There have been recent guest opinions that insinuate industrial forestland owners and their practices here in Southern Oregon are the cause of our past summers’ fires and smoke. They even suggest a change is needed in the Oregon Forest Practices Act to lengthen the time allowed between cutting rotations, purchase of these lands by the government, or setting polices to restrict what a landowner can and cannot do on their land, as the cure to our fire and smoke problems.
According to the Southwest District of the Oregon Department of Forestry, private industry acres make up 24 percent of the forested landscape under the protection of ODF, including the Medford Bureau of Land Management lands. When you include the Eastern Rogue / Siskiyou National Forest acres and all other forested land ownerships, that figure of industrial land ownership drops to 18 percent of the forested landscape here in southwest Oregon.
Fire does not recognize land ownerships or forest management practices, or lack thereof. Nothing about forest fires is predictable. Yes, young plantations can be more susceptible to fire and risk of burning, however, that is not always the case. From this summer’s Miles fire, there is an example of the fire completely skipping over a 20-year-old plantation planted after the previous Timbered Rock fire on industry lands. However, immediately above and adjacent to this plantation, the fire burned so intensely on BLM lands that large, old-growth “fire resistant” trees were heat killed due to overstocked understory of smaller trees and brush burning from below. This area can be viewed at the upper end of Flat Creek, Township 32s., Range 1E, Section 36. If you go, notice that all of the plantations did not completely burn; many were partially burned.
Attempting to blame industrial forest lands as the cause of summer fires and smoke completely obfuscates and ignores the serious natural overstocking levels of all tree species on federal lands. After clearcutting or some other form of harvest method, industrial land owners replant to comply with the Oregon Forest Practices Act and secure successful regeneration here on our drier sites in southwest Oregon. This can sometimes mean that they’ll have upwards of 500 trees per acre. Having worked for over 30 years as a professional forester in Southern Oregon, I would argue that our federal lands have the same stocking levels, if not more, on average, across all acres. For example, take a drive and see for yourself on Bear Camp Road, which is an excellent example of what I’ve stated, and it’s paved for almost all of the drive.
In 2018, again according to ODF figures, there were 106 lightning-caused fires and 242 human-caused fires. One of those fires was on industrial forest land and was a holdover from a previous slash pile burn at roadside. This fire was contained to less than 10 acres, all on industry land. It was kept to those few acres due to adequate road systems on that property. Regrettably, thousands of acres of industry lands burned up from fires that originated on and burned through federal agency lands, where decade after decade of forest fuel growth continues unchecked.
To advocate for the government to acquire industrial forest lands does not mean that these lands will be any better managed than what the government is responsible for doing now under current laws, which is basically little to nothing. To think that the government can purchase these industry lands at a fair market price is ludicrous to the investors, many of whom have their retirements included in these income-producing lands to diversify their investment portfolios. To suggest that “fair market price” would be applicable, as one recent author proposes, he must have missed the arithmetic of present net worth and future net worth of successive rotations in his forest resource conservation classes.
Industrial forest lands provide wood products that we the public demand as well as family wage jobs and, excluding fire season, most are open to the public for hunting and fishing, albeit on foot to prevent resource damage.
When you restrict with federal laws and litigation where wood products should come from, you cause other alternatives to be found. In a sense you’ve exacerbated the problem of consumer demand and forced it somewhere else.
Blair Moody of Medford is a certified forester and a fellow of the Society of American Foresters.