In the near future, numerous opinions and accusations regarding the proliferation of wildfires will be expressed.
Our current situation can be traced back to about 1920. The early settlers economy was based on logging and farming, which radically altered the balance of nature. It was a common practice to remove “slashings” by burning in the fall prior to the rainy season. Many times these fires escaped and burned on to federal lands. The federal land managers complained, especially after a few really disastrous years, and threatened to impose regulations.
This situation gave rise to the Oregon Legislature promulgating rules and regulations and authorizing the Department of Forestry to enforce these restrictions on open burning. Ultimately, this led to the development of the forest protective associations to provide wildland firefighting resources and enforce regulations.
Most local residents are familiar with the Douglas Forest Protective Association. The next major impact to the balance of nature occurred with the Smokey Bear concept that was very effectively employed. Fire in the forest from any source and in any location was bad and needed to be suppressed. Technology allowed us bulldozers, lookouts with telephones, even aircraft with smokejumpers to attack the most remote fire. Agencies embraced the 10 a.m. policy — all fires controlled by 10 o’clock the next day.
These professional firefighters executed this program very effectively. The forest fuel load was building up rapidly. In the early 1970s, land managers identified large-scale negative forest impacts, especially in the inter-mountain region. There were extensive areas of specific tree species that were being adversely impacted by some element of nature. Drought, air quality, pathogens or insects were all suspected of acting alone or in concert. These factors affect forest health many times more than wildfire.
Before proposing a solution, it is wise to accurately define the cause. I attended a meeting to define the problem and propose a solution. The group consisted of forest managers at the regional level from federal agencies, corporate timber executives, environmental interest groups and scientists from all disciplines. A decision was made to work in groups by state to better define local issues and conditions. The Oregon group used a tent analogy: Many poles hold up the tent and while all have a function some are more important than others. We agreed that the long pole, possibly the ridge pole in our tent that represented the entire forest environment, was the need to reintroduce fire to reduce the fuel load and vegetative competition. We considered a 20-year rotation for prescribed under-burning on about half of the available forest acreage; about 500,000 acres a year.
A massive effort of fuels reduction, mechanical and manual, would have to be accomplished prior to any major burning. Some years, prescribed fires would need to burn a million acres from April to October. This system would be a major step to restoring the forest to pre-settlement conditions and restoring the balance of nature.
We presented our concept, which would have the added benefit of reducing the occurrence of stand replacement fires that we are currently experiencing. Three questions need to be answered honestly to accomplish a program of this magnitude. After the problem has been defined, the first question is: Will the proposed solution actually solve the issue? We felt our proposal would have a major positive impact toward restoring a healthy forest. The second question is: Can you afford to implement the program? We acknowledged that it would be a major expense, but considering the benefit, the funds would be well spent. The last question is one of political will.
The first to protest were the actual land managers. No way were they going to sign a burn plan for a prescribed burn covering several thousand acres. Next came the groups that protested that mechanical harvesting was just an underhanded way to increase logging. Recreational representatives from Missoula to Las Vegas protested that the smoke intrusions would be unacceptable. We felt we understood the problem, had a solution that was affordable, but major stakeholders made it impossible to implement.
So, when proposing solutions for our current situation, which is wildfires, not forest health, consider the following. In 1920, the population of Oregon was 800,000 and the economy was based on logging and farming. In 2010, the population was 3.8 million concentrated in the Willamette Valley and based on a service and technology economy. Technological advances have allowed us to significantly alter one pole holding up our tent. We may agree that the pole needs to be replaced, but do we have the political will as a society as to where, when and how tall?
The shape of the tent will change, and some of the shorter poles may fall over in the process.