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Take action to recover and replant devastated forests

Over a million acres burned in Oregon last year, bringing devastation to our communities and many of our scenic landscapes. On federal lands, it is important that land managers work quickly to remove dead and dying trees especially along roadsides where falling trees can pose hazards to first responders, forest workers and the public. To promote reforestation, it is also important to recover burnt timber so new ones can be replanted and our forests can one day be green again.

Recently special interest groups sent a letter to Oregon’s congressional delegation urging them to put these activities to a halt. They warn our elected officials about “aggressive” post-fire logging. Yet their rhetoric deserves a closer look. The question isn’t whether the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management is removing too many dead and dying trees, it’s whether they’re removing enough.

Aside from hazard tree removal, BLM has announced proposals to harvest burnt timber on less than seven percent of lands burned by the large fires in western Oregon. This means that for every burnt acre harvested and replanted, 13 acres would be left untouched. The Forest Service has proposed timber salvage on about 1.8 percent of the total burned acres on national forest land.

Even if the agencies are successful in fully implementing these proposals, this means there will be hundreds of thousands of acres of standing dead trees that will threaten public safety and be left to serve as fuel for future wildfires. This hardly constitutes an “aggressive” approach to post-fire timber salvage.

This is not intended to be a criticism of BLM and Forest Service personnel. Virtually all post-fire recovery efforts in recent years have been limited to very small portions of burn areas. These public servants do their best to balance competing needs and interests, yet they operate under a broken process that favors paralysis. That’s why these groups are so scornful of a new BLM rule allowing land managers, under certain conditions, to remove some dead and dying trees quickly enough to stay ahead of deterioration from weather and insects.

While wildfire can provide some ecological benefits, the scale of this summer’s fires and the need for reforestation support the removal of dead and dying trees to protect the public and our forest resources.

When recovered quickly, burnt trees can be turned into wood products, supporting local jobs. Harvesting these dead and dying trees not only recoups the lost economic value of the burnt timber, it provides much-needed funding to support reforestation and other post-fire rehabilitation actions. Since a portion of the revenue is shared with counties, it also provides new funding for essential public services such as public health and Sheriffs’ deputies. Simply leaving the trees to rot wastes this opportunity and the chance to replant.

With climate change as a concern, should we leave all of these trees to decay and continue to emit carbon for years? Most people would probably agree that it’s reasonable to recover some trees and lock up that carbon in wood products. This activity supports the replanting of new trees, which allows these forests to sequester and store carbon again.

Further, scientific research suggests post-fire recovery can significantly reduce future fuel levels, reducing future severe fire risks. It can assist in hastening of complex mature conifer forests- those that are most resilient to natural, low-intensity fire, while preventing the conversion of forests to shrublands. It can also increase the rate of hydrologic recovery over the long-term compared to burned lands that were left alone.

If there’s anything better than taking quick action after a wildfire, it is implementing proactive, science-based forest management before the fire even starts. Fire is inevitable, but there are many factors that contribute to its growth and intensity. The one factor we can control in the short-term is fuel. Reducing heavy fuels that have been allowed to accumulate on our federal forests can help influence wildfire intensity, giving firefighters better opportunities to safely access and contain fires before they grow out of control.

Until our elected officials address the obstacles to proactive forest management, we will continue to be caught in a cycle of unending megafires and unproductive debates over post-fire forest management. Until then, we should encourage federal land management agencies to proceed with recovery of dead and dying trees to protect the public and support the re-greening of Oregon’s forests.

Nick Smith advocates for active forest management on federally owned forests as public affairs director for the American Forest Resource Council and as executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities.