Burned forests still have economic value

Burned forests stillhave economic value

9 January 2007

published by www.columbian.com

USA — By Don Brunell, president of the Association ofWashington Business, Washington state’s chamber of commerce.

Along the Oregon coast highway at the junction ofroutes 26 and 101 stood a stately old tree. It was massive and beautifullyshaped, but the wicked December windstorm that knocked out power to over amillion people in our region brought down that ancient giant.

Now it is a heap of debris piled along the road. Thatpile reminds us that trees don’t live forever and are susceptible to nature’sforces regardless of what we do to try to preserve them. Forests are dynamic,living places that are constantly changing. Today, many people think of them asstatic, much the way they see stone monuments. As a result, some electedofficials and bureaucrats try to freeze forests in place by passing regulationsand laws to preserve them. But nature often circumvents those edicts and isconstantly thinning and rebuilding the woods by wind, fire and disease.

For example, 2006 was the most destructive forest fireseason in 50 years, costing taxpayers over $1.5 billion by the end of September.More than 9.1 million acres burned, almost twice the yearly average.

In Washington last year, the massive Tripod Complexfire in the northern Cascades burned 175,000 acres and cost $82 million tofight. In the southeastern part of our state, the 109,000-acre Columbia Complexfire near Dayton consumed 28 buildings, tracts of wheat fields and grasslands,and a big chunk of the Umatilla National Forest.

These fires do far more than kill trees and denude theland. Fires pollute the air with smoke and soot, consume massive volumes ofoxygen, and produce tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Erosion fromblackened lands often chokes salmon and trout streams, especially if heavy rainsor quick spring runoffs punctuate the following years.

Bush plan deserves a look

While it may be taboo to even mention President Bush’shealthy forests initiative, we ought to revisit it this year and salvage thetimber from our storm-ravaged and burned forests that still have value. It makesno sense to let millions of tons of wood in Washington, Oregon and BritishColumbia rot when many saw mills and paper plants are starving for logs, chipsand energy-producing wood wastes.

Salvaging damaged forests reduces the fire danger,creates jobs for loggers, papermakers and tree planters, and allows ourgovernment to recover some costs to rehabilitate the land, fight fires, protectwater quality, and enhance fisheries.

There is nothing new about Bush’s approach. It justmakes common sense, and it works.

For example, back in the 1930s, mountain pine beetleskilled more than half of the lodgepole and whitebark pine in Montana’s AnacondaPintler Wilderness. Because its 158,000 acres were designated as a primitivearea in 1937, salvage logging is prohibited. By the 1950s when our familystarted hiking and fishing in the area, debris from dead and dying trees blockedthe trails to our favorite fishing lakes. Each year, we had to wait until ForestService crews dropped dangerous trees called “widow-makers” andcleared fallen trees from the trails.

Forest managers feared that a massive wildfire wouldcause the loose soils to choke trout streams and lakes, so they clear-cutstrategically selected small areas just outside the wilderness to createfirebreaks. The logged areas were replanted with young, healthy andoxygen-producing forests, and if that management approach was allowed tocontinue, there would be a succession of small logged and replanted tracts.However, today that forest is once again approaching maturity and the time whenthe mountain beetle will again invade.

The point is forests are not frozen in time. They areconstantly in motion. Like that wonderful old pine along Oregon’s coast highway,trees sprout from seeds, grow and then finally die. Meanwhile, they are exposedto nature’s fury from fire, wind or disease.

Careful forest stewardship won’t solve all ourproblems. Salvage operations, maintaining utility corridors, and creatingfirebreaks will help, but they won’t stop all power outages, avert tree blowdowns, or prevent every forest fire.

Some protected areas like the Anaconda PintlerWilderness will not be salvaged, and nature will continue to have its way. Butfor the rest of the forest, wise management through environmentally sensitivecutting, clearing and planting a succession of new forest makes sense.

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