In his recent guest opinion, George Sexton argues that managed private forests are somehow more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire than unmanaged federal forest lands. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Sexton knows it.
His opinion comes at an interesting time, especially as wildfires consume millions of acres of unmanaged federal forests across the West. His opinion ignores recent history in Southern Oregon, where wildfires have destroyed wilderness areas and other dense and overstocked forests. Above all, he blames timber-based businesses and workers, the same people who depend on healthy and productive forests for their livelihoods.
Sexton must recognize that opposition to active forest management is widely unpopular as our forests burn, our counties go bankrupt, and our friends and neighbors remain out of work. That's why he wants to turn the public's attention to privately managed land where forest fires typically don't ignite. There are many examples, most prominently the Biscuit fire, where old-growth forests were incinerated because federal lands were not actively managed.
He specifically mentions the Timbered Rock fire, but I'm not convinced Sexton has actually visited the site. Of the 27,000 acres that burned in that fire, 44 percent were Late Successional Reserves, or federal lands that had been set aside under the Northwest Forest Plan. Though fire scorched old-growth and private timber alike, the biggest difference is what happened after the burn. Workers quickly went into the private lands to salvage the dead trees, which turned into forest products to support our local economy. These timber lands were then reforested, as mandated under the Oregon Forest Practices Act, and today are home to vibrant 10- to 20-foot trees.
As with the Biscuit fire, environmental groups aggressively opposed the salvaging of timber from the federal lands in the Timbered Rock fire. The dead trees were left to decompose and release carbon dioxide. Thanks to broken policies and environmental litigation by Sexton's and other radical groups, efforts to restore these public lands were halted. Today the resulting brush field and snags are another disaster waiting to happen. Maybe this is the right time to ask ourselves if this is really the future we want for our public lands. Have decades of hands-off management made these forests healthier? Have these policies made our local economy stronger, and have they provided the revenues our local governments need to educate our kids and keep our neighborhoods safe?
The timber industry and log exports from private timber lands are convenient targets for environmentalists who oppose any kind of effective management for Southern Oregon's O&C forests. Sexton's attacks don't work because a large majority of Southern Oregon forests are owned by the federal government, where it's illegal to export logs. For Sexton, the bipartisan O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act is too extreme. The proposal designates a portion of these lands for sustained-yield timber harvests, providing certainty for local businesses and workers while ensuring reliable revenues for local governments and vibrant forests. Sexton also opposes a plan that would designate O&C lands as Wilderness or Wild & Scenic, and transfer the rest to the U.S. Forest Service to be managed as old growth.
In his guest opinion, Sexton makes economic arguments that reveal his misunderstanding of timber-based business and our regional economy. He argues that small-scale thinning is the permanent solution for everything, even though the group he represents commonly protests and appeals thinning projects. While thinning can promote forest health, it won't provide a "predictable and sustainable supply" of logs to local mills as he claims, and is frankly not economically viable. The types of projects that he prefers will not provide enough wood to keep our mills open, our workers employed, our county governments intact, and our forests healthy.
It's time we asked ourselves whether the status quo and the "leave-it-alone" approach is truly working for our forests and rural communities. I believe it's time for a change. We need a permanent and comprehensive solution that protects our forests for future generations, while providing jobs and essential services to support Southern Oregon families today.
Ed Kupillas is a retired professional forester. He lives near Butte Falls.