Thinning and prescribed burns on tap in the NW


Rural counties in the Northwest continue to struggle, and state and federal forests are still woefully out of shape, with very little management to protect from wildfires and disease. But it does appear that the tide is shifting, ever so slightly.

Just in the last week, there has been a wave of media coverage about how state and federal officials in Washington and Oregon are ready to take a new approach to forest management: aggressive thinning and even prescribed burns. The Yakima Herald-Republic, the Spokane Spokesman-Review, the Oregonian and the Associated Press all came out with variations of the same message: We who manage these forests are ready for a new appoach.

The public has been hearing this refrain from state and federal forestry leaders for awhile now, including in a gripping discussion about wildfires at the Washington Forest Protection Association annual meeting last fall. But perhaps the rumblings will now turn into activity on the ground.

Most promising was the Oregonian’s story about a large increase in thinning and logging proposed in four national forests in Eastern Oregon. Federal leaders say the plan could become a model for a harvest increase in Western Oregon as well as Eastern Washington.

Timber executives are cautiously optimistic.

Bruce Daucsavage, of Prineville, president of Ochoco Lumber Co., said the company has been considering a month-long shutdown this spring for an Ochoco subsidiary that employs 90 workers in John Day. He said the accelerated restoration plan is his company’s last, best hope. 

“There is a groundswell here that I have not seen in 25 years,” he said. “I think everybody has come to the conclusion that this is it.”

The rub, as always, is opposition from environmental groups, particularly lawsuits. A similar thinning project in Southern Oregon’s Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest – smaller than the Eastern Oregon proposal – is facing aggressive pushback from environmental groups.

So much so that the Supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Rob MacWhorter, wrote an op-ed this week in the Medford Mail Tribune defending the thinning project.

Are forest treatments the right thing to do? We think so. When the Forest Service selectively cuts and/or thins a stand of trees to improve the trees’ health and resilience for the long term, we are better able to protect the trees and other natural resources that so many of us value.

Environmental groups have been supportive or noncommital about the plan in Eastern Oregon, but it also isn’t as far along as the Southern Oregon project.

In Washington, the Department of Natural Resources and a new collaborative of local leaders, the Washington Prescribed Fire Council, are urging the Legislature to approve $15 million for thinning projects and prescribed burns.

If the $15 million “forest health” capital budget request is approved, the first $10 million would go toward thinning operations in forests turned wildfire-prone by insect infestation and overcrowding, notably those in Yakima, Klickitat, Okanogan and Ferry counties…

More than anything, numbers tell the story of our state and federal forest management – and how much work needs to be done. These stats were included in the Oregonian story:

  • “A staggering 800 million board feet of wood fiber annually reaches maturity in the nearby Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests. Only 11 percent gets to sawmills, while 400 million board feet succumb to insects, disease, fire and age.”
  • “The area encompassed by the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests has lost 17 mills and more than 1,200 sawmill jobs since 1990.”
  • “The roughly 50,000 acres thinned or logged annually within the four forests is probably less than 20 percent of what’s needed (to stablize forest health).”
  • The “federal government spent $3 billion fighting wildfires last year but only $350 million on forest management.”