Let-it-burn approach threatens forests, people

The Rogue Valley is once again overcome by toxic smoke and hazy skies. With the Chetco Bar and Miller Complex fires burning thousands of acres and promoting evacuations, we are reminded that much of our forested landscape in southwest Oregon is at high risk and vulnerable to crown fires. This is nothing new and it doesn’t have to be this way.

Recent guest opinions in the Mail Tribune have suggested that severe fires are good, and that we shouldn’t take action to reduce heavy fuel loads on forests that are now burning. They oppose sensible forest projects that promote public safety and meet the needs of our natural landscape, then lecture us about the unsustainable costs of wildfire suppression as firefighters work to protect lives and property. Unfortunately, human considerations are not part of their equation. Jobs, smoke filled valleys, associated health problems as well as outdoor recreation take a back seat to their let-it-burn and don't-salvage mantra.

But the let-it-burn approach they espouse comes with environmental and economic costs that we all pay, including impacts to our local tourism and recreation businesses. It’s critical that we also consider the costs of wildfire smoke to public health and especially to our most vulnerable citizens: children and the elderly.

The local Air Quality Index has consistently ranged from “unhealthy for sensitive groups” to “unhealthy” from the onset of the fire season. Jackson County has documented the significant costs to county taxpayers due to increased emergency room visits, public safety services and damage to equipment.

Though virtually all people understand that wildfire smoke is harmful to human health, many don’t realize that actions can be taken to prevent future fires and minimize risks to the public. There is growing recognition of the need to address the underlying factors harming the health and resiliency of our federal forests.

Catastrophic wildfires often ignite or spread on unmanaged federal forest lands, unlike managed private timberlands that are thinned and treated to promote tree growth as well as to minimize fuel loads and competing vegetation. Sound science supports the idea that thinning overgrown stands can help protect our forests, streams and wildlife habitat.

Yet special interest groups often file lawsuits to limit these forest practices claiming environmental concerns, though they say nothing when the rest of us are exposed to carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, acetylene, ethylene, propylene, formaldehyde, ammonia, propane, n-butane and several other toxins and fine particulates. They pinpoint climate change as the cause of our fires, but refuse to support activities that help decrease the severity and size the fires that billow more greenhouse gases in a few days than a year’s worth of automobile travel.

The Forest Service estimates that 60 to 80 million acres of federally owned forests are overstocked, sick and more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire, insects and disease. These forests are in dire need of thinning treatments to reduce fuel loading, restore forest health and resiliency and reduce the risk and severity of future catastrophic wildfires. Despite the need, the Forest Service is currently able to treat, through selective thinning and harvest, just a small fraction of the acres at risk.

Let-it-burn advocates do not like the proposed Resilient Forests Act because it reduces the cost and time needed to develop forest-health projects. It enables the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, under current federal environmental laws, to expedite projects that reduce the risks of severe fire, insect infestations and disease, as well as those that protect at-risk watersheds and wildlife habitat. The legislation also fixes the spiraling costs of federal wildfire suppression, enabling agencies to access emergency funds rather than raising funds from non-fire accounts.

Let-it-burn advocates have created a cottage industry suing the federal government and reaping attorney’s fees, which may explain why they oppose efforts to reduce obstructive lawsuits that are typically based on process, such as whether the Forest Service or BLM created enough paperwork, and not on science or whether a particular logging activity actually harms the environment.

The serious economic, environmental and public health threats facing our federal forests and nearby communities will continue to grow until we take action to reform our broken forest management and fire suppression funding policies. This isn't pre-settlement North America, this is now, and all of us suffer. Let-it-burn policies are intolerable. We should urge our members of Congress to take action on these pressing issues.

— David Schott is executive director of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association.

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