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Let’s Salvage and Manage What Remains

Summer is now officially underway. We can all recall last summer, when catastrophic wildfires touched and torched nearly every corner of Oregon. Devastation was literally everywhere, and much of it remains to this very day.

The small town of Gates, in the Santiam Canyon, is gone and has started the long rebuilding process. In Southern Oregon, a fire left a substantial scar throughout downtown Phoenix and Talent, burning and destroying businesses and homes alike.

Locally, we choked on smoke and faced evacuations as many Clackamas County residents were threatened by fires that came far too close for comfort. That was followed, months later, by ice storms that fell countless trees in and beyond our county.

A relatively dry winter, with limited snowpack and not nearly enough accumulated rainfall, are all contributing to the expectation that this fire season could be just as bad and even worse.

There have been some encouraging signs along the way, though.

In years past, the push to salvage burned areas, pull dead timber out and replant new, young, healthy trees has been met with a brick wall of resistance by environmental organizations. They’ve fought ferociously to halt any salvage attempts by filing lawsuits.

Even in the instances when the courts threw those suits out, correctly recognizing them as frivolous, they dragged the process out for long enough that the timber became no longer economically viable.

Now, we seem to know better. Efforts were made to aggressively salvage many of the areas that burned last year. Predictably, the same kind of lawsuits were filed by environmentalists. But they were largely shut down in court and the salvage activity has continued.

Many of us have been saying for years that managing forests in the first place is the best way to prevent these fires from happening. That way of thinking seems to be catching on, as more Oregonians become adversely impacted from the fires and the toxic air conditions that they create.

Obviously, there’s a lot more work that needs to be done, on the forest floor, as well as at our state capitol in Salem and our nation’s capitol Washington D.C. It took decades to get these poor policies in place, and it will take time to replace them with better ones.

But the momentum for change is growing and seems to have reached a critical mass. I just pray that we won’t see more devastation before that happens. I’m not sure how many more fires and close calls this state can afford to have.

As always, I welcome all comments.  Please feel free to contact me by clicking here.

We Must Not Be Unprepared

Unfortunately, residents throughout the rural parts of Oregon have become used to the ghastly sights and smells resulting from catastrophic wildfires ravaging the landscape. And while these disasters have become commonplace in areas like the southern part of the state, we experienced that same horror and terror last summer right here in Clackamas County.

Our county may be considered part of the Portland metropolitan area, but in all actuality, most of it is rural and includes vast swaths of federal forestlands. Given those circumstances, it’s quite surprising, and extremely lucky, that something like that hadn’t happened much sooner.

Despite all the devastation and property damage we experienced, Clackamas County had zero deaths resulting from last summer’s wildfires. I credit the hard work and dedication of our firefighters and other professionals for their efforts to protect the lives of our vulnerable citizens in difficult circumstances.

Often times, some people characterize these kinds of fires as inevitable and say it’s the result of “climate change.” But many Oregonians started warning us decades ago that the growing trend of leaving our government-owned forests unmanaged would have consequences that include leaving us more vulnerable to massive blazes. They were right.

What that means is, the kinds of fires that scorched earth and caused evacuations in our own backyards mere months ago are avoidable. That’s true, but only if we take the right approaches.

There are things we can do to prepare for these worst-case scenarios. For example, our communities, especially those that are close to heavily forested areas, should have evacuation routes already established and made available to the public. This simple step can go a long way towards saving lives when it matters the most, and should be coupled with an early warning communication system.

Long and short-term plans should also be in place to identify areas of our public forests most in need of maintenance. We must get people back to work in our woods to ensure that fuel loads are limited and kept under control.

Aside from the proactive and preventative steps that can be done locally, the state can also play a role.

Years back, a group of legislators formed the Wildfire Caucus in an attempt to develop legislation aimed at mitigating wildfire risks. That group is still active and meeting as the legislature’s 2021 session is underway.

As a former legislator, I’m familiar with the impact and influence that state lawmakers can have in creating solutions to complex problems. I’ve been in touch with the members of Clackamas County’s legislative delegation. And even though we may have some philosophical and ideological differences at times, I’m happy to report that everyone is on the same page when it comes to this issue. We all agree that the scenario we had last summer is one that we would all like to avoid repeating.

I’ll continue working with our legislators and my fellow commissioners in the coming months to ensure that we do all we can do to make Clackamas County as prepared as possible by the time wildfire season gets here this summer.

Have We Learned Our Lesson?

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.