Humans must be part of the equation

As reported recently in the Mail Tribune, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners has taken a strong stand in support of efforts to restore federal forests that were destroyed by wildfires earlier this year. My colleagues and I recently sent a letter to federal land management agencies, urging them to act immediately to pursue all restoration activities to promote the healing and restoration of these lands to preferred ecological conditions. There is widespread support in the private sector, among foresters, and at all levels of government to begin salvage work immediately. Predictably, some are working to stop this critical work from ever happening.

I'm especially disturbed by those who don't believe we should do anything to restore our federal forests and salvage burnt logs in the wake of a fire. This "leave it alone" philosophy assumes that humans aren't needed to restore forests and wildlife habitat. But this approach ignores the fact that it was humans who allowed these lands to become highly vulnerable to catastrophic fire in the first place. For decades, a lack of management on the part of federal agencies has resulted in overstocked, fire-prone forests across Southern Oregon. Because humans created these unnatural conditions by prioritizing fire suppression over prevention, I believe it's our responsibility to ensure these forests are restored and then actively managed for future generations.

Washington, D.C., controls a majority of forest land in Southern Oregon, but there is also a significant amount of land that is privately owned and actively managed by Oregonians. On privately-owned lands, restoration and salvage operations are already under way to return forests to pre-fire conditions. However, these private lands are intermingled with federal O&C lands in a checkerboard pattern. This pattern makes it difficult to promote a full recovery across the landscape while reducing the risk of a reburn. Due to the amount of dead trees and other post-fire hazards on federal lands, current conditions also threaten the safety of people who work, recreate and travel in these forests. The state government recently urged the Bureau of Land Management to remove these hazards. Let's hope the agency takes action before someone is seriously injured.

To make certain we receive the full environmental and economic benefits of restoration and salvage harvesting, the federal government must act as soon as possible. As we wrote to federal officials, time is a critical factor in these restoration efforts and inaction will guarantee negative consequences. Delay in actions will result in significant ecological and economic effects including the loss of the economic value of the damaged timber, loss of replanting opportunities, increased fuel loads, increased risk of insect infestation and increased negative impacts to water quality. Failure to recover the logs will also result in increased carbon and nitrous oxide emissions from the decay of the damaged timber.

Salvage harvest from the O&C lands will begin to address the negative consequences suffered by Jackson and other Southern Oregon counties. For the past 20 years, our communities have suffered from the lack of active forest management on federal lands. The decline in timber harvests has resulted in the loss of mills and family-wage jobs. The drop in timber receipts and gradual decline in Secure Rural Schools payments have made it more difficult to fund essential county services. Thanks to endless federal regulations, lawsuits and bureaucracy, our region has endured years of man-made economic and environmental disasters. Doing nothing on federal forest lands, as some have suggested, will only perpetuate the cycle of catastrophic wildfire and poverty in our rural, forested communities. The leave-it-alone approach has not worked for us or our forests. Humans must be a part of the equation.

John Rachor is a Jackson County commissioner.

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