We traveled to Bend this past weekend and while in transit listened to the horrors of the wildfires burning in Southern Oregon and Northern California. And on the way back we traveled in the smoke and haze from those fires all the way from Sisters to Wilsonville. AS if that smoke and haze were not enough we encountered the remnants of the 2003 B&B Complex fire at the top of Santiam Pass. There it was – pickets of dead trees standing guard over a mix of low lying shrubs and small conifers, downed timber everywhere but all of it dominated by those large dead and blackened trees still standing but waiting for the inevitable fall from a combination of insect infestation and dry rot from the winter snows.
All of the timber rotting, none of it salvaged, and no concentrated effort to replant or reforest the area. And all of that due to the environmental lobby which has historically eschewed the very thought of harvesting trees and especially if someone might stand to make a profit from it. In November of 2005 I wrote the following column. All of it remains as true today as it was thirteen years ago. And for those who travel across the Santiam Pass, it should be a reminder of what bureaucratic incompetence coupled with built in litigation delays can do to the magnificent forests of Oregon.
There is a difference between scientific facts and scientists talking. A case in point is the remnants of the 2002 Biscuit Fire that engulfed over 400,000 acres. This horrible waste has been in the news again as Congress gets set to consider new legislation sponsored by Oregon’s Rep. Greg Walden and Washington’s Rep. Brian Baird to allow a more timely and intelligent response to these natural disasters. The point was brought home more clearly to me when I made the drive from Wilsonville to Bend the last week in October and passed through a very small portion of the similar 2003 B&B Complex fire area atop Santiam Pass near Black Butte and Sisters.
Let’s make sure that we understand the size of the problem so that you can relate it to other massive and similar fires that have occurred in Oregon in recent years. The Biscuit Fire consumed 400,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest – an area dominated by conifers and hardwoods. Forty-two percent of the trees were killed by the fire and another eight percent were so damaged as to put them at immediate risk of destruction by insect infestation. The trees killed and damaged represented five billion board feed of timber. That is an amount that is roughly 10 times the total amount of timber harvested on public lands in Oregon in the same year, 2002.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, it was estimated that half of the timber was salvageable. Of that, 2.5 billion board feet of salvageable lumber, less than one per cent will actually be harvested. It will stand like blackened sentinels testifying to the ability of environmental extremists’ to use the courts to thwart common sense and modern technology. These environmental extremists know that there is a limited time within which you can harvest burned timber, and their lawsuits and appeals can run out the clock before the timber can be harvested and the fire-damaged forests replanted.
For years the environmental extremists have relied on the views of scientists such as Robert Beschta who advocated prohibiting salvage logging. Beschta claims it promotes erosion by removing large trees that were the “building blocks” of natural recovery. Note that I refer to these as “views” because, as it turns out, there is little scientific fact to back up these conclusions. In essence, they are just the musings of a group of environmental activists who happen to hold various sciences degrees (Truly, this is an instance where the Ph.D. really did stand for “piled, higher and deeper.) Subsequent, real scientific studies, such as one performed in 2003 by Prof. John Sessions and his colleagues at Oregon State University, have substantially debunked the musing of the so-called Beschta Report.
Here are some pertinent facts found by Prof. Sessions and his colleagues with regard to the Biscuit Fire:
Removal of dead and dying trees accompanied by reforestation provides the best opportunity to reduce risk of recurring large-scale fires and reduce shrub enrichment.
Riparian habitat (erosion control) and habitat suitable for old growth dependent wildlife will benefit from immediate action to remove and rehabilitate the area.
Fire risks and insect infestation will increase without intervention.
The economic value of the dead and dying timber will deteriorate rapidly over a short period of time.
Aggressive reforestation will accelerate the return of large conifers by 50 years.
The impact of carefully administered salvage logging on soil erosion is small and temporary.
Recovery of dead and dying trees can provide 8-10 jobs per million board feet recovered. (If only half of the dead and dying salvageable trees were recovered (1.25 billion board feet) it would provide over 10,000 man/years of employment.
We didn’t really need science to tell us what is right and reasonable. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that a burned forest will recover more quickly if the damage is removed and new trees are planted. It doesn’t take a scientist to recognize that other large scale fires in Oregon left to “nature’s way” remain charred, blackened ground interspersed with low lying scrub brush for decades. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that while nature may recover an area to its pre-existing condition it won’t be in our life times or probably the life times of our children. And it doesn’t take a scientist to recognize that a small group of self-centered environmental extremists, funded by out-of-state money, can tie recovery up in court until it is no longer worth it, leaving good jobs rotting just like the dead, dying trees. But it is comforting to know that real science supports common sense.
When it comes to forest recovery and salvage logging, Oregonians show an abundance of common sense. A survey by Communities for Healthy Forests found that 77 percent of Oregonians support salvage logging and reforestation – not because of scientific studies, but because it makes good sense.
While the environmental community professes to be safeguarding Oregon citizens, they are not. They are pursuing their own interests at the expense of healthy forests and good jobs.