Skamania County needs timber reform in a special way

2014-08-22 Ashley Bach

The anger and frustration over the lack of federal forest management recently boiled over in Skamania County, Wash.

It's no wonder. As we noted in a post last year, 80 percent of Skamania County is taken up by the Gifford Pinchot National Forest; another 8 percent is owned by the state, and another 10 percent of the county is private timberland, which generates significant tax reveue only when it's harvested. That means only 2 percent of the county is private, regularly taxed property.

Skamania County is heavily dependent on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest being managed properly, and since the advent of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, the forest isn't even being harvested at the levels laid out in that plan, let alone levels that would allow the county's residents to be able to live and work in their communities.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, recently convened a roundtable of about 35 federal, state and local leaders, who met in Skamania County to discuss potential solutions and also tour the Silver Creek thinning project in the Gifford Pinchot forest.

The frustration was obvious among community leaders, and even the Forest Service agreed that the health of the national forest is in decline.

Many speakers from the timber industry argued that what is allowed is too low and that critical habitat areas are at risk for catastrophic fires due to mismanagement.

“We see them as unhealthy and at risk for huge fires around our communities, and our concern is we don’t see anything done about it,” said a member of the timber community. “We know you want to increase active management, but we don’t see it happening. “

Susan Hummel, a research forester with the Forest Service, said she is seeing a significant shift in of the Gifford Pinchot’s makeup. In many areas of the forest, tree species variety has declined with ponderosas and Douglas-firs disappearing and grand firs taking their places. Additionally, she said research has shown more dead trees and fewer living ones over a 30-year trend in the Gifford Pinchot. 

The lack of forest management is taking its toll on the community, according to county leaders.

Skamania County Commissioner Bob Anderson said when he was a kid growing up in the region, two people from his community went to Portland to work. Now, he said, about 60 percent of the county's workforce has to leave every morning in order to collect a paycheck. Young families are finding it harder to stay in the area, and more students are taking advantage of free-and-reduced lunch meals at school.

Herrera Beutler said there has to be a way forward - a middle path to improve the health of the forests and get local residents back on their feet.

Herrera Beutler said the purpose of meetings like this is to figure out how various parts of the forest can be micromanaged to meet the overall goal of improving forest health. She said that it doesn’t make sense to return to the old days of cutting huge swaths of timberlands, nor does it make sense to lock up the entire forest for the sake of environmental protection.

“It doesn’t have to be an either or,” she said. “There’s a future for us here if we’re willing to put down our fighting words. It needs to be a group approach.”

The Vancouver Columbian and Centralia Chronicle both used the roundtable meeting as an opportunity to call for more active management of our federal forests.

The Columbian:

To recap, the plight of the spotted owl has led to a shutdown of logging on federal lands, has devastated local economies, and has led to the government-sanctioned massacre of barred owls. Somewhere along the way, regulators lost sight of the need to balance environmental concerns with common sense....

The discussion hosted by Herrera Beutler — she held a similar roundtable a year ago — is a necessary one, but the people of the region need more action and less talk. "What I see here is people thinking outside the box . . .," Herrera Beutler said. "Let's try something that hasn't been done before." Or, as the Fish and Wildlife Service's Ashe said, the stakeholders in the issue have a choice: "Swing the pendulum one way or build alignment."

The problem is that the federal government has swung the pendulum so far as to hammer residents on the head with it. Those people deserve better.

The Chronicle:

Accomplishing shared goals by finding solutions that result in positive movement for the logging industry and overall forest health is certainly a worthwhile goal. No one is suggesting the sweeping clearcuts of old, nor should anyone advocate the elimination of an entire industry over unverified concerns of impacts to an animal that has continued to diminish despite the ban on logging.  

However, it’s high time our leaders seriously discuss the possibility of increasing the number of thinning projects and logging operations on state and federal land. 

To do so would be to protect against an ever-increasing wildfire risk while providing an opportunity for many to return to work in our forests and mills.