Point #3: Rural Oregon: poverty and wildfires

September 12th, 2017

How many communities in the state of Oregon have under 5,000 in population? Two hundred and seventy five.

You know it and I know it: economically and socially, heartbreakingly, almost all of these rural communities are shells of what they were before over-zealous (yes, radical) environmentalism in the early 80’s shut down surrounding forests; before progressivism took charge in Salem. Before jobs, wood products and county timber receipts largely vanished. And since then – add insult to injury – these forests have been too-often neglected by their federal masters…and so they are burning.

The USFS expends more than half of its annual budget combating wildfires but nonetheless, two years ago in an especially tough fire season, fire destroyed 4% of our total Oregon forests, the huge percentage of it on public land. As I write this in mid-September 2017, we’ve lost almost another 3%.

The Oregon forest is our garden. And like any garden, it must be cultivated and not left to go fallow…and then to catch fire.

After long decades of ingrowth and brush accumulation, with little thinning and logging and plenty of fire exclusion, we have tens of millions of acres of forest with too-thick stands that are smothering in themselves. They are diseased and dying: too many trees per acre. Excessive fuel on the ground. It’s a tinderbox. One lightning strike or stray firecracker and there is Hell-to-pay.

The tragedy is not that the wildfires get started in the first place (in the Northwest, most are due to lightning strikes). The tragedy is that once they’ve started, they instantly get blow-torch hot and can’t be stopped.

Unlike hurricanes, the huge majority of the current out-of-control wildfires could have been altogether prevented, or extinguished in their early stages.

Oddly enough, nature used to handle the excessive-fuel problem with frequent lightning-generated low-intensity, relatively cool understory surface fires. Now, it’s too late for the prescribed-burn solution for the millions of acres that must be treated. There’s just too much forest, too much fuel, and the seasonal window for this technique is too short. Today, the bulk of the problem must be handled mechanically: road construction crews creating access, chainsaw teams, timber harvester and articulated skidders logging in the east regions, and in the coast range, high-lead and skyline logging in many places.

This decades-long lack of active forest cultivation has been a massive mechanical error-of-omission by the USFS and the BLM – and to a significantly lesser degree, the State of Oregon – held hostage by an un-informed urban society and their political leaders. Most definitely, this is a top-level management problem.

Our professional foresters know what preventative measures should be taken, they’re just unable to make them happen. It’s not their fault.

To be clear, these fires are not occurring because of “global climate change,” as Governor Kate Brown has off-handedly declared. That’s absurd, and it’s no wonder that in this time of catastrophe she only offers tepid applause to our firefighters, along with the occasional “be careful out there” tutelage to the rest of us. She tells us, “it’s bad out there,” while offering no plan for how this horror can be stopped from happening again next year or the year after.

For our current political leadership, it’s all about fire-killing, not fire prevention.

The progressive far-left strategy is to not take mechanical fire prevention measures, but to leave a forest alone; not to tend to it, not to prune it, not to take a chainsaw into a wilderness area to douse a smoldering lightning-struck snag; not to harvest the millions of board feet of still-usable timber that remains after a major burn.

And certainly, our leftist leaders are loath to harvest any of our forests. Logging, they say, is so…Neanderthal.

But these same leaders are more than willing to expend enormous amounts of taxpayer money attempting to quell the fires that are a direct result of their own negligence.

So we have massive wildfires and sullen small-town poverty: over a period of four decades, millions of Oregonians have been left to exist without economic opportunity – a quiet social disaster that their DC and Salem overseers ignore.

Pretty much everyone agrees that excess-fuel is the cause of the problem. Even progressive Democrat U.S. Senator Ron Wyden hit the right note last week in a presentation to the Senate: “The idea of ripping off prevention, which you need most, defies common sense…shoddy budgeting today leads to bigger fires tomorrow.”

And suppression is expensive. John Bailey, Professor of Silviculture and Fire Management at Oregon State University in Corvallis, said last week, “It’s bankrupting us. The irony is we steal from the positive things we can do in order to keep suppressing forest fires, even though suppression makes next year’s fire season worse.”

And back to global climate change: if that is even a small part of the problem, why isn’t Kate Brown calling for the Forest Service and the BLM to clean things up to reduce the fire danger it is creating?

And yes, the USFS and BLM oversee federal land, but a governor has enormous influence. Governors from the Western states can present a united effort to demand that either the federal government manage the land appropriately, or turn it back to our states. It’s pure and simple, and it’s my bet the Trump Administration will give an immediate blessing to the former and would be sympathetic to the latter.
Kate Brown should provide that leadership: in this moment, of the fires that are burning in the western U.S., a huge out-of-proportion percentage of them are in Oregon.

And what about logging? Referring to the approximately 20,000,000 acres of Oregon public land forests, the Oregon Department of Forestry says, “public lands are now harvesting approximately 11 percent of public forest’s potential for growing timber.” In contrast, of the 10,000,000 acres of private forests in Oregon, the Department lists the potential-for-growing-timber statistic at 93%.

It’s OK to cut down trees! Timber and smaller-dimension wood products are the ultimate sustainable natural resource. Let’s judiciously use what God has given us. Let’s tend the garden!

What do European government forestlands and southeastern U.S. private forestlands have in common? They’re intensively managed, with clean understories, regular thinning, prescribed fire (controlled burning), sustainable timber harvesting, lots of forest-jobs…and hardly ever a wildfire.

So, in a massive, CCC-like system improvement project – using Federal money to contract out to local private firms – let’s insist our leadership overseas preventative maintenance on our millions of acres of neglected USFS/BLM-controlled Oregon forest, including the employment of hundreds of teams of young people from our economically stricken rural communities. Let’s put them out there in the woods – yes with chain saws – tending to our forests so they can become healthy again by doing very simple mechanical cultivation tasks: tree thinning, cleanup, prescribed burning, and harvesting.

Our Oregon woodlands – this neglected garden of overgrown, diseased, and stunted trees – will breathe again as we stimulate the entire Oregon economy by bringing wood products to the market. The wildfires? When they start, where or when they aren’t manageable, they will be quickly quelled. And especially – and this is personal for me because I was born and raised in a small impoverished back-country town – there will be jobs, jobs, jobs for the good people who live in these rural regions.

There will be no losers in this task.

This really IS a management problem, one that has everything to do with current leadership’s inability to take mechanical action. After all this time of doing nothing to halt the devastation to our forests and to our rural communities, it’s time to change leadership.

We need an Oregon Red Trifecta. (A Red Trifecta is when the governor’s seat and both sides of the legislative branch are held by the same political party)