And the Forest Fires Rage On

Right From the Start

Recent headlines dealing with the explosion of wildfires in Northern California, including the deaths of over eleven people and the destruction of over 1500 residential and commercial structures, reminded me of the incompetence of the environmental community in general and those who control by employment or threats the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. It comes on the heels of a recent visit to Central Oregon as the wildfires near Mount Jefferson and Milli Creek shrouded Central Oregon in a perpetual haze and forced people indoors to avoid the smoke. (I drove westbound on Highway 20 through Sisters and could not see from the driver’s seat across the street and into the doorways of the stores along the main street.) And there at the top of Santiam Pass sat the scars of the notorious B&B Complex fires of 2003.

You cannot prevent lightening caused forest fires but you can mitigate the extent of the damage and the speed of recovery by engaging in common sense forest practices. Visible proof of that exists right along the highway running from Santiam Pass to Bend. Prior to the fires that consumed Santiam Pass, the forests on both sides of Highway 20 were overgrown with conifers packed so tightly together one would need a chain saw to walk a dozen feet in a straight line. The result was a jumble of standing and fallen dead trees packed cheek to jowl with diseased trees that would soon add to the fuel load. Even the healthy trees struggled to push past the accumulating waste. They were government forests – mismanaged like most everything else the government does under the mistaken belief that “one size fits all” and the unshakeable belief that flexibility is an anathema to government wisdom.

Meanwhile, down the road a scant dozen miles as the crow flies lining Highway 20 in the area near Black Butte Ranch are groomed forests where the slash and brush are routinely removed, the natural seedlings are removed to allow spacing for healthy growth and diseased (dead and dying) trees are removed. The trees are large and healthy and in most instances can withstand low-lying fires on the forest floors.

While the fires of the B&B Complex engulfed over 90,000 acres, little damage was done to the groomed forests on private land near Black Butte Ranch. But the government adamantly opposes grooming the forests. Instead the government peddles that notion that forest fires are a part of the natural process for the creation of healthy forests and that any interference in the “natural process” will cause more harm than good. While there is evidence that wildfires “clean” the forests, the belief that that is universally true is bizarre and contrary to actual results. And yet it has become the Holy Grail for environmentalists inside and outside the government. So much so that one wonders whether it is the inalienable belief in the perfection of nature or simply the horror of someone profiting from cutting trees. (As with most causes on the left, consistency of thought means nothing – it is often the same people who decry intervention in the natural order of the forests who demand intervention in the natural order of man by abortion.)

The B&B Complex fires destroyed over 90,000 acres of forest land and fourteen years later virtually none of it has recovered. There is a tangle of scrub brush interrupted occasionally by the burnt husk of a dead tree waiting to fall. Yes there is evidence of some new growth of conifers but they are packed tightly together and will presumably mature into the same jumble of dead and dying trees that provided the fuel for the B&B Complex and that await the inevitable next lightening strike. That’s right, between the government and the environmental lawsuits, logging the dead and dying timber and replanting it with healthy seedlings was prohibited. And not only is the underlying problem being recreated at the behest of government, but the remains of the last mistake are a constant eyesore.

Again evidence is bountiful that systematic logging accompanied by replanting can maintain healthy forests. There was a “blow down” – a microburst that decimated a portion of the forests bordering Highway 26 near Cannon Beach. It was apparently private land because before the downed timber became unusable, it was recovered and removed and new trees were planted. Sufficient time has passed to show that a healthy forest is well underway.

But in the same area, there is now recent and significant amounts of clear cutting – some of which is on state lands. It remains to be seen whether the timber harvest will be accompanied by replanting – I suspect it will. But until it is it provides a stark reminder that somewhere between clear cutting and closing the forests to logging lies the best solutions. But more importantly it is a reminder that, contrary to the practices of the federal government, one size does not fit all. Grooming and harvesting timber accompanied by reforestation in one area based on topography and ease of transit may be the best solution for that area, while isolated areas with difficult terrain may be best served by the “natural” process of forest fires.

Remember that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds (Ralph Waldo Emerson). It speaks volumes about the quality of those in government who are responsible for our forests.