'New era' in forests is already here, and it's not working

In a recent Mail Tribune guest opinion, Joseph Vaile announces a "new era" of public forest management, where Southern Oregon residents should "embrace" the type of heavy-handed environmental regulations and lawsuits that have cost us thousands of family-wage jobs and have decimated rural communities. To sum up Vaile's opinion, all of our region's problems will go away if we simply reserve public forests for people like him.

In reality, Vaile's "new era" of public forest management is strikingly similar to the one we have now. Today there is an alarming lack of active management of "O&C" forest lands for both economic and environmental benefits. By law, these forests are supposed to be managed for sustained yield timber production, and capable of sustaining up to 1.2 billion board feet of timber harvest per year. However, with an average harvest of 190 million board feet per year since 1991, these levels are far below what was promised under the original O&C Act and under President Bill Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan.

As a result, our overgrown forests have become more vulnerable to insects, disease and catastrophic wildfire, and people in Southern Oregon are continuing to lose jobs. Last month we witnessed the closure of the Rough & Ready mill — the last sawmill in Josephine County. The 90-year-old company had worked hard to keep up with changing times, even building the first computerized small-diameter mill in the region before environmental litigation made it impossible to operate at a profit. That same lack of a reliable timber supply also forced the closure of its conventional mill, at the expense of 85 workers.

What is the cost of this new era of public forest management? Rural communities throughout Southern Oregon continue to suffer from chronic unemployment and high poverty rates. Nearly 60 percent of students in Jackson County are eligible for free and reduced lunches. It's no wonder why Southern Oregon counties are struggling to raise revenues to replace lost timber payments. Residents in poorer O&C counties have rejected property tax levies because many of them don't have jobs or are struggling to make ends meet.

Outdoor recreation is an important part of multi-use, active forest management. However, over the past 20 years, outdoor recreation alone has failed to replace the jobs or the economic activity that timber businesses once generated in our local communities. It's highly unlikely that we will return to past timber harvest levels, but we can put people back to work and substantially increase timber harvests without coming close to the amount of wood that grows naturally every year, and without negatively impacting recreational opportunities.

As Sen. Ron Wyden develops his legislation for managing O&C lands, it's critical for him to find a solution that allows more citizens to find family-wage jobs through sustainable timber harvesting and the resulting economic activity. Because Wyden is seeking input from the public, it is vitally important that he hears from people who have been affected by federal forest policies. As Wyden recently said, "it is time we put people back to work in the woods." It is time to help Senator Wyden save our communities and help stop those who will do whatever it takes to close these forests to management forever.

Southern Oregon has seen the cost of this new era of public forest management, and it simply isn't working for us. We suffer from high unemployment and poverty, and many communities are struggling to sustain vital services. Is this what Mr. Vaile really wants for our next generation of Rogue Valley residents?

Doug Breidenthal is a Jackson County Commissioner.

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