Opinion: Reform the Oregon Forest Practices Act

Published in Mail Tribune

By Jason Clark
December 09, 2018

Another year of extensive wildfires, debilitating smoke, and several tragedies across the West have made it clear that Oregonians cannot afford forestry practices that continue to make this problem worse. The consequences of our forest management history and our changing climate have been illuminated by a hazy vermilion sun. The complex, fire-resilient forests of yesteryear have been replaced with younger, denser stands more likely to experience stand-replacing fires. Meanwhile, climate change is causing fuels to dry out earlier and stay dry longer, creating the conditions for more fires and greater fire severity.

Many commendable thinning and fuels reduction projects have been carried out on unnaturally dense Forest Service and BLM lands in recent decades. These efforts need to be improved and expanded into a widespread restoration forestry effort to put our fire-suppressed public forests on a path toward increased fire resiliency.

But there is another half of the equation that can’t be ignored — private, industrial forestlands. A recent study of the 2013 Douglas fire by leading scientists at Oregon State and Humboldt State Universities confirmed the forests most likely to burn at high severity are the dense, young stands on private timberlands that are planted after conventional clearcut logging practices sanctioned under the Oregon Forest Practices Act, not the typically older stands on public lands.

Therefore, it is critically insufficient to only improve forest management on public lands.Locally, the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy, created by a multi-party team of federal, state and nonprofit contributors, provides a well-considered, science-based framework for how to approach restoration forestry and increase fire resiliency in our region. The “All Lands” approach described therein proposes to treat 900,000 acres of federal land plus 200,000 acres of non-federal lands of mixed ownership, in and around communities and infrastructure. A small proportion of the 200,000 non-federal acres is industrial timberlands, however, tens of thousands of acres of industrial timberland are directly adjacent to the proposed treatment areas on federal lands. Without meaningfully addressing these fire-prone, private timberlands, our success in achieving a more fire-resilient landscape will be limited.

To responsibly address the role that private forests play in contributing to wildfire risk, we must transform the Oregon Forest Practices Act, the decades-old state statute in dire need of modernization. Increased fire risk is just one of the negative side effects of industrial logging practices that Oregonians are left to bear. Soil loss, diminished water quality, degradation of fisheries, and habitat loss for rare species are some of the others. The state should convene a team of scientists and progressive forestry practitioners to hammer out rational, proactive, and easily verifiable operational standards for the future of forestry in Oregon. This team should set new standards dramatically reducing the allowable size of harvest units, requiring longer rotation times, and maintaining legacy retentions of older trees, requiring that a proportion of the more fire-resilient trees be left standing. To put Oregon’s private forests on a path toward greater fire resiliency, we must diversify the landscape level expanses of tightly packed, even-aged tree farms that cover so much of our state. We should also require timber companies to address the enormous amounts of slash left behind following timber harvests that are tinderboxes of explosive fuels. And we should ban the aerial spraying of herbicides which adds additional fuels and pollutes our streams.

In the long run, timber companies will benefit from management practices that lead to more fire-resilient forests. As improved practices are implemented and fire resiliency increases over time, timber assets will become less vulnerable to going up in flames. Further, there are numerous benefits to other ecosystem services that will follow from fire-resilient forestry practices including improved habitat, water quality and more secure carbon storage.

It is imperative that Oregon implement forestry practices that improve fire resiliency. We can supply the local mills and support the invigoration of our economy while improving our forests’ structure in a way that helps to protect it and our communities from future wildfires. Imagine a future where Oregon’s private forests are structurally diverse forests that include larger, fire-resilient trees and where large clearcuts and expansive, even-aged tree farms are a memory. We must move our state’s private timberlands in this direction, because not doing so allows the wildfire problem to get worse. To get there, we must reform Oregon’s outdated rules and account for the role private timberlands play in wildfire risk. Oregonians need strong leadership in Salem to address this issue in 2019 and beyond. Who is ready?

Jason Clark is a botanist who lives in Talent and works in forests across the Northwest.