by Michael Tevlin, OFRI writer and story expert
The pall of smoke yellowed the sky along the Front Range of the Rockies. We could see it from our west-facing windows as our jet approached Denver from the north. It was the last week of June, and my wife and I were flying to Colorado for vacation. We’d heard about the fires, but their reality hit much closer to home as our plane descended.
The High Park fire, as it was known, west of Fort Collins, eventually would destroy 259 homes and consume more than 87,000 acres of forest. At the time, it was already the most destructive forest fire in the state’s history in terms of property damage.
Like a forest burning out of control, that dubious record would stand less than a week. Three days later, at our campground in the beautiful Maroon Bells area near Aspen, our campsite neighbors told us about another fire, this one near their home in Colorado Springs. They were abruptly ending their vacation and heading home, as news of the Waldo Canyon fire had spread and families were being evacuated. We can only hope theirs was not one of the nearly 350 homes destroyed.
Devastating fires understandably generate sympathy and grab headlines. But intense and large wildfires in the forests of the West are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Scientists and policy experts have been warning us about this for years. It’s become a question not of if, but of when and where the next one will occur.
While I was in Aspen, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies sponsored a symposium on Forests at Risk. I was able to attend the symposium’s afternoon session, and I took away two main points. One, the problem is huge. Two, we can fix this thing.
Most stakeholders in the room generally agreed on both the problem and what needs to be done. A major theme was the use of collaboration as a landscape restoration strategy in an era of federal fiscal restraint.
Harris Sherman, under secretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, presented a keynote (on video from Denver, where he was coordinating the federal fire response) on the US Forest Service’s push to accelerate restoration through public-private partnerships. The key, he said, was to “connect the dots” between forests and their beneficiaries, including water providers, electric utilities, insurance companies, corporations, adjacent landowners and recreational users.
His point makes sense: It’s a lot cheaper to restore forests proactively than it is to deal with the aftermath of catastrophic wildfire. And the federal government can’t do it alone.
The Oregon Forest Resources Institute offers terrific resources to understand these critical issues. In particular, check out the OFRI special reports “Federal Forestland in Oregon” and “Fire in Oregon’s Forests.” Both of these, as well as many other publications, fact sheets, videos and DVDs, can be downloaded or ordered at the Learning Resources section of the OFRI website. Most are free.
The stories and photos coming out of Colorado are horrific: Eleven wildfires. Thousands forced to flee. Hundreds of thousands of acres scorched. Millions of dollars of property damaged.
The most destructive of the 11, the worst in Colorado’s history, is the Waldo Canyon Fire that charred 18,000 acres around Colorado Springs, destroying 346 homes and killing two.
Can it happen in Oregon?
This summer marks the 10th anniversary of the Biscuit Fire, which consumed a half-million acres in southwest Oregon. In the summer of 2002, major fires were already burning across Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, and these drew firefighting resources away from the Pacific Northwest. Then on July 12 and July 15 a series of lightning storms in California and Oregon started dozens of small wildfires, five in the Siskiyou National Forest. These merged into a conflagration that took firefighters until after Christmas to fully contain.
Throughout the American West, millions of acres of federal forests are chock-full of excess fuels that under dry, hot and windy conditions need only an ignition source to blow up. The excess fuels are the product of more than a century of fire suppression and unsustainable harvesting and grazing policies.
For those who want more background on how we got here and what can be done, I recommend two educational videos. One is OFRI’s own “Federal Forestland in Oregon: Problems and Solutions in Dry-Side Forests.” The other is produced by a Grant County group and is titled “Saving Our Forests.”
The history of how we got here is interesting, but there’s little point in fixing blame. The more important question is, where do we go from here? OFRI’s research indicates that the majority of people want the forests managed to restore ecosystem health. In our statewide 2010 Values & Beliefs Study, 77 percent agreed somewhat or strongly that dense, overstocked forests in eastern and southwest interior Oregon should be thinned to reduce the risk of severe wildfire. That would be a terrific start.
I worry that the news is desensitizing us to disasters. What’s a wildfire compared to a tsunami, earthquake, tornado, hurricane or 500-year flood? But Oregonians better figure this out, and soon. The only thing more tragic than the destruction in Colorado would be to not learn from the past and take action to create a safer and more sustainable tomorrow.
