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Private forest land is not the problem

In a Dec. 9 opinion (“Reform the Oregon Forest Practices Act”) botanist Jason Clark blames industrial forestry practices for recent wildfires. Anyone with an Oregon ownership map could tell you his argument does not hold up.

The smoke we’ve been experiencing is not coming from private industrial forests, it’s coming from unchecked fires on federal forests. No need for mental gymnastics and expensive research to make the connection — the numbers speak for themselves.

Between 2008 and 2017, roughly 80 percent of the acres that burned in Oregon wildfires were on U.S. Forest Service ground. While hotter and drier summers may contribute to increased numbers of fires, that’s not the end of the story. Fires started by lightning, which is the primary cause of large wildfires, don’t distinguish between land ownerships. For example, in the 2017 fire season an equal number of fires started on federal forests and private forests, but roughly 96 percent of the burned acres were in federal forests. The same pattern happened last summer: Half of the fire starts were in private forests, but 70 percent of the acres burned were on federal ground and only 5 percent of the total acres burned were on privately managed timberlands.

There is no way one could conclude from those numbers that private forestry practices are causing wildfires — it’s just not true. When fires start in our forests, we safely and aggressively put them out. Private landowners invest heavily to maintain good roads that provide forest access. Sustainably managed forests ensure vigorous, healthy forests that aren’t overstocked or riddled with diseased, dead and dying trees.

If the numbers aren’t convincing enough — there’s another glaringly obvious fact Clark misses when he blames Oregon’s forestry practices for causing wildfires. California has the most overly burdensome regulatory restrictions on forestry in the nation. Yet Californians are suffering through the worst forest fires in the West. How could one possibly conclude that’s a function of not enough regulation on private forests?

I’m no botanist like Clark, but I am a professional wildland firefighter with over four decades of real-life experience fighting fire in Southern Oregon. Clark references a study of the 2013 Douglas Fire in Southern Oregon. As the Douglas Forest Protective Association district manager at the time, I was responsible for managing that fire, and I can tell you we don’t need a study to confirm that fire does more damage to young trees than old ones. What the study missed is the important part — many of the fires that contributed to the complex began on federal forests (with heavy fuel loads) and spread to young, 15- to 40-year-old private forests, where the fire was stopped. In my experience, many large fires were stopped or contained in managed stands, due to less dead fuel and more access.

Contrary to Clark’s assertion, Oregon forestry observes some of the strictest environmental protections in the nation. The Oregon Forest Practices Act was landmark legislation in 1971 and remains current today with nearly 40 revisions since to adopt best practices and evolving science.

Notably, the OFPA requires reforestation after harvest, but reforestation after fire is not required. Private forests are rehabilitated after fire and replanted, because private timber owners strive to get that land back to healthy, productive forestland. Federal forests mostly remain charred, with thousands of dead trees that pose a major safety threat to all future firefighters and the public.

Clark and I do agree on one point: Oregonians need strong political leadership to address the wildfire issue. Rampant, unchecked megafires in federal forests have catastrophic consequences for our safety, health, communities, economy and environment. Our state is losing millions in tourism dollars, and Oregonians are being evacuated from their homes and suffering unhealthy air quality. One large wildfire season can produce twice as much air pollution as all the cars in Portland produce in one year. There’s got to be a better way.

Private forests capture carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it in renewable, environmentally friendly building products. We can either store carbon in locally grown, sustainable wood products, and replant trees, or we can release carbon as smoky air pollution straight into the atmosphere when our overstocked federal forests burn.

I hope our policy-makers encourage the use of Oregon-grown wood from federal forests. Our private forests are managed for fire resiliency and produce environmentally friendly products; a symbol of what makes Oregon great. Federal forests should do the same.

Melvin Thornton is a small woodland and ranch owner in southwest Oregon, who spent over 40 years as a firefighter and served as the district manager for the Douglas Forest Protective Association.

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