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State should prioritize forest management

Come with us on a virtual road trip. We’ll start in the Cascade Range near the Willamette Valley and head south on Interstate 5. We’ll stop in towns with names like Detroit, Gates, Blue River, Vida, Phoenix and Talent.

Or at least they used to be towns.

They — and the people who lived there — were victims of the ferocious wildfires that blew through parts of Washington state and Oregon on Labor Day.

In Oregon, Washington and California, wildfires destroyed 14,689 homes this year, and 6.3 million acres of forests were burned.

Surveying the damage, we shake our head and ask a simple question: Why couldn’t forest managers do a better job?

That’s a simple question, but it has complex answers.

It’s not just a matter of cutting trees to create fire breaks. In the 21st century, forest managers are hogtied by politics, poorly written laws and environmental groups that use those laws to stop thinning and other types of projects.

Left out of the mix are taxpayers. They — we — are the victims of a triple whammy.

First, we get to run for our lives when our homes are threatened or destroyed by fires.

Then we get to pay for firefighters. This year, fire suppression costs topped $3.2 billion that came straight out of taxpayers’ pockets.

Then taxpayers pay to indemnify those who suffered losses. In California alone this year, those losses topped $2 billion.

Throw in the deaths, losses of livestock, outbuildings and other property and wildlife habitat and the whole system can best be described as a shambles.

That’s why it’s critically important that forest managers be allowed to do their jobs.

It’s not easy. Capital Press reporter Mateusz Perkowski followed a single forest treatment plan from beginning to end.

In the case of the Five Buttes Project in the Cascade Range, the plan took four years to complete. The environmental impact statement alone was 459 pages.

Instead of massive clearcuts, the plan designated 60 areas totaling 7,800 acres that, when treated, would help prevent massive fires and protect northern spotted owl habitat. The total size of the project was 160,000 acres, so only about 4.9% of the area would be directly impacted.

But then the lawyers got involved and everything ground to a halt. Hired by environmental groups and armed with laws such as the Endangered Species Act, the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, they stopped the Five Buttes Project a year after it was approved.

A judge went along with their arguments. Only after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saw through the legal chatter and gave its approval was work on the project allowed to proceed.

By the time the work was finished, 12 years had passed.

That, in a nutshell, is a major reason foresters cannot keep up with the need to properly manage the 67.3 million acres of federal forests in Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho. That’s an area about the size of Colorado.

Other reasons for delays include a lack of money — though it would surely be less costly than spending billions of dollars a year fighting monster blazes — and a lack of political will on the part of elected officials, many of whom still seem to believe the best forest is an unmanaged one.

Back to our road trip. As we drive through blackened forests it’s easy to reach the conclusion that the system is out of balance. One lawsuit can shut down a treatment project for years, but the good it would do — and the money it would save taxpayers — gets short shrift.

That’s not right, and Congress owes it to the American public to fix it. We can manage the forests now, or pay more later to clean up the mess.