaboration between environmental and logging groups. Workers removed trees and brush with machines and preserved much of the Ponderosa and lodgepole pine forest.

Congress has been discussing both versions of the Farm Bill before a final version is drafted and sent to the president’s desk for signing.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley opposes the House version, saying the Senate version that he’s championing offers a way forward to deal with wildfires that won’t trigger extensive litigation.

The Senate version would increase funding for thinning operations to $80 million from the $40 million in the previous Farm Bill.

Merkley and fellow Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden hope to see more of the Sisters-type thinning projects that clear out the brushy material and help prevent the destructive power of crown fires.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, has championed the House version of the bill, which also seeks collaborative projects for forest management, wildlife habitat development and replanting.

Walden wants to remove dead trees from burned-out areas, known as salvage logging, because he thinks those dead trees alter the ecosystem of the forest.

He said the bill would lead to better management of forests and reduce fuel loads that generate the catastrophic wildfires Southern Oregon has faced in recent years.

Walden said the bill would open the door for 20-year contracts on collaborative projects that could be offered by the Forest Service and BLM for forest stewardship.

Road maintenance, culvert maintenance and other provisions would be expanded on Forest Service land, he said.

“The provisions in the House-passed Farm Bill would bring needed change to the way we manage our forests to address the root cause of these fires,” Walden said in a prepared statement. “We can reduce red tape and streamline management projects to get more work done in the woods. We can remove the burned, dead trees while they still have value and replant our forests for the next generation.”

Wyden said the Senate bill tries to avoid the legal flash points that have stalled forest management practices in the past, such as salvage logging and clear-cutting. He thinks the House version would spark lawsuits, particularly the provision that would allow timber harvests of up to 6,000 acres.

“Unfortunately, the current House Farm Bill language is really not about forest management,” he said in a prepared statement. “It is just a smokescreen for going backwards to the days of clear cuts, clogged streams and polluted drinking water.”

Instead, Wyden would like to see more thinning projects, which he says have been embraced by all sides. He said many of the tools already exist for the Forest Service and BLM to improve forests but haven’t been fully implemented by those agencies.

Both Merkley and Wyden have proposed doubling the size of a community-based forest management program, similar to the Sisters thinning project.

The program, which has been sponsored in 14 states, has led to the sale of 2.5 billion board feet of timber, created $1.4 billion in salaries and improved 760 miles of trails, according to Wyden’s office.

The senators say these thinning projects have reduced the fire load on 2.9 million acres.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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