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Address the real threat to Oregon rivers and federal lands

As Oregonians we value our public lands and the many benefits they provide. We rightfully expect public lands to be carefully managed by agency professionals using the best available science and management practices.

Unfortunately, we are losing public lands to catastrophic wildfires. Nearly half a million acres of federally managed forest land burned in western Oregon in 2020. Approximately 280,000 acres burned at moderate and high severity, meaning at least 60 percent of a stand’s live trees were killed in a fire.

Public lands managers understand the best way to protect forests is to use management tools to reduce fuels and improve the health and resiliency of trees in the face of a warming, drying climate. Yet often their hands are tied by political decisions in faraway Washington, D.C. Well-meaning policies intended to protect public lands can prevent these professionals from doing their jobs.

One example is S 192, the proposed “River Democracy Act,” a bill by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley that would add nearly 4,700 miles of Oregon rivers to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

On its face, most Oregonians would probably support the idea. It conjures images of iconic Oregon rivers such as the McKenzie, the Deschutes and the Rogue.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 was enacted to preserve certain rivers with “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition.” Over the past 53 years, 1,916 miles of iconic Oregon rivers have been carefully studied and subsequently designated as Wild and Scenic.

Yet only 15 percent of the 4,700 miles proposed by S. 192 for Wild and Scenic Rivers designation are actually rivers. Most are small streams, gulches, draws and unnamed tributaries on federal lands, many of which do not carry water year-round and are dangerously overstocked with fuels. S. 192 would add half-mile buffers to these areas, further tying the hands of land managers and making forest management, fuels reduction, firefighting and public access more difficult.

When the half-mile buffers are applied to the landscape, the bill will add management restrictions across about three million acres of predominantly federal lands. Most of these acres are at high risk of catastrophic fire. No detailed maps by federal land management agencies have been released to allow Oregonians to determine how it would impact their communities.

As we witnessed during the 2020 wildfires, catastrophic wildfires and resulting erosion and sedimentation pose significant risks to watersheds and rivers. Streams, gulches and tributaries can’t support Oregon’s major waterways when these riparian areas burn at such high intensity. The best way to protect Oregon’s iconic rivers is to thin nearby overstocked stands through the use of management tools that are grounded in science.

The bill’s sponsors and proponents claim it will help protect these areas from wildfires. Yet beyond conducting fire risk assessments nothing in the bill directs agencies to actually mitigate those risks, and in fact it limits the tools that land managers can use. This includes prohibiting mechanical treatments, even in places where prescribed fire isn’t safe or practicable.

Protecting Oregon rivers is a worthy goal, but the “River Democracy Act” is the wrong solution at the worst time. We can better protect public lands by giving land managers the policies and resources to do their jobs, so they can use the best available science and management practices to care for the land.

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.