Cheney Free Press -

By PAUL DELANEY
Staff Reporter 

What'll it be, good stewards or bad slumlords?

Write to the Point

 


Peering across seemingly endless miles of forestland from the rim of Oregon’s Crater Lake can certainly take one’s breath away.

But so can stories and statistics about when that green turns to grey after the invasion of wildfire.

That thought occurred last week while returning to civilization following the better part of four days spent incommunicado on a rafting adventure on the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon.

As soon as the cell service kicked in and the wave of push notifications rolled across my phone, among the items was news of the Klamathon fire in the eastern part of the state. As of July 10, it had burned 36,500 acres and was 45 percent contained.

Just a year ago July 12, however, came the start of what was known as the Chetco Bar fire, not all that far from the tiny wilderness burg of Agnes near Gold Beach at the mouth of the Rogue.

While several hundred miles away from the West Plains, and the Inland Northwest, Chetco seems to be the perfect classroom illustration for what is wrong with forest management, particularly across the western United States.

Travis Joseph is the president of the American Forest Research Council, an Oregon-based private landowner advocacy organization. They lobby hard for better overall stewardship of all forest lands.

In an interview conducted on Portland radio station, KXL, Joseph addressed some of the issues his organization is faced with while trying to protect its members against what he contends are downright bad neighbors in the U.S. Forest Service.

Fires that begin on private land, about 3 percent, “Are immediately put out, “Joseph said.

It’s not hard to do the math and discover a startling 97 percent of the acres are burned on federal land. “On federal land, they are blowing up and eventually turn into these mega-fires,” Joseph said.

Chetco Bar was a perfect, but sad example.

“They could have put it out with one bucket of water,” Joseph said. “But because it’s in a wilderness area, which has legal restrictions, — you can’t even use a chainsaw in a wilderness — so we just had to wait and see what the fire was going to do and it went from a quarter (acre) to 190,000 acres.”

What started as a miniscule whiff of smoke on July 12 slowly grew to three acres, then to 45 before it blew up, needing an army of firefighters to contain. In the end, the Chetco blaze cost about $61 million to fight.

And in the twisted logic that can only exist in government — particularly at the federal level — for fires started on private land and that burn onto federal property, the landowner can be sued for damages.

It’s unclear how much private land burned at Chetco, but the irony is if the fire starts on Forest Service or BLM land and burns onto private land the private landowner has no legal recourse, Joseph explained. “They just have to accept the cost of being a neighbor of a delinquent manager.”

About $1 billion was spent in 2017 in fire suppression in the West alone according to Joseph — that out of a total of $2.4 billion nationally. Suppression of wildfires burns up about half the annual budget of the U.S. Forest Service.

But rarely does anyone ever provide a real price-tag on the value of the timber lost in Chetco, which was loosely estimated at about $750 million.

Nor, for that matter, the other impacts like private property loss and tourism. A 2010 study from the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition estimated the overall losses run a wide gamut from two to 30 times the suppression cost.

Climate change advocates will point in that direction for what are purported to be an ever-increasing frequency of wildfires.

The hard stats don’t bear that out, however.

According to National Interagency Fire Center numbers, just over 10 million acres burned in 2017, up from 5.5 million in 2016 and a 20-year low of 1.3 million in 1998.

It’s the practices of bad neighbors, Joseph contends, that turn minor blazes into “mega-fires.”

Just 10 percent of growth is harvested each year and forests become choked with overgrowth and diseased trees — the ideal recipe for disaster.

AFRC has suggested the USFS go in after a fire and log in a sustainable and responsible way. Money made would support many needs, including the replanting of the burned lands.

Those suggestions continue to meet deaf ears.

It makes one think the caretakers of so much of our beautiful forestlands choose instead to be slumlords of miles and miles of wasteland.

Paul Delaney can be reached at pdelaney@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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