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BLM forests: more common ground than you might think

County commissioners Colleen Roberts (Jackson County) and Kelley Minty Morris (Klamath County) recently wrote an opinion piece in which they explained the concerns of the O&C Counties regarding the ongoing BLM plan revisions for how public forests in western Oregon will be managed.

You might expect the forest conservation advocates at KS Wild to respond to Roberts and Morris by emphasizing our differences and attacking their beliefs about public land management. After all, attacking one’s opponents and ignoring their concerns and values seems to be the new normal for how to address political differences these days.

It is no accident that the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by anti-government extremists attracted months of high-profile media coverage and grandiose speeches by our local congressional representative Greg Walden, while the years of collaborative partnerships and planning in the Malheur that involved ranchers, birders and the BLM went unreported and unnoticed. Conflict sells. Conflict is good politics. But conflict for conflict’s sake doesn’t solve problems.

Perhaps a new kind of politics is needed to address the long-standing disputes about BLM forests in Southern Oregon. Maybe it is time to acknowledge that conservationists have more areas of agreement with commissioners Roberts and Morris than we do areas of disagreement. We agree with the commissioners that Oregonians love our public lands. We share their concern for clean air, clean water and safe communities. We also want the BLM to be more reliable, collaborative and transparent. We appreciate the commissioners' acknowledging the importance of recreation, carbon storage and wildlife habitat in addition to timber production on public lands that belong to all of us. Most of all, we strongly agree with their position that the BLM should not return “to the days of unsustainable practices like clearcutting.”

We should also note that conservationists want to find long-term solutions to the financial challenges that have rocked O&C counties. Rural counties and rural communities should benefit from the neighboring BLM forests that are literally in our backyards.

It is extremely significant and noteworthy that both the counties and conservation organizations oppose clearcutting of BLM public forests. This is a breakthrough that has profound implications. Clearcutting increases fire hazard to adjacent landowners, degrades watersheds, eliminates wildlife habitat, undermines the recreation economy and short-changes local mills and forest workers who have invested in the infrastructure that supports forest restoration. We can do better.

One way in which the BLM has done better is by implementing the Dry Forest Restoration timber sale projects that were developed by respected foresters Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin. Local Dry Forest Restoration projects produced significant timber volume by thinning small-diameter second-growth and true-fir species that had grown-in due to the effects of fire suppression. These timber sales sought to retain older forests and trees, provide buffers for streams, avoid new logging road construction and leave forest stands in a healthier condition. All of the recent Dry Forest Restoration projects sold for significantly more than their appraised value and the small-diameter logs were milled right here in the Rogue Valley.

While there are a lot of areas of common agreement concerning public forest management, it must be acknowledged that not everyone loves small-diameter restoration thinning on public lands. In particular, a well-connected Portland-based timber industry lobbying group called American Forest Resources Center (AFRC) opposed several of the Medford BLM Dry Forest Restoration timber sales specifically because they did not clearcut public lands. AFRC believes it is in their interest to maximize profits to some timber companies that prefer public lands clearcutting and has used considerable political and legal pressure to advance that position.

As currently written, the BLM forest plan revisions reflect the timber industry preference for an increase in clearcutting and logging of streamside forests. The proposed plan revisions take a significant step away from the Dry Forest Restoration collaborative framework and are unlikely to provide the predictability that the counties seek.

Perhaps there is an opportunity here. When commissioners Roberts and Morris write that we “deserve a plan promoting all the things Oregonians love and expect” from their public forests, they are on the right track. Would it be possible to come together to support sustainable thinning of the hundreds of thousands of acres of previously logged BLM forest stands while protecting old-growth and streamside forests? Could we work together to encourage small-diameter thinning that feeds local mills while retaining watershed, wildlife and recreational values? We think it is worth a try, and KS Wild would like to join with the counties to promote a future for BLM forests that rejects clearcutting and embraces a sustainable vision for our forests and communities.

George Sexton is conservation director for the Klamath Siskiyou Wildands Center.