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Oregon federal forest bills won't reduce fire risk or restore forests

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felicep | Jul 09, 2008 10:10 AM

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio are each planning to introduce legislation for Oregon’s federal forests. DeFazio has distributed drafts of his bill and has been receiving comments back from environmental and timber interests; Wyden has been less forthcoming.

Both members of Congress have indicated that their bills will protect Old Growth Forests while accelerating “thinning” of younger trees. The Oregonian and other Oregon newspapers have published articles about both the Wyden and DeFazio plans for Oregon’s public forests.

Claims are being made that “thinning” Oregon’s younger forest will reduce wildfire risks and restore “forest health”. The timber industry and Forest Service call these forests “overstocked”. National and regional environmental groups – including Oregon Wild – have signaled that they can live with “thinning” as proposed by Wyden and DeFazio if Old Growth is protected. But, while the claimed benefit of “thinning” have been endorsed by major environmental organizations, both forest research and experience on the ground indicates that “thinning” - as proposed by Wyden and DeFazio - will not reduce the risk from wildfire or “restore” federal forests. That’s because the bills would rely on the traditional timber sale contract to “thin” federal forest.

The US Forest Service timber sale contract is a great tool if the task is getting logs to the mills. But it is a very poor tool if the task is to restore our forests - reducing the risk to people, communities and wildlife from catastrophic wildfire. Here’s why:

In order for a federal timber sale to attract buyers, the timber companies must be able to make money on the sale. But most federal forests are remote and steep. This means high logging and log hauling costs. As a result, in order to create a timber sale that will actually attract buyers, Forest Service planners must either log the larger trees or they must reduce the forest canopy radically by having loggers removing most of the trees.

But when you remove that much canopy shade small trees and brush sprout and grow prolifically. Within 5 years or so the risk of catastrophic wildfire has dramatically increased. Also, immediately after logging the open canopy increases sunlight and wind on the forest floor. Forest fuels dry sooner and this also increases fire risk.

Furthermore, economic considerations often cause Forest Service planners to forgo requiring the timber company purchasing the timber sale to remove or burn slash - that is, the limbs and small trees left on the forest floor after logging.

The increased wildfire risk which result from excessive "thinning" will persist for 30 or more years until slash decomposes and trees grow enough to form a closed canopy which once again shades out highly flammable brush.

The Wyden and DeFazio forest bills would deliver federal logs to the mills and end Old Growth logging on federal forests in Oregon. But they would increase rather than decrease wildfire threat to people and communities near federal forests.

Forest "thinning" can be an effective tool for fire risk reduction but not if the timber sale is the implementation method. If Wyden and DeFazio (or anyone else in Congress) really wants to reduce the risk to people and communities from wildfires, they will appropriate the funds necessary to hire forest workers directly, have them do what is needed on the ground, and then sell any resulting commercial logs separately.

These would be great jobs for young people!

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