The new era of public forest management

Toddler in backpack, raingear on, my wife and I set off to hike Grizzly Peak Trail this past Memorial Day weekend. On our way up the mountain we passed at least a dozen other hikers, families and joggers, many stopping to admire the giant lichen-covered trees. Resting at the top, we breathed deeply the clean, fragrant air and took in the spectacular view of forest-covered hillsides. I couldn't help but wonder: when my 2-year-old son turns 10, will this breathtaking place still be here?

Last week Sen. Ron Wyden announced a framework for federal legislation that will decide the fate of Grizzly Peak and many other treasured natural areas in Southern Oregon, including the Wild Rogue River, Table Rock, Hyatt Lake and the forests that hug our farms in the Applegate Valley.

These special places are all part of the so-called O&C lands, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Some timber companies and county officials are pushing a plan to dramatically increase timber harvesting, allowing logging and clearcutting on roughly 60 percent of the O&C forestlands, many of which are close to populated areas. You might live right next to one of these "backyard forests" and not even know it.

Industrial, private timberland practices, which seek to maximize profit, don't belong on our backyard forests. We need a balanced approach that safeguards clean drinking water, ancient forests, water quality in our rivers and streams, and the scenic beauty that makes Oregon a great place to live, work and raise a family.

There is a wide area of agreement about work that we need to do on our public forests. Many foresters and conservationists agree we need to thin smaller trees to enable the restoration of more natural forests that are adapted to wildfire.

Forest management that produces timber from restoration forestry projects while protecting clean water, salmon and wildlife is working. The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has nearly met or exceeded its congressionally appropriated timber targets for five years running by thinning out fire-suppressed forests and old tree plantations that grew up from past clearcut logging.

Sawmills in Oregon in 2013 can produce one-quarter more lumber today than all of the sawmills that existed in 1995. The industry is more efficient and more mechanized, producing more timber volume yet employing fewer people. Arguments that environmental protections are the main cause of all job losses in the timber industry don't match reality.

While there is a lot of work to do in many of our forests, some places just shouldn't be logged. Polls show most Oregonians recognize that our remaining ancient forests are most valuable left standing. The recreational, clean water and wildlife values of fire-resistant older forests are just too precious to lose.

Protected forests are also an important part of Oregon's economy. Recreation-based business is booming on Oregon BLM Lands, including the O&C forests. At least 68 percent of Oregon residents participate in outdoor recreation each year, spending $12.8 billion, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Oregon's great outdoors generates more than 140,000 jobs in the state, $4 billion in wages and salaries and $955 million in state and local tax revenue.

O&C lands support a recreation economy that depends on places for hunting and fishing, as well as birding, hiking and biking. Responsible forest management embraces this growing recreation-based economy.

Senator Wyden is seeking input from all Oregonians on how to craft legislation that will determine the future of some of Southern Oregon's most beloved public land. As this debate about the future of our forests unfolds, we need to embrace a new era of public lands management and realize that Southern Oregon's O&C lands are far too valuable to clearcut, spray with herbicides and treat like industrial private forestlands. Our public forests are places we should respect and manage responsibly and leave them better than we found them for the next generation of Rogue Valley residents.

Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and is a former employee of the Medford District Bureau of Land Management.

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