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'Let it burn' approach to wildfires creating a disaster for our forests

  • Dennis Linthicum is the state senator from District 28, which includes all or parts of Jackson, Klamath, Lake, Deschutes and Crook counties.

When it comes to forest policy the public sphere is often filled with proposals that our wilderness areas need absolute protection from human encroachment.

Locally, we see these same ideas flourish with claims that expanding the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument would preserve biodiversity and protect these forests for generations to come.

The problem with this narrative is that current evidence runs contrary to this utopian hope.

How can I say that? Let’s play a thought experiment with our forests.

We’ll let the “protect the wilderness” experimenters loose on a million acres of Oregon forest. During the first year, there would be hikers, campers and just everyday folks enjoying the great outdoors.

After a couple of years, the wilderness would become extremely difficult to navigate without roads built and maintained by loggers. In subsequent years only the hardiest would bother to take the kids camping because of the danger and difficulty in navigating the wildlands of an overgrown and brushy forest.

Fuel loads grow

Without any human intervention, thinning efforts or grazing permits allowed, the fuel loads would build until lightning storms cause a mega-fire that is typical for unmanaged wilderness. The wilderness designation would dictate that lightning caused fires would be permitted to play out, as nearly as possible, their ecological role within a wilderness area. Meaning, “let it burn.”

So, after several years, the remaining forests would be marginal at best; wildlife habitat would be destroyed; streams and watersheds would be polluted with ash, dirt and debris; and downstream fish habitat would be fouled.

Tourism would see significant declines as people naturally avoid vacationing in smoke-filled Oregon. The carbon emissions from these mega-fires would harm our human populations and healthcare costs for particulate matter inhalation would be significant.

Now, let’s take a million acres and manage it for sustainable yield logging and maintain it in a way that would not only supply lumber, but also recreation, benefiting the public with areas for camping, hunting, hiking, picking berries, winter snow sports, and just enjoying the accessible wilderness.

This forested land would be managed by the loggers. They would harvest trees, thin forests, clear out brush, allow grazing, re-plant and work to keep wildfires contained because the forest would be their livelihood. They would cut, grade and rock roads for access and the public would derive enormous benefit from being able to recreate in these beautiful forests.

Benefits worthwhile

It would be sustained for generations, always giving the newly planted trees time to grow into usable timber. Our summer air would be breathable again and we would be able to enjoy all the natural beauty of our state. Tourism would naturally increase and inject prosperity into our communities as folks far and wide would be confident that their vacation would not be shadowed by smoke.

Additionally, as byproducts of sustainable-yield forestry, there would be high employment in milling operations, freight hauling, home construction, heavy equipment operators, hydraulic engineers and designers and thousands of other subsequent opportunities. This would generate tertiary benefits through the direct creation of wealth from the astute utilization of our natural resources.

I realize my forest scenarios may be a bit extreme but you need only look out your window to see the dire situation from 20 years of improper and unrealistic forest practices. Our communities pick up the tab and suffer the consequences of this “let it burn” policy through the destruction of assets, loss of watersheds and wildlife habitat, loss of recreational opportunity and degraded forest resources.

Unfortunately, we are already living in the scenario promoted by the “protect the wilderness” experimenters and it is not pretty.

Fires get worse

Up until the 1980s, the average duration of wildfires was just six days. The number of distinct fires or ignitions hasn’t changed over time but wildfires, today, are much larger and last much longer. Today, the average fire lasts 52 days, or nearly two months. The Chetco Bar fire is estimated to double the 52-day average, with nearly four months of burn.

Last winter was a record-setting winter for cold, snow and rain. The drought is over; our reservoirs and dams are full; rivers and streams are still flowing with snowmelt. Could it be that these extraordinary burn rates are directly related to policy and not to global warming?

The overall solution is not complicated — in fact it’s simple. Let’s allow balanced human wisdom, ingenuity, and expertise a voice at the table to bring common sense and local control back to our forest management.



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