For the forest,
If you live in Oregon’s western “wet side” you are surrounded by a rock star of a tree, the Douglas-fir. If you live on the drier side of the Cascades, or even in the interior southwestern portion of the state: Fear not! Douglas-fir is there in large numbers too.
In the western portion of the state, thick stands of Douglas-fir dominate the forests around us, but it’s not the only tree in the woods.
Oregon has about 13 different kinds of forests that include leafy urban forests, ponderosa pine, mixed conifers, western larch and oak hardwood forests, to name a few.
But it is the towering Douglas-fir that more often inspires, reaching heights second only to redwoods. In older stands, it presides over lesser trees in perfect harmony. In managed stands that carpet the western Oregon landscape, trees exceeding 100 feet are the norm.
Douglas-fir is the emergent species after disturbance. That is its ecological role. Wildfire can destroy these forests, and wind can also topple whole stands of Douglas-fir that are not sheltered from storms that sometimes pound our coast and infiltrate our valleys. It is the emergent species because it loves the sun and, left to its own, would colonize about 80 percent of the landscape in western Oregon mountains and valleys after fire.
Early settlers recognized the structural properties of Douglas-fir, which has great strength and beautiful, warm grain. Neighborhoods throughout the West are imbued with charm because this wood is so readily adapted to many styles and forms, and because it is available.
The other day, my wife and I ate at a pizzeria housed in an old building. The joists and beams were made from what looked like 12”x16” Douglas-fir timbers that easily support this fine old structure. Later, I looked at the I-joists supporting our modern home. Certainly not the same thing, but still made of Douglas-fir and other composites because they are strong, lightweight and beautiful.
The new library near my home is made largely from wood. It is the kind of place you want to visit and linger. The reading room is magnificent in part because the structural materials are made from composited Douglas-fir.
If you want to learn more about this magnificent native species, visit OFRI’s online tree guide at OregonForests.org.
Director of Communications, Oregon Forest Resources Institute
You don’t need an MBA to understand that a shaky regulatory climate can have a damping effect on business.
The threat of shifting regulations injects an unknown quantity into business planning that gives a business owner reason to pause before investing in new projects, new equipment or new people, all of which spell j-o-b-s.
That’s what’s happening right now with logging roads. Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reclassified logging roads as “point sources” of water pollution. The impact of that ruling could require forest landowners to get industrial discharge permits, typically required of factories and sewage plants, for each drainage pipe or rainwater ditch on thousands of miles of logging roads across Oregon. This is a network of roads and stream crossings that has seen tens of millions of dollars of investment to meet Oregon’s tough water quality standards. A permit system would impose significant new costs and expose landowners to legal costs associated with challenges and lawsuits.
Congress approved legislation last year that temporarily prevented the Ninth Circuit ruling from taking effect. But hold on. That legislation expires Sept. 30.
In the meantime, the Supreme Court is set to rule yet in June whether it will review an appeal of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.
Still confused? The U.S. Solicitor General isn’t. Though the SG agreed that the Ninth Circuit was wrong in its ruling, the SG argues that the Supreme Court should not review the Ninth’s decision because EPA and Congress are best able to resolve the issue.
With exquisite timing, the EPA came out the day after the SG’s announcement to propose that it would manage forest roads under the Clean Water Act using state administered best management practices instead of industrial permits. In Oregon, that means the Oregon Forest Practices Act and associated rules.
While an administrative solution could work, it would not provide legal certainty, which means the whole issue could end up in court – again. Of course, that does nothing for the beleaguered business owner, who’s trying to figure out whether to invest in new equipment and more people or start saving for expensive permitting.
If you’re interested in learning more about the significant steps Oregon landowners are already taking to protect water quality in forest streams, I encourage you to view OFRI’s seven-minute video, “Oregon Forests & Water.” You can read more about it in our special report of the same name. Also, check out our section on laws and planning.
The conclusion I draw from the OFRI report is that the vast majority of forest landowners want to do the right thing and protect forest resources, including water quality. “It just makes sense,” said John Blackwell, chairman of the Oregon Board of Forestry, quoted in the report. “Forest landowners have a huge capital investment, so they have a strong interest in protecting the resource. Beyond that, many either live on or close to the land and take a natural pride in forest ownership and protection.”
Regulatory certainty – provided by either the U.S. Supreme Court or the U.S. Congress – would go a long way toward easing landowner anxiety and encouraging investment of the kind Oregon forest landowners have been making for decades. And that’s the kind of thing we need to get the U.S. economy moving again.
For the forest,