The BLM plays with fire in Oregon

 
Everyone here in Oregon loves our forests. These lands -- most in public ownership -- are the cornerstone for both the economic and ecological health of the state, and are central to our identity. Indeed, more and more of us are making our homes in the woods every year, in the so-called “wildlands-urban interface.” And so, whether we are loggers, conservationists or vacation-home owners, we all share a common fear: fire. Uncontrolled, stand-replacing wildfire can destroy in a day all the forest values that took centuries to develop. Therefore, it’s hard to believe that the Bureau of Land Management would propose to drastically increase the risk of wildfire on their forestlands in Oregon. Yet that is exactly what the agency is doing.

This burning secret is hidden deep within the BLM’s recently-released Draft Environmental Impact statement for its Western Oregon Plan Revisions, or WOPR, pronounced “whopper” by just about everyone. Arising from an out-of-court settlement between the Bush administration and a timber industry group, the plan discards the present management framework governing 2.5 million acres of low-elevation forests throughout western Oregon and the Klamath Basin.

Current management includes an extensive network of reserves that were established to assure the survival of the threatened Northern Spotted Owl, and that are off-limits to commercial logging. The draft plan would eliminate those reserves, drastically reduce no-cut buffers along streams, and instead designate commercial logging as the “predominant” use.

BLM is promoting this change as a way to dramatically increase timber revenues. That prospect is very tempting to Oregon counties, which have financed public services for decades on their portion of federal-land timber receipts. Unfortunately, few county officials have apparently had the patience to read all the way to page 769 in the Draft Environmental Impact statement, to the section called “Fire severity, hazard, and resiliency in the south.” There, the agency shows just how much the plan would cost Oregon in terms of fire.

BLM analyzes three “action alternatives” in comparison with continuation of present management, the “no action alternative.” The data are clear: a continuation of present management would provide Oregon with the best fire future. What about the preferred second alternative? This is the very worst in terms of fire. For example, in southern Oregon’s Medford District, where I live, it would result in approximately 200,000 more acres in the “high-fire severity” category than would continuation of present management.

But the bad news doesn’t end there. What about “fire resiliency,” the ability of a forest to survive a wildfire? Here again, BLM’s preferred alternative offers Oregon the worst fire future. Alternative 2 would accomplish almost all its logging by clearcutting, creating even-aged plantations without any standing large trees. The draft plan acknowledges that these forests are the worst in every fire category: high fire severity, high fire hazard, and low fire resiliency. In my BLM district, the second alternative would reduce the acreage of fire-resilient forests by two-thirds compared to current management. That’s well over half a million more acres without the ability to survive wildfire.

BLM’s western Oregon forests are in a checkerboard ownership pattern, intermingled with private property. BLM’s preferred alternative would be a catastrophe for this wildland-urban interface, exposing the residents of Oregon to drastically increased fire risk over the coming decades.

Finally, there is the very real possibility that BLM’s plan may backfire, even in its stated goal of increasing timber revenues. Given the increased fire hazard and severity that would result from adoption of BLM’s preferred alternative, Oregon forests may burn up before they can be logged. BLM’s timber revenue projections fail to take this possibility into account. The draft plan also fails to analyze the impact of global warming over the hundred-year projections in the plan. This is indefensible, given the many studies predicting increasing fire severity throughout the West due to global warming.

The Bureau of Land Management knows very well that clearcut logging and reduction of stream buffers increase fire danger. They can’t deny these truths, but they can bury them in the middle of their 1,300-page “whopper.” It is up to us -- the owners of our public lands -- to insist that federal land managers reject management options that increase fire danger over the long term. This plan fails that fire test. If it is adopted, we will all get burned.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a biologist and writer who lives in Ashland, Oregon.