Forest Fires Without End

I have written this column before. In fact, I have written it several times over the last fifteen years. I am writing it again in the middle of the latest annual conflagrations near Medford, Jacksonville, Talent, and Phoenix in Southern Oregon and the Beachie Creek/Riverside fires in the triangle between Detroit Lakes, Salem and Portland. This time towns have been ravaged or destroyed and innocent lives have been lost. So here it is again:


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 hasn’t been in the news again lately but, with the approaching summer, fire season is once again upon Oregon and despite the tragedies of the past decade, nothing has changed. What is needed is a more timely and intelligent response to these natural disasters. The point is brought home to me each time I make the drive between Wilsonville and Bend and pass 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 feet 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 on 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.

There is nothing more to say. The same logic that applies to reforestation applies to quality forest management. And it is all common sense. Remove down and dead timber and clear underbrush to provide reasonable distance between mature trees by thinning, harvesting and replanting periodically. But in the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon and California) none of that has happened for decades. Oregon’s forests are overgrown and annually increase the fuel load (dead, diseased and fallen timber, along with underbrush) in an area beset annually by regular thunderstorms and sparse precipitation. The mismanagement of Oregon’s forests is the moral equivalent of giving a three-year old a box of matches in a hayloft – it just isn’t going to end well and it doesn’t. And it doesn’t annually, not just periodically. Nearly half of Oregon’s landmass is forestland. According to the Thoreau Institute less than two percent of Oregon’s landmass is considered developed. Given the large landmass that represents forest land and the routine occurrence of lightening in the Cascades, it is more likely than not that forest fires will occur. Given the refusal of three decades of Democrat policies in Oregon, the fuel load available for such fires is massive and destructive. Why any sane person would continue down this path year after year is beyond me.

The Democrats say they are following the science but they are not. They are following the musing of one of their fold wearing a lab coat and reciting the mantra of the environmental movement – an element of the Democrat coalition. There are no comparative studies in the Beschta report. But in fact there is an abundance of evidence from private forest lands that are managed that contradicts the OMG hysterics of the Beschta Report. If they were following the real science they would have followed Prof. John Sessions and, at the very least, taken an area and tried a side by side comparison of Prof. Sessions’ proposal and the do-nothing approach that satisfies the Sierra Club but endangers life and cities.

But meanwhile, the fuel load builds and builds amidst a multi-year drought. There is no longer a question as to whether there will be massive forest fires in Oregon each summer. Rather the only questions are how many, how large, how many structures will be destroyed, how many lives will be lost and, finally, when will the Democrats pull their heads out of the sand and see the damage they are causing by catering to an environmental lobby that only seeks to stop tree cutting no matter the result. One has to wonder whether the environmental lobby is really seeking to protect the environment or just attempting to stop profit taking from legitimate forest practices.