Forest management has been one of the most contentious issues in Oregon since the 1990s. The timber industry that helped build this state was maligned under the guise of protecting the endangered spotted owl. That industry became more and more restricted over time, with environmental groups claiming a series of victories along the way.
However, the reality of what has taken place in the decades since paints a completely different picture than what those groups were trying to portray. First, perhaps most obviously, was the economic devastation of our rural communities. The promises of “ecotourism” replacing the family wage mill jobs never panned out. Tax bases for the government agencies serving those areas never recovered or made up for the lost revenue.
Many of Oregon’s rural counties were funded for decades with timber revenue. They struggled to make up for it because much of their landscape is federal forest lands that are exempt from taxation. The band-aid solution that was offered was to give those counties federal payments to make up for the loss. Although that kept those counties afloat, it did nothing to stimulate the private sector or diversify their shattered economies.
So how about the spotted owl? Did their numbers magically recover, as was promised? Is that species now more vibrant and thriving than it was back then?
Sadly, no. It turned out that the spotted owl’s declining numbers were largely due to the barred owl and had less to do with logging and forest activities.
But in many respects, the damage had already been done by the time any of this became obvious. The well-being of that endangered species was used as an excuse to kick human beings out of the forests. Management practices that had sustained our forests for generations were abandoned in favor of a hands-off approach. How well has that worked? Well, I believe the results speak for themselves, and are utterly disastrous.
We now have a status quo in which thousands of acres are allowed to burn needlessly for largely political reasons. The smoke from those fires drifts into surrounding communities and causes hazardous air conditions, especially for our most elderly residents.
Catastrophic wildfires are ultimately bad for the environment and endanger animal habitats. They put lives at risk, and the costs of fighting them are growing exponentially over time.
Many of Oregon’s worst wildfires have taken place in the more rural, remote parts of the state. However, what we’ve seen in recent years is fires closer to its heavily populated metropolitan areas. The same kind of wildfire smoke that has adversely affected air quality in Southern Oregon for years made it to our backyard last summer. Fires got close enough that we had residents evacuated in Clackamas County and were at risk of losing some of our communities.
Enough is enough. It’s obvious that what we’ve been doing for the past few decades isn’t working, and it’s past time to start doing something else. Hopefully, we can learn some lessons from our recent history and start taking a different approach before it’s too late.