After Oregon’s Devastating Fires, Protect Public Lands | Editorial | Bend | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

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After Oregon’s Devastating Fires, Protect Public Lands

There’s a massive effort underway to not only rebuild homes and sometimes entire towns, but also to clean up the mess the fires made

Between the rampant smoke and the screaming headlines, it was hard to miss the fact that this past September, Oregon’s forests burned like they’ve never burned before. Estimates are that this past fire season burned twice as many acres as we’d normally see in 10 fire seasons. The impacts have been devastating to the thousands of people who lost their homes—and also, on the local economies that depend on forests for their livelihoods. Now there’s a massive effort underway to not only rebuild homes and sometimes entire towns, but also to clean up the mess the fires made.

On private timber lands, logging companies are already moving to log the many burned and downed trees there, in hopes of recouping some of the losses the fires wrought. It’s estimated that fire-burned trees begin to degrade and will be “worthless,” for timber purposes, within two years. But that assertion depends on how you look at overall worth. Private landowners have more flexibility to decide how and when to harvest their lands following a devastating event such as this; but on our public lands, we need to be thoughtful, and consider not just the economy, but also the environment.

  • Kyle Baker

Of the roughly 1.3 million acres burned in this year’s fires, about 750,000 of them are public lands—which means that we, as stakeholders, have a right to weigh in on what to do next.

During a normal year, environmental regulations dictate how many acres of public forest can be clear-cut at one time, about 120 acres per project. After fires, however, loopholes exist.

“On National Forests, exemptions from the normal assessment and public process allow for up to 250 acres of post-fire logging per project—meaning damaging logging can occur with very little review and scrutiny by public or agency specialists,” Oregon Wild stated in recent correspondence to supporters.

“But far worse, on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, a new rule pushed through by the Trump administration this month expanded the use of a Categorical Exclusion (CX) from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that allows the agency to log up to 3,000 acres of public forests (and build roads to access the timber) without doing a thorough environmental analysis that can inform the decision-maker and the public.” Logging of this extent can threaten water, spread invasive species, destroy wildlife habitat and suppress the natural regeneration of the forest, Oregon Wild detailed.

While the economic impacts of these fires have been devastating, we should look to the long game. These protocols were put in place to allow the various stakeholders on a project—most importantly taxpayers, who own the lands—to weigh in on a project before it moves forward. This last effort of an outgoing administration to supersede public process and to mete short-term benefit from the forest whose benefits exceed what we will see in our own lifetimes is the wrong direction.

It may well be that the federal agencies involved move forward in the same way that the private landowners do, and will log vast swaths of burned forest in the wake of these fires. But at the very least, we have a right to have our say. As Oregon Wild put it, “To expand the use of categorical exclusions on public lands post-fire is a violation of the public trust and the spirit with which these lands are managed by the agency.”

The BLM is currently taking comment on a proposal that would see thousands of acres of forest burned in the Archie Creek Fire near Roseburg logged. People can weigh in through the Federal Register (or through the Oregon Wild site) through Jan. 8—and we encourage readers to do so. Moving forward, we expect more proposals of this type to crop up regarding the other federal lands that burned this year. In the long game of environmental protection, it is important for Oregonians to continue to share their thoughts with federal agencies about how those burned lands should be managed.

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