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'Protection' for forests gives a false sense of security

From time to time articles and opinion pieces appear in the Mail Tribune that utilize the term "protection" in conjunction with proposed forestland policy issues. Common examples include: "protected from logging", "protected for wildlife and fish" and my personal favorite, "protected for future generations". Admittedly, using the word "protection" is this context commonly generates strong emotions. This is especially true when related to forest management.

When used in opinions specifically related to our national forests, the word "protection" is given to convey an image of long-term forest safety. The message typically conveyed is: If we restrict any forms of forest management from occurring in the forest environment, magically all the natural elements and all the ecological processes that occur within will be safe from harm and will continue to thrive indefinitely. Unfortunately this type of narrow thinking ignores a multitude of conditions that currently exist in our national forests.

Understanding the ultimate consequences of any no-action management decision is crucial. We must understand that the decision to do nothing, or take no action, is an actual and conscious management decision.

It is well-known that the forests in our region were essentially "managed" by natural phenomena prior to human influences, with the most significant event being forest fire. Late-summer, lightning-caused forest fires are historically common throughout our region.

The effects of seasonal fires on local forests varied considerably. Some areas burned very hot, resulting in most trees being consumed by the flames, while other areas burned at lower intensity, resulting in small tree and underbrush mortality.

The high frequency of recurrent fires (every five to 40 years) produced forests that were more "fire resistant" as a whole when compared to these same forests today. Generally, forests that survived frequent fires contained mostly large and widely spaced trees.

Contrast that with the current state of forests in Southern Oregon. It is not uncommon to have forests in our area now growing upwards of 800 trees per acre when a figure of 75- 00 per acre would be considered healthy.

About 100 years ago our society made a conscious decision to suppress and extinguish essentially all forest fires. Regardless of what feelings we may have toward this practice today, we now have forests that contain an extremely different species composition, size, and structure than what occurred before the management practice of excluding fire from the landscape.

Unfortunately, local environmental groups in our area spread the fiction that promoting hands-off management and locking up lands through designations of monuments and wilderness areas is the best way to sustain our forests for the future. Claims of reducing the impacts of climate change and providing habitat and refuge for wildlife are common arguments for a "no management" position.

Recent findings published in Forest Ecology and Management indicate that fire suppression and lack of active forest management has resulted in vastly overstocked forests. The study states that "the biggest threat facing spotted owls and other species is probably stand-replacement wildfire". Additionally, and maybe more importantly, the study states that "fire doesn't respect boundaries we create for wildlife protection." These findings need to be understood by those who oppose active land management.

There are many other issues related to this topic — for example, the amount of carbon released from wildfires vs. what could be stored in managed forest stands or wood products that were created from active management of our forests. However, the bottom line remains the same. As noted in the study referenced above, if we continue down the road we're on, "forest conditions will continue to get even more crowded, fire levels will increase, and the problem will only get worse." The study addresses wildlife habitat with a warning that if we take "a risk-averse strategy, (essentially not managed) in fire-prone landscapes, it is not the best long-term alternative to conserve protected species."

It is clear that there is no such thing as a "protected forest," no matter what land designation a particular piece of ground is given. However, we can create "fire resistant" forests. This will benefit wildlife, habitat, climate and, of course, humans for the long term. Drawing exclusionary lines on maps and setting areas off limits will clearly lead to predicable catastrophic events. Understanding forests' history, our human influence and the changes that have come as a result will hopefully keep us from loving our local forests to death. Let's manage instead.

Jeremy Wuerfel is the president of Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association and is a California professional forester.