This commentary by Josephine County (Ore.) Commissioner Simon Hare originally appeared in the Eugene Register-Guard.
The Taylor Creek Fire in Josephine County illustrates how obstructionist tactics by fringe groups result in real consequences for our forests, communities, and the quality of our air and water.
Our federal agencies are alarmed by the poor health of our public forests lands. Yet our federal land managers’ hands are often tied by those who exploit well-intentioned environmental laws to block necessary and beneficial forest projects. It’s time for a change.
For over a year, fringe groups sought to stop the Bureau of Land Management’s Pickett Hog timber sale northwest of Grants Pass. The sale, part of the larger Pickett West project, represents an effort by the BLM to sell timber to support the local economy and generate revenue to pay for essential services. The project also provides treatments to reduce fuel loads within watersheds and increase species diversity. It is located on O&C lands that, by law, are to be managed for timber production for the benefit of our counties and their citizens.
Last year the groups held a protest rally at the Grants Pass Interagency Office. They claimed the agency sought to log old-growth trees, despite the fact that no trees larger than 25 inches in diameter were proposed for cutting. They argued the best way to reduce wildfire risks on these forests was for the BLM Medford district to do nothing.
It didn’t matter the project was based on sound science and sustainable timber harvesting practices. In fact, the BLM produced one of its largest known environment analysis documents explaining the project, totaling more than 475 pages and costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But this wasn’t enough for the fringe groups. Instead of working constructively with the BLM, activists turned to an obscure administrative “protest” process to delay action. One group submitted a 200-page protest with more than 100 individual protest points. The BLM was compelled to respond to every single point in writing. The process took over a year, diverting limited public resources and personnel to a paperwork exercise instead of managing our public lands.
In the meantime, an Oregon forest products company placed the highest bid for the timber. If not for the protests and subsequent agency analysis paralysis, operations on the Pickett Hog timber sale could have started earlier this year.
A year of expensive and time-consuming paperwork came to nothing as a large portion of the Pickett Hog project area went up in smoke in a matter of days, consumed by Taylor Creek Fire. Without the delay, the project area would have likely been treated before the fire started. Wood could have been responsibly harvested to support jobs, provide revenue for public services and assure a healthier natural landscape. Instead, the obstruction and delay resulted in a burned forest, the degradation of wildlife habitat, and weeks of toxic smoke that has filled local valleys.
This is just one federal forest project in southern Oregon that has been obstructed but has now burned up during this intense fire season. Our federal representatives are pushing both the BLM and the Forest Service to increase the pace and scale of needed forest management work. They have increased funding for timber and hazardous fuels reduction programs to help accelerate treatments of fire-prone forests. Yet these efforts will be unsuccessful as long as our system of federal forest management can be obstructed by a small minority of activists.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to restore forest health, reduce fire risks and toxic smoke, create family-wage jobs and provide funding for public services. Anyone who cares about our forests and communities should urge Oregon’s members of Congress to ensure a process that encourages and incorporates public input, but which that can’t be abused by those who are ideologically opposed to cutting trees.