Editorials and letters to the editors make it obvious that there are a number of groups that communicate with language designed to polarize public opinion using supposed economic and scientific information selectively to further their efforts to gridlock actions on forest management. Unfortunately these actions are very divisive and have severe negative effects on federal agency management efforts. Such actions have resulted in diminished effective management of our public lands and are very detrimental to the long term viability of our forests.
A recent example is the editorial entitled “Non-timber products good for forests, economy” printed in the January 15, 2014 News Review. The writers have an obvious bias against the forest industry and used selected data in a manner that suits their agenda. Such editorials do little to further the economic well being of rural communities in Oregon, and the legal actions taken by groups such as Oregon Wild are a prime example of how our federal land managers are basically hamstrung in their management efforts.
Forests are active plant communities, where trees and other green plants grow every day through the process of photosynthesis. For tens of thousands of years natural lightning-caused fire was a normal part of forest ecology, cleansing the forest of the perpetual accumulation of fire prone fuels with low burning fire that reduced the “fuel load” that today frequently contributes to catastrophic wildfires. North American forests became “fire adapted” over time, the trees and plants that survived these low burning fires became the rather open forests found by Native Americans and early European settlers.
When humans suppress natural fire, we are artificially “managing” the lands that would normally be cleansed by fire, and this includes lands set aside as “wilderness.” Over the past century, human intervention to this natural process through intensive fire suppression, and in the past 30 or so years drastically reduced harvesting, has allowed forest fuels to accumulate unchecked. Trees and plants normally not capable of surviving even low burning fire have been allowed to regenerate and are now a dominant part of forest ecology. Today when fires do start in the forest (regardless of the source of ignition), the enormous fuel load creates fires so intense that they often completely destroy much of the plant life, and sometimes the soils, that makes up our forests. The cleansing effect of fire, which in the past was beneficial to forests, now fuels unnatural and intense fires which we certainly saw this past summer with the Douglas Complex fires.
Most foresters recognize the serious problem we have created by the constant suppression of natural fire, and they understand that we need to a fresh approach to reduce the fuel load and make our forests more fire resilient. With the financial problems facing local, state and federal government, there is little if any money available to address the fuel problem without the generation of cash through the sale of forest assets. Trees are a marketable commodity and when harvested and sold, can provide our federal agencies with funds to more effectively manage public lands. At the same time with effective forestry practices, foresters can reduce tree density and overgrown forest vegetation that often results in intense forest fires.
In order to provide for the generation of cash, we need an industry capable of converting raw materials into finished products that can be sold in the marketplace. Such economic activity generates jobs in our communities, provides financing for forest management activities, and provides funding for schools and local governmental agencies. A successful industry also provides a multitude of secondary employment opportunities in communities, providing for more vibrant local economic opportunities.
We need to be very cognizant of the danger of losing our forest products infrastructure. A number of forested locations in the United States including areas in Arizona, New Mexico, California, and eastern Oregon have serious problems in attempting forest management activities because the companies that provided forest related work and/or manufacturing/marketing of forest products are no longer available to do the necessary work. The loss of this infrastructure is a direct result of the actions taken by groups using the court system in opposition to most forest management activity.
According to a report prepared by the Oregon Department of Forestry, the State of Oregon spent approximately $122 million dollars fighting forest fires in 2013. I have not seen reports on 2013 spending by the Forest Service, BLM, DFPA or private companies, but I believe the amount Oregon spent may be only a small percentage of the total wildfire firefighting costs in Oregon last year. Unfortunately, in the past 10-15 years there has been a trend of increased expenses each year as the fuel load problem worsens.
It is time to stop the madness and allow professional foresters to manage our public lands properly.
Author: Wes Melo is a 1966 Forestry graduate from the University of California at Berkeley. He is retired after spending 16 years as Vice President of Operations at Ingram Book Company. He spent much of his life working for forest products companies in various locations in the U.S. Most of his life was also spent as a firefighter dealing with both structural and wild land fires. He is the Vice Chair of Communities for Healthy Forests.