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County should back forest thinning bid

Jackson County commissioners should waste no time in getting behind the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in its bid to compete for up to $40 million in federal money for 10 years of thinning projects to reduce wildfire risk near local communities. Concerns expressed by one commissioner about thinning projects cutting into the agency’s ability to offer timber sales miss the point.

Winning the federal dollars won’t be easy — only 10 projects will be selected nationwide, and only two of those for Oregon and Washington combined. But Southern Oregon has a strong case for arguing the money should be spent here. This region has the most communities at risk of deadly wildfires in the state.

The forest staff is a step ahead in the process because it already has a 100,000 acres of thinning projects near communities that have completed environmental review and are just waiting for funding.

Not only that, but the Forest Service could team up with the Bureau of Land Management, which manages more land close to residential areas than the Forest Service, and work the BLM does would count toward the matching funds required under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program.

Jackson County commissioners were receptive to the idea after a briefing Tuesday from Forest Service officials, although Commissioner Colleen Roberts expressed concerns about the agency’s ability to manage a multi-year thinning project and still offer commercial timber sales.

We understand Roberts’ position, but we don’t agree with it. Despite the usual rhetoric from the timber industry and its supporters, ramping up commercial harvest by itself will not achieve the desired reduction in wildfire risk. And putting off thinning that could be done now risks losing a great deal of that commercial timber in future conflagrations, not to mention endangering lives and property in firestorms that could ignite near vulnerable communities.

Siskiyou Mountains District Ranger Donna Mickley said her agency will continue to offer timber sales. And if the Rogue River-Siskiyou forest is awarded one of the federal projects, the work could yield 136.9 million board feet of commercially valuable timber, she said.

The only downside to $4 million a year for 10 years is that it’s only a small fraction of what’s needed. The Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response is recommending treating 300,000 acres a year at a cost of $200 million annually.

But the federal program is a start, and it’s available now. County commissioners should give the Forest Service their wholehearted support in making a bid for a share of the funding.