Rep. Greg Walden recently took the editorial board of the Medford Mail Tribune to task for its support of the farm bill that the president signed into law this week, arguing that lawmakers were wrong to step away from highly controversial provisions designed to increase timber harvests at the expense of environmental review and public engagement (“Farm bill fell short for Southern Oregon,” Dec. 18). Surprisingly, the congressman also took credit for the groundbreaking work of forest collaboration efforts across the state that have succeeded in bringing diverse interests together to restore our public forests in Oregon. As constituents engaged in these collaborative efforts, we find the congressman’s outrage disingenuous and misleading.
The Tribune was right to praise lawmakers for their diligent efforts to enact a compromise farm bill that will help farmers as well as national forest health. The House version of the farm bill, which Walden supported, included dozens of policy changes that forestry experts have repeatedly stated would degrade forest health by creating highly flammable forest conditions and smoke impacts to our communities. These same policy initiatives would have cut the public out of the process of developing these projects, and would have insulated such projects from judicial review, a cornerstone of our democracy. The House version of the farm bill would not have benefitted Oregon communities or our cherished forests, rivers and wildlife.
The compromise Farm Bill removed those controversial provisions and instead focused on reauthorizing and increasing the funding for the highly successful Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which has decreased fire risk, increased local employment, and improved western forest health (there are three such projects in Oregon, including the Southern Blues Restoration Coalition, which we and others helped to convene with our partners in the Harney County Restoration Collaborative and the U.S. Forest Service). Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have long championed this program, and have helped local stakeholders secure increased funding for our on-the-ground restoration work. The same cannot be said for Congressman Walden.
Thanks to the compromise farm bill, communities in Southern Oregon will have the opportunity to come together and propose new Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Projects like ours in Eastern Oregon. We look forward to working with these stakeholders, to share lessons learned, best practices, and the challenge — and success — of restoring Oregon’s national forests.
In these polarized times, often punctuated by real smoke and flames, it is more important than ever to focus on common ground, particularly science-based solutions that restore our federal forestlands to a more resilient condition where fire can play its natural role and affect our communities far less.
We need more efforts to create and sustain jobs in rural communities while making our communities safer from uncharacteristic wildfire, contribute to clean water for human consumption, enhance our recreation opportunities and restore wildlife habitat. Walden’s preferred version of the farm bill would not have those outcomes. It would however increase disagreement — and yes, litigation — over forest management. We fail to see the sense in that approach.
Mark Webb is executive director of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, one of two collaborative groups working to restore the Malheur National Forest. Susan Jane Brown is a staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, a founding member of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners and the Southern Blues Restoration Coalition.