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Editorial blaming governor misses the mark

While the Mail Tribune editors’ advocacy for solutions (Dec. 18) to the wildfire and smoke crisis in Southern Oregon is commendable, their prescription misses the mark. It is certainly true that analysis paralysis on the wildfire issue is unacceptable, but targeting the governor is too easy for an issue that pertains primarily to private-industrial and federal lands, given that state lands are in short supply in Southern Oregon.

If one wants to see first-hand examples of forest practices that have dire consequences for fire and smoke management, I recommend a drive up my watershed in Talent — Wagner Creek. A short drive from the junction with Brickpile road and on to the 2040 road and one would be in the McDonald Creek tributary to the Little Applegate River and on California-based Fruitgrowers Supply land, private-industrial land, managed by the Boise Cascade Corporation.

The current clearcutting and aerial herbicide spraying is a demonstration of outdated forestry practices assumed to be retired. Like other harvest units in our region adjacent to federal land, the habitat-destroying practices on this parcel have left an unimaginable level of fuel, contributing to the already serious fire hazard that southern Oregonians need addressed.

The Tribune suggests that Gov. Kate Brown may “contribute grants to help offset the costs of thinning privately owned forests.” That is, they want us to give money to the very industry that is helping create the problem. But if we really want what is best for the forests and want to address the fire and smoke issue, bold and effective action is critical.

Public awareness of the role that private industrial timberlands play in contributing to wildfire risk is finally catching up with what scientists have repeatedly confirmed, that young, dense stands are more likely to burn at high severity. But it is also important to note that about every decade, Oregon private-industrial timberlands are sold off to another corporate buyer with another plan to extract the slightest amount of available profit from the bruised and battered land.

The federal government should purchase these lands as they come up for sale and roll them into the federal system owned by the people. These lands could then easily be included in restoration forestry efforts to increase fire resiliency on public land. The federal acquisition would reduce heavily fragmented ownerships that, according to the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy, “complicates land management decisions and increases fire suppression costs.”

The return on investment would include the value of streamlined management and suppression coordination, and it would eliminate the public burden of increased wildfire risk and habitat loss from the regular liquidation of forests by private industrial operators. Those values, typically excluded from price consideration, may motivate the government to pay more than the current assessed value, if necessary. After all, it is the government and the taxpayers, not the corporate industrial landowner, who are stuck with the costs of wildfire suppression and habitat fragmentation.

A recent guest opinion from Jason Clark (Dec. 9) suggests that reform of the Oregon Forest Practices Act may limit private industry damage and move them toward appropriate management and needed fire resiliency. While reform of the Forest Practices Act is a great idea and will help ensure that State of Oregon lands (about 5,360 acres in the Rogue Basin) subject to the law are managed more congruently with what Oregonians desire, acquisition of private-industrial land may be an easier approach toward industry actors that still believe aerial herbicide application is rational and that clearcutting the forest is a sustainable practice.

Clark is right to challenge us to “imagine a future where Oregon’s forests are structurally diverse and include larger, fire-resilient trees ” But we need to get to that place of fire resiliency on the most fire-prone lands in Oregon sooner rather than later. The quickest and least confrontational way to get there is for the federal government to buy those lands for the people of the United States and begin the restoration process across the entire Rogue Basin.

The market value of private industrial timberland is based on an expectation of modest returns on investment. However, the potential public value of increased fire resiliency, the thing Southern Oregonians need most from our forests, must be considered. The exact value is difficult to pinpoint, but the return on public investment will be high if we purchase those fire-prone, private-industrial lands and reduce the incidence of uncontrolled wildfire in the future -— a future that could be up in smoke if we don’t act boldly.

Derek Volkart is a member of the Talent Planning Commission. He has a forest resource conservation degree from the University of Montana and a background working for federal land management agencies and environmental nonprofit organizations.

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