Making hay from fire

    The impact of many natural disasters has certainly led to increased talk of climate change. That issue is definitely a part of the discussion surrounding a severe wildfire season here in the Northwest.

    A larger issue, however, is the rush by politicians, industry and environmentalists to make hay from fire, using the fires as ammunition in the “timber wars.” Indeed, politicians, industry front groups and numerous environmental groups have based their fundraising efforts on the huge cost of wildfires.

    John Heywood’s 1546 collection of English proverbs includes, “Whan the sunne shinth make hay. Whiche is to say. Take time whan time cometh, lest time steale away.” The special interest groups are acting on that principle as they promote their positions in a time of crisis.

    It seems the tribal warfare over our forests will never end. With every event, every timber sale, every conservation effort, one or another special interest group draws a line in the sand. Like children, they seem capable only of disagreeing with anyone else’s position. Any good that can come of any effort proposed is stalled, often indefinitely. Most troubling of all is that these different factions all have truth, in some form, on their side.

    Yet there is one thing they all agree on: better forest management. Unfortunately, they all have different positions on the meaning of forest management.

    A recent study by Fisheries Professor Ray Hilborn at the University of Washington looked at bottom fishing, the dragging of nets along the bottom of the sea, which produces one-fifth of worldwide fish consumption. Hilborn found it took two to six years for native plants and animals to recover. “These findings enable us to evaluate the trade-off between fish production for food, and the environmental cost of different harvesting techniques.”

    If we substitute the words “timber resource” for the words “fish production,” this study offers some hope for resolving the “timber wars.”

    Nor do we need to undertake a new study to develop our findings. With more than 150 years of forest management, plus thousands of years of Native American experience, we have the data to objectively evaluate what works and what doesn’t, the trade-offs between timber harvested for wood products and the environmental cost of different harvesting techniques. Hopefully this will lead to a common understanding of the meaning of forest management.

    The Pacific Northwest has an incredibly rich heritage, particularly in the rare biodiversity of the Klamath-Siskiyou region. As European settlement came to the area, the rich timber resource became a mainstay of economy, culture and growth. Soon, however, the easy timber was gone and more intensive logging was employed to maintain the status quo. Changes came, however, as people increasingly began to consider more than the timber, but also the plants and animals and, most importantly, the equally rich heritage of water resources in the region. Change becomes difficult, however, when the different interests go to war.

    Forest science, silviculture, sets out some basic principles for how forests respond to different impacts, human or natural. Combined with a history of forest practices, the data and the science should inform future strategies for maintaining a safe, healthy, stable and sustainable use of our rich resources.

    The timber industry might get less timber, but the supply would be more predictable. Politicians would be able to rely on a stable budget picture from public timber resources and would have a more predictable timber economy. Tourism and environmental concerns are part of the economic equation and would also benefit from more stability. A balance of resource use that considers more than timber would keep us one of the healthiest regions in the world.

    But that only happens if the different interests stop making hay and start making a sustainable future.

    — Jack Duggan lives on forest land in the Applegate. He is a Land Steward and has studied forestry for more than 40 years.



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