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OPINION: Timber Policy Causes Western Wildfire Destruction

Smokey the Bear image by Wayne National Forest

Smokey the Bear image by Wayne National Forest

Does Smokey the Bear have it right?  Is it true that only you can prevent forest fires?

Our forests are burning.  According to the Scientific American, The Carlton Complex fire is the worst in recorded Washington State history.  Fires are exploding across the West, and it is only getting worse.

These fires are not the result of some camper casually leaving live campfire embers or tossing a cigarette into dry grass.  Nor are the fires caused by some camper climbing the highest tree on the highest hill and putting a match to the highest branch – in the middle of a raging thunder storm.  No, the immediate cause of most of the current fires in Oregon, Washington, and California is listed as lightening.

Nevertheless, the real cause of this increase in forest and ecosystem destruction is current public timber policy and even the closing of more and more National Forest Land to the public will not significantly reduce the incidence or size of fires.

Healthy forests don’t burn readily. In recent years, the fires have been getting worse because our forests are diseased and dying.  Forests have been managed by men for thousands of years with controlled burns and by harvesting mature and dead timber.  Forest management improved the habitat for all forest species from deer to spotted owls.

In Oregon, over 50% of the land is owned by the government. And so, for example, royalties from logging the Oregon and California Grant Lands (O&C lands) were used to fund public services, principally schools, in 18 counties in western Oregon.

The timber industry employed thousands of loggers and mill workers in rural Oregon.  Those Oregonians earned good livings, paid taxes, and built a resilient and fulfilling way of life.  Although public forests were not routinely replanted after fire or logging, forests on private land in Oregon were replanted.  The stumps and roots of the harvested trees held the soil while the new trees grew.  The new trees were young, healthy, and resistant to fire.

Chart lifted from Washington Post, "Why Western wildfires keep getting worse"

Chart lifted from Washington Post, “Why Western wildfires keep getting worse”

Half a trillion million dollars’ worth of environmental and legal fees buy quite a few law suits – particularly when much of the funding for these suits is coming from the federal government.  Thanks to the increasingly aggressive environmental law suit industry, harvesting on government land is no longer allowed – even the harvesting of dead trees.

The environmentalists have mandated that there will be no logging, no controlled burns, and no management. Mature trees have become diseased and the diseases have spread throughout our forests.  Dead trees are tinder.  During the fire season they go up in flames releasing enormous quantities of carbon into the atmosphere.

Even some environmentalists realize the need for forest management which would include prescribed controlled fires:

For instance, the Giant Sequoia are being endangered by environmental lawsuits stopping prescribed fire and thinning needed to get these ecosystems back to a more natural state and to protect them from catastrophic fire. The public is so convinced by decades of Smokey the Bear fire exclusion policy, that when the land management agencies realized that they needed to use prescribed fire to protect the Spotted Owl, the environmentalists themselves stopped them and the whole ecosystem burned to the ground destroying the Spotted Owl habitat.

Senator Merkley is sponsoring legislation to require the federal government to cover more of the costs of fighting fires.  That is like applying a bandage to a cut femoral artery – a bandage someone else is paying for.  Senator Merkley is fighting about which taxpayers will bear the costs of fighting our massive fires when he should be fighting to save our forests and our forest- based industries.

In the name of the environment, we are sacrificing our timber industry, our jobs, our schools, our forests and the animals and plants in them.

So maybe Smokey the Bear did have it right in the end.

Only you can prevent forest fires.

An earlier version of this story was originally published in the U-Choose Education Bulletin.

Chana Cox, Ph.D.

Chana Cox Ph.D. is a Lewis and Clark Senior Lecturer Emerita. She has a Ph.D. from Columbia University in philosophy and a B.A. from Reed in mathematics. At Lewis and Clark she taught courses in philosophy, history, business, political science and the core. Her published works include Liberty: God's Gift to Humanity, Reflections on the Logic of the Good, and A River Went out of Eden.

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Categories: Environment, Must Read, Opinion, Policy


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