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Targeted forest management can reduce wildfire risk

Many factors contributed to the wildfires and smoke that devastated the Rogue Valley and other communities in Oregon this year. One factor we can influence is the amount of fuels we’ve allowed to accumulate on public lands in recent decades. While logging, thinning and prescribed fire don’t prevent all fires, these tools can help reduce fire intensity and give firefighters better and safer opportunities to attack them.

Actively managing federal lands in Southern Oregon is one part of the solution. But, legally, forest management tools can only be applied to a small portion of our public lands. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, imposed management plans in 2016 that limited sustainable logging and thinning to less than a quarter of its land base.

Complex regulations and forest “zoning” that prohibits forest management, such as those for the northern spotted owl, often tie the hands of our federal land managers. And the continued closure of forest roads in Southern Oregon greatly restricts the ability of firefighters to attack fires before they grow out of control.

The debate over forest management of federal lands is limited to the small amount of lands that are specifically and legally designated for logging and thinning. On these lands, the Bureau of Land Management seeks to honor its legal obligations to provide timber on the former Oregon & California Railroad (O&C) lands, which can help reduce the risk of severe fires while providing wood that supports thousands of jobs in the Rogue Valley. Yet anti-forestry activists often protest and litigate these efforts, which comes at a cost to our safety, environment and economy.

For example, anti-forestry activists for years have worked to stall the Griffin Half Moon Vegetation Management Project on BLM lands southeast of Medford. The project area is situated on the sliver of lands available for timber harvest, and land managers determined this area was overgrown with trees, lacking resiliency and ripe for fires. The BLM’s management plans call for this area to be managed via regeneration harvest to produce complex early successional ecosystems, which would enable the forest to better withstand a forest fire.

The Oregon family-owned and -operated Murphy Company was the high bidder on the timber sale offered from the project because it would provide logs needed for its White City veneer plant, which in turn would supply veneer to Murphy Company’s Rogue River and Eugene plants. The stands needing treatment have a heavy white fir component, which is not normal and needs fuel reduction. It has developed over the past three decades because poor past management practices allowed dense understories of shade-tolerant white fir to develop.

Unfortunately, the Griffin Half Moon project has been tied up since 2018, first by administrative protests by anti-forestry activists and later by litigation. This last month, the Grizzly Creek Fire burned a portion of the project area as activists and judges second-guess the agency’s professional expertise. Fortunately, Murphy Company’s logging equipment that was in the area, in coordination and as directed by the Oregon Department of Forestry, helped halt this fire before the whole project area and this public resource was consumed.

This is a common story throughout Oregon. Anti-forestry activists claim that forest management doesn’t work. Then they obstruct and litigate to stop logging and thinning in the few areas where these tools can be applied. Meanwhile, we continue to experience catastrophic wildfires that often ignite and gain intensity on overgrown federal lands.

The lack of active management doesn’t just hurt our forests. It hurts our workers and undermines local businesses that depend on the forest products industry to stay in business. We can continue arguing over the causes of wildfires, or we can focus on the factors we can control, and use the science-based tools available to help contain fires as they continue to endanger public safety, the local economy, and the forests that make the Rogue Valley such a special place.

As a forester who has lived and enjoyed the forests of Oregon for 53 years and worked in the forests throughout the Pacific Northwest, I have watched these fuel loadings increase and the ability to quickly establish fire lines decrease. I currently work on both public and private forest lands and have worked on hundreds of wildfires, in positions from crew member to single resource boss up to operations chief, and I can assure you that active management of our public lands will reduce the risk of lost lives, lost property and catastrophic destruction of our forests.

Greg Stratton is president of Southern Oregon Timber Management LLC.