Southwest Oregon communities today are facing an annual cycle of more frequent and severe wildfires, more losses of lives and property and more toxic smoke that fills our valleys and stretches our public health resources. As a county commissioner, I’m concerned about the trauma our citizens are experiencing, the impacts to our economy and the devastation of our natural resources.
Our forests are burning, and a large majority of the acres burning are on federal lands that aren’t being managed to reduce fire risks. Nor are they being managed to support our rural economies or generating revenue to support public services.
A good example of federal mismanagement can be found on the Bureau of Land Management O&C forest lands. By law, timber on these lands are required to be harvested under the principles of sustained yield forestry, meaning timber is cut at a rate that is in balance with, and does not exceed, the growth rate of the forest. Yet little timber is being harvested, and resulting overgrowth and fuel loading can be illustrated with some basic math.
The O&C lands are capable of naturally growing the equivalent of 1.2 billion board feet per year. For reference, a billion board feet is about 33,000 acres of BLM forest or 52 square miles, and would provide enough framing lumber to build 62,000 homes. In 1937 it was estimated that 50 billion board feet of timber was standing on these lands. Over the past 80 years, 50 billion board feet has been harvested, and today there is 73 billion of standing inventory. Currently, only 200 million board feet per year is harvested.
Given the natural sustained yield of O&C lands and the low rate of timber harvests, BLM lands are growing a lot of wood. On the dry forests of Southwest Oregon in particular, it is growing more wood than these landscapes can sustain.
These excess fuels are going to be removed one way or another. They can be sustainably harvested under the principles of sustained yield management, improving the health of the forests, supporting family-wage jobs in rural Oregon and providing revenues for essential public services. Or they can be left to burn in catastrophic wildfires, degrading water quality, destroying old-growth and wildfire habitat, and emitting tons of carbon into the atmosphere long after the fires are contained.
I believe these forests should be managed. Unfortunately, the federal government and its agencies have taken the opposite approach. In 2016, the Bureau of Land Management adopted new resource management plans that restricted timber harvests to less than a third of the entire land base. Rather than partnering with counties to harvest timber and economically reduce fuel loads, the BLM has chosen to allow these unmanaged forests to burn and force citizens to pay for ever-growing wildfire suppression costs.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Through sustained yield management, the O&C Lands can contribute to the economy of local communities and county governments and simultaneously provide a wide range of forest values such as recreation, wildlife habitats, clean water, wood products and carbon storage. If our congressional delegation isn’t going to find a long-term resolution to the management of these lands, a solution will be found in federal courts.
This year’s fire season is yet another reminder that action must be taken to meaningfully reduce the risk of future fires and restore forest resiliency on O&C lands through active management. Otherwise, we will continue to experience larger wildfires that threaten more lives, homes and forests.