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Forest projects: the more the better

When longtime local residents talk about the heyday of the timber industry, they often mention the jobs that are no longer there. Today, as Oregon grapples with the threat of major wildfires every summer, a broad consensus has developed around the need to thin overgrown forests. Doing that on a large scale has the potential to provide new jobs in the woods — not enough to replace the logging workforce of 40 years ago, but providing employment while restoring forest health and fire resilience is an attractive combination, if ways can be found to fund it.

State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, has proposed building on the work now being done by Lomakatsi Restoration Project in the Ashland Watershed and elsewhere by creating a statewide youth corps that would pay teenagers to do forest clearing. Golden points out that the scope of Lomakatsi’s restoration work is limited by a lack of resources. If state and federal funding can be found, expanding the work across Oregon could be one more piece of a coordinated strategy to restore forests.

The concept is not a new one; Lomakatsi has been employing youths in forest restoration work for 15 years, and the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project is an example of what can be accomplished. Providing wages and work experience to Oregon youths is valuable, but the effort should not stop there. Forest jobs can benefit adult workers as well. What it will take is a commitment by state and federal governments to fund the necessary projects.

Other groups are pursuing a similar path. The Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative — Lomakatsi Executive Director Marko Bey is president of the group’s board — has called for an ambitious effort to remove overgrown fuels from federal forest land in the Rogue Basin.

Forest industry work employed 80,000 Oregonians in the 1970s. By 2017, that number had dropped by 60 percent, according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.

For a variety of reasons, bringing back 50,000 jobs is not realistic. Environmental limits on timber harvests and increased automation both took a toll.

But forest restoration work now has the potential to address the issue of wildfires while providing jobs in the process. All that’s lacking is the will to make it happen.