Baker City Herald: Editorial: The burning question

September 21, 2015
In The News

Baker City Herald: Editorial: The burning question

In the aftermath of the biggest wildfire in Baker County history, salvage logging is a major topic of discussion.

And a major source of frustration.

We understand why.

On some of the private land burned in the 104,000-acre Cornet/Windy Ridge fire, loggers have already felled burned trees, and trucks have hauled them to a sawmill.

On public land, meanwhile — which makes up slightly more than half of the burned ground — it’s all but certain that none of the burned trees will be salvaged before next spring.

And we won’t be surprised if not a single charred tree is salvaged from public land in 2016.

Which would be a pity.

Not only would the economic value of the trees be lost — after about two years burned trees are worthless as lumber — but planting new trees would also be delayed.

The notion that the federal government, which manages these lands on our behalf, would in effect prolong the effects of the fire damage, is infuriating.

To be clear, we’re not suggesting there is an equivalency between private and public forests.

Private forest owners must comply with Oregon’s Forest Practices Act, but they don’t have to try to balance the public’s wishes and concerns, as is the case with the land that belongs to all of us.

And yet, managing public forests is not a purely democratic process. We don’t go to the ballot box to decide whether to cut trees or build a road or close a campground.

Although federal laws require the Forest Service and BLM to study the potential effects of logging and other work, and give citizens the right to appeal the agency’s decisions, those laws also recognize that wildfires are special circumstances.

Specifically, agencies can write much shorter environmental studies — the difference, let’s say, between a newspaper story and a Tolstoy novel — to speed salvage logging after a wildfire.

But here’s the problem: That legal authority is so limited as to be meaningless when applied to a blaze as big as Cornet/Windy Ridge.

Current law allows agencies to do the abbreviated study for salvage logging on areas no larger than 250 acres.

Cornet/Windy Ridge burned almost 57,000 acres of public land.

Not all of that was forested or is otherwise suitable for salvage logging, to be sure. But a 250-acre limit is woefully insufficient to deal with the scope of the fire damage.

Rep. Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican congressman whose district includes Baker County, wants to change this situation.

He’s promoting a bill, H.R. 2647 — the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 — that would expand the 250-acre limit for fire salvage logging to 5,000 acres.

The House of Representatives passed the bill in July, but it has gained no traction in the Senate.

This bill should become law.

The discrepancy between how the government handles fires while they’re burning, and how it deals with their damage, is vast — unconscionably so.

When the flames erupt we summon everything in our great public arsenal — jet airplanes, thousands of firefighters, millions of dollars.

But in the sooty aftermath we dawdle, plagued by bureaucratic inertia and a legal labyrinth, while public resources rot.

There is no great mystery here. We know how to make use of burned trees in ways that speed rather than retard the recovery of our forests.

Why we aren’t doing so is the question that makes us shake our heads.

And grit our teeth.