Editorial: National attention’s finally on what we’ve been trying to say

We’re not sure if we should feel revolted or encouraged by the chatter we’re hearing out there about how our government needs to manage our forests better.

The environmental crowd has had its way in forest management for nearly 30 years now. They abhor logging and demean the logging industry, but they offer little in the way of alternatives to keep trees from growing bigger and bigger, and thicker and thicker, and becoming what one professional forest ecologist, quoted in a recent AP news report widely published throughout the state, called a “powder keg.”

As we slog our way through one of the worst fire seasons in the nation’s history, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week issued a directive to department managers and superintendents to aggressively prevent wildfires.

Welcome to politics. Nobody cared when the smoke wasn’t wafting their way. But now that their Air Quality Index has dropped, when they realize that the state’s firefighting resources (read: revenue) are at a dangerous ebb, when they see the video footage of the carnage, they suddenly want to talk about it.

If we sound bitter, we are. People in forest communities, including this one, have lived for years with the acute awareness that the growing density of forests that have, basically, been left alone for decades, was becoming a major problem for the Northwest.

Efforts by area legislators to increase the harvest in national forests, where all those fires are burning now, have been repeatedly stymied by environmental groups or apathy on the part of their colleagues, who frankly don’t really care if the problem’s not in their own back yard.

That’s not hard to understand. When walking down the street in Times Square or the Capitol Mall, the Northwest is a world away. And our legislators have not been willing or able to do what’s necessary to keep it in the conversation.

But it is now. The devastation is incredible – and sickening. We have giant expanses of charred landscapes to add to the list that already includes the B&B, Sour Biscuit and Biscuit fires right here in Oregon.

And that doesn’t even include the devastation caused by U.S. and state forest management policies that have led to the ruin of local economies, hundreds of thousands of acres of wasted resources, frustrated rank-and-file state and federal forestry employees,  and some enriched attorneys and environmental activists.

There’s also, of course, the impact on wildlife. The eventual good news for them is these fires will open up some grazing areas that have been diminishing rapidly as trees took over. Very few big game animals live in our local forests, as knowledgeable local outdoors enthusiasts can attest.

It’s stupid, it’s discriminatory – urban special interests ramrodding their agendas through the courts to the detriment of impoverished rural residents who can’t fight back, and it’s got to change.

Yes, we’re venting a little here. But timing is everything in politics and these are truths that should have been hammered into the consciousness of the greater majority a long time ago.

Some have suggested that Houston, Texas is seeing and dealing with the effects of planning  policies (or lack thereof) that has allowed the paving of vast areas of landscape that formerly could better accommodate heavy rainfall, which now has nowhere to go except into people’s houses and businesses. While some argue that Houston has historically been a flood zone that has seen deep water before and its impermeable area percentage is actually less than, say, Los Angeles or New York City, intelligent policies are critical in addressing these problems as sprawl occurs. Isn’t that the very purpose of planning – anticipating problems and finding ways to address them?

Similarly forest policy has led us to where we are now.

One truism in politics is that rarely is someone completely wrong. Environmental interests do provide a balance to greed, which can lead to its own set of abuses. It might put a little higher price tag on our lumber to have cleaner rivers and streams that are more conducive to the survival of fish and other wildlife, but it’s worth it. The deforestation of such areas as the Amazon and Papua New Guinea illustrate what can happen when there are no restraints.

The point, though, is that the restraints that have put us where we are now in the Northwest, with a lot more of this likely to come, have been generated by courts and legislatures based more on political currents than scientific realities.

Management of natural resources is never going to be perfect, particularly in a democratic society where everybody has a say. Wisdom often gets lost in the shuffle of competing interests – or public irresponsibility. When there’s no economic motive to do the right thing, we’re reliant on ethics.

The standard environmental response to any suggestion that more trees need to be cut in our forests is to blame it on the logging industry’s rapacity.

In response to Zinke’s directive, Oregon Wild tweeted: “Sadly, policy will be all about more logging, not better fire management.”

Tell that to all the forest critters that have perished in rapidly spreading wildfires across the West this summer, not to mention solid human citizens who’ve lost everything but their lives. Environmental groups have sued repeatedly in recent years to stop the cutting of trees or prescribed burning to reduce wildfire risk.

People who work in our local forests – both loggers and foresters – are very knowledgeable and motivated to ensure forest health. They are out there in the trees every day and they have strong – economic, in the case of many logging companies – motives to ensure that the forests stay healthy, which includes wildlife populations and, to some extent, species that aren’t necessarily marketable.

This expertise is overlooked far too often in the battles over forest policy, which far too often occur in the courts. In a perfect world, the junk science perpetuated by interests with a singular goal would be evaluated systematically and reduced to the value it should have in decisions about management of our forests.

For various reasons, that hasn’t been the case and we’re seeing the results.

Management of public lands, as we said above, will always be imperfect (because people are imperfect) and there will always be naysayers. But that smoke we’ve breathed and those bright red suns we’ve seen set are an indication to us that the current methods are dangerously deficient.

We’re thankful that the powers that be have suddenly taken notice of that.