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Know the West

A modest forest proposal for President Bush


President Bush just whistled through southern Oregon for a quick look at our catastrophic wildfires and a high-profile policy address at a county fairgrounds. He repeatedly told a cheering crowd that he's for "common sense" forest management to stem "endless litigation."

His boldness inspires me to come right out and say it publicly: I, too, support common sense. This is an old movie for us in the Northwest. Part of what made the late-'80s spotted owl struggle so hard was political leadership that chose platitudes over thinking. With that sorry experience under our belts, what if this time we did it differently?

First, we can stipulate that all of us are for common sense and the rest of the good stuff: healthy forests, good jobs, clean watersheds and wildlife habitat, secure rural communities and reasonable protection from devastating wildfires. Then, let's admit that these values can conflict, and spurn the happy-talk of politicians like President Bush, who pretend they don't. Without accepting hard realities, "common sense" is just an applause line for whistle-stops across the rural West.

Here are six clear principles that I take as realities - and that I believe informed, fair-minded people across the political spectrum can agree are realities. If we start here, we might have a framework to start crafting the best tradeoffs, ones that will serve most Westerners over the longest period of time. And we can help fireproof our forests, too.

1. There are immense accumulations of brush, woody debris and thickets of sun- and nutrient-starved trees that will continue to fuel disastrous wildfires if they're not reduced. There's not much controversy left here. Those still swearing it's more "natural" to leave everything to decay into the forest floor can be counted on the fingers of a few hands.

2. Since fire resistance and forest resiliency are the real goals, leave large, older trees in place. (You won't find forest scientists arguing much about this one.)

3. Some 1990s "forest health" projects on federal lands became cover for the logging of high-value groves that were healthy and fire-resistant * sales that wouldn't have gone forward on their own merits. That's why some forest activists today oppose all commercial timber sales for fuel reduction. Whether their fears are reasonable is beside the point. The bare fact is there won't be a stable solution until forest-health projects are laid out more transparently than in years past, with independent monitoring of any logging. Plenty of tenacious people have vowed they won't be fooled again.

4. Commercially viable logs can be a by-product of some ecologically sound forest health projects. Few forest activists dispute this principle intrinsically. Their resistance comes from remembering the Trojan Horse abuses of the past. This is the flip side of the previous point. But if you make all forest projects transparent, you take care of this.

5. Even smaller-diameter logs can become commercially viable if we develop the technology to use them. Here's an area where a president committed to common sense could make a big difference. It wouldn't take much in the way of grants or investment tax incentives to turbocharge the promising on-site technology that's already creating value from what used to be waste. And foregoing a single $200 million F-22 fighter jet (or any of the other current toys that defense experts judge obsolete) could put 10,000 workers back into the woods to labor-intensively glean more commercial value.

6. Ecologically responsible commercial timber sales will not bring in enough money to fund an adequate fuel-reduction program. We have three choices: We can limit fuel reduction to whatever meager acreage we can fund through ecologically responsible sales; we can finance a big-league fuel-reduction program by selling off healthy, fire-resistant old growth and repeat the pattern that got us here; or we can show that we're serious about healing and durably protecting our national forests by investing general-fund tax dollars money in them. The third option, in my mind, is the obvious answer - but how do we make it work? I actually think we could squeak by with two or three fewer F-22s. Or 20. (Or you could come up with your favorite boondoggle.)

Are these the right starting principles, the ones ripest for broad acceptance? I don't know for sure. What I know is that working through them will better serve forests and ourselves than sermons on who is and who isn't for "common sense."

Jeff Golden, a former county commissioner in Ashland, Oregon, hosts The Jefferson Exchange on public radio.