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Let Forest Service sell roadside hazard trees

Last summer the Slater Fire burned over 157,000 acres across three national forests on both sides of the Oregon/California border. In addition to a tragic loss of life and destruction of over 200 homes, the fire left thousands of dead and dying trees along roadsides, posing potentially serious hazards for travelers, firefighters, and first responders.

As we all would expect, the U.S. Forest Service is obligated to mitigate these roadside hazards. They are working to assure safe roads and access for local residents and visitors alike. Unfortunately, an environmental group in California has sued to stop public lands managers from completing this important work.

Just in time for summer, the lawsuit will only bring further delay to the reopening of roads closed by the Slater Fire, threatening access for tourists, residents and businesses serving local communities. This includes Page Mountain Road that serves as the primary travel route between Happy Camp and Cave Junction. Failure to remove these dead and dying trees could result in permanent closures on some roads and reduced access to public lands in the future.

Under the post-fire recovery plan, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest completed an analysis of their road network impacted by the Slater Fire and seeks to sell these dead and dying trees to the local timber industry. In fact, due to the high public demand for wood products, local manufacturers would likely pay millions of dollars in order to turn them into lumber and other wood products for housing and other needs we, the public, demand on a daily basis.

To date, the Forest Service has generated $8.8 million from the recovery of roadside hazard trees in Western Oregon. The agency uses these funds to support post-fire rehabilitation work, including replanting of new trees in burn areas. As the weather warms and the dead and dying trees begin to deteriorate, they can no longer be turned into wood products and opportunity to utilize this material becomes infeasible. We are one of the few, if any, countries in the world that can afford to waste our natural resources. One can argue about post fire logging but at the same time we need to recognize the amount of standing dead trees and inevitable brush fields that can come back after a fire which becomes more fuel for the next fire. One need only drive up to the Ramsey Canyon canyon area north of Sams Valley to view reforestation after a fire and lack thereof on adjacent federal lands.

Without the ability to sell the dead and dying trees, thanks to this lawsuit, the Forest Service will be forced to pay private contractors to do the work, and the bill will cost millions of public dollars. Rather than being turned into lumber and generating much-needed funding for public lands, the dead and dying trees will be cut up, left along roadsides to decay and rot contributing atmospheric carbon in that process, and taxpayers will be left to pay the bill. Or, the Forest Service will simply have to permanently close these roads to public use.

This is just the latest example of the paralysis gripping the management of federal lands. Lawsuits are filed to stop forest projects that proactively reduce the risks of wildfires, and then billions of taxpayer dollars are spent suppressing severe fires when they threaten our communities. The cycle continues with every devastating wildfire season.

Then after the fire, more lawsuits are filed to keep public lands managers from removing dead and dying trees and reforesting the landscape. Much has been said about how these dead trees become habitat and food sources for birds from the bugs that invade these dead and dying trees. However, you have to ask the question: how many of these dead trees per acre are needed when our forests are currently well overstocked beyond their capacity, live or dead?

The public should support the removal of roadside hazard trees and sale of the burned timber. It is also time to push back against the special interest groups that are preventing agencies from doing their jobs and blocking the responsible management of our public lands.

Blair Moody of Medford is a fellow and a presidential field forester with the Society of American Foresters.