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Wildfire forum stokes new ideas, old debates

Traditional antagonists weren't exactly slapping each other on the back, but a thread of consensus could be found in Tuesday's community forum on wildfires.

Representatives of the timber and environmental communities, along with local government officials and a scientist, all agreed during the Medford session led by U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., that Oregon forests desperately need thinning to reduce the threat of severe wildfires.

However, that is where the thread began to fray.

Many concurred that thinning younger trees and other ladder fuels while leaving the larger, more fire-resistant trees is the solution. But others felt the first thing that needed to be thinned was lawsuits brought by environmentalists to halt forest management projects.

It would not be wise to go in and clean out the mature trees; the problem is in the young ones, said Illinois Valley resident Lou Gold, a former college professor and longtime environmental activist.

He called for a state and federal program for thinning forests by removing small-diameter trees on both public and private land.

You always cut old-growth, let the young trees take their place, countered Jack Walker, a Jackson County commissioner.

Too many thinning projects on public land in Southern Oregon have been stopped by lawsuits filed by environmental groups, he said.

Smith reminded those speaking at the informal session that a nation is watching.

The eyes of this country are turned on Southern Oregon right now, Smith said. We have a fire out here that is approaching the size of Rhode Island.

Nature, when it comes to clear-cutting with a catastrophic fire, does not leave buffer zones, he added, referring to federal environmental laws that require buffer zones along streams.

Smith announced that President Bush will be in Oregon next week, and that he may visit the region because of the 378,865-acre Biscuit fire burning in the Siskiyou National Forest.

The severe fire potential is the result of decades of fire suppression, observed Steve Fitzgerald, a silviculturist and associate professor at the Oregon State University Extension Service.

An estimated 35 percent of Oregon's forests are at high risk for severe wildfires, while another 42 percent of the state's forests are at moderate risk, he said.

The type of thinning and selective harvesting I'm proposing will need to be different than what was done in the past, he said. Thinning will need to be wider, leaving the larger, thicker bark trees.

And the slash will need to be cleaned up on the forest floor, he added. Prescribed burning will then be followed as a maintenance tool.

The result would be wildfires that are less dangerous, less damaging and less costly to fight, he said.

To do this vital work, we need sustained funding of the National Fire Plan to reinvest in our forests to first stabilize their health and then to improve their resiliency to wildfires in the long term, he said.

Not all forests need to be thinned or selectively harvested, he said.

But those that do need it soon, or we will continue to spend a billion dollars every other year fighting the nation's wildfires, then spend hundreds of millions more cleaning up the messes they leave, he said.

Areas that have been thinned by private landowners and public land managers have made a difference in fighting fires, said Jeff Schwanke, forester in charge of the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest District.

When those things are done, the fire activity is much lower, much less severe, he said. It gives us a fighting chance at protecting homes.

Ken Cummings, chief forester for Boise Corp. in Southern Oregon, agreed that too many local forests are overstocked, particularly the public forestlands.

The passive management scenario is not a sustainable forest strategy, he said. We need to be active upon the landscape, not be passive.

Applegate Valley resident Matt Epstein also felt lawsuits and legislative appeals were hamstringing forest managers from conducting thinning projects.

Our local forest ecosystem is sick, he said. The condition is the result of suppression of fires for the last 100 years.

Thinning needs to be done, not just for fire danger reduction, but to increase the vigor of the existing stands and allow them to resist drought and beetle attack, he added.

Derek Volkart, conservation coordinator for the Ashland-based Headwaters environmental group, said he and other activists are against logging mature trees, not removing small trees and brush.

The environmental community does share the concerns that the forests need to be thinned, he said. There is support for thinning the fuel hazard out there. But the risk is definitely in the small-diameter trees.

George Sexton of the Cascade-Siskiyou Wildlands Center said thinning projects should be driven by forest health, not quantity of timber. Smith countered that the projects must be economically viable.

Part of the problem we will have in selling this to the rest of Congress is that if it is too expensive, that you can't pay for some of it with some commercial logging, then the bill gets really big, Smith said.

Several speakers cited the importance of the air tanker base in Medford. Others expressed concern that jobs be created as part of an overall forest health improvement package.

There is a lot that everybody agrees on, Smith said after the forum. Of course, there are differences when it comes to definitions of old-growth and what to make available to commercial logging.

But he is optimistic that an acceptable solution will be found.

We have the focus of the whole country now on Southern Oregon and the tragedy of seeing all these public resources literally go up in smoke, he said. If ever the iron were hot, the time to strike is now.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at