Opinion

Hands-off attitudes cause economic and environmental damage | Brunell

Today's news is filled with images of the massive wildfires roaring through the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Central Washington.

The arid pine forests east of the Cascades are prone to wildfire, especially when they are attacked by bark beetles which bore into the trees and suffocate them. Now those tiny insects are boring into healthy majestic trees in the pristine Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

One way to prevent such infestations is through selective thinning and removing dead and diseased trees. But many community organizations and "Friends Of" groups want our public forestland left untouched, frozen in time as if in a Polaroid photo. But the fact is nature is dynamic and changing, and no matter how intricately lawmakers design their legislation and rules, fires, insects and disease respect no boundaries.

Like it or not, we have to deal with reality.

Private forest landowners understand that, to have healthy lush forests, they have to be managed and that includes logging, which many folks oppose.

While harvests have decreased in our state, Washington's Department of Natural Resources actively manages our state forests, harvesting timber to generate income and thinning stands to protect against wildfires, disease and insect infestation. But the federal government continues to have a virtual "hands off" policy in our national forests – a policy that actually increases the chance of massive fires and disease.

More than a century of fires provides stark evidence of the economic and environmental devastation wrought by massive wildfires.

Last year, a fire in Yosemite National Park burned 250,000 acres of timber and meadows at a cost of $100 million. Experts will be working for years to repair the environmental damage to wildlife habitat and streams.

The 1988 Yellowstone Park fire burned almost one million acres at a cost of $111 million.

In 1902, the Yacolt Burn, the largest forest fire in state history which ignited in the Gorge, killed 38 people in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania counties and destroyed 238,920 acres of timber, worth more than $750 million in today's dollars.

In 2013, the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation held a hearing on forest management presided over by U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA). Witnesses contrasted Washington state's forest management with that of "the other Washington."

Hastings noted that the much smaller forest acreage managed by Washington state generates some $168 million each year for schools and universities, while the U.S. Forest Service – which oversees nine million acres of national forest – generates less than $600,000 a year.

National forests were created in part to provide timber income for the taxpayers. But political pressure has slowed harvests to a trickle, resulting in an enormous loss of income for taxpayers and creating the perfect conditions for massive wildfires that wreak havoc on the economy and the environment.

Studies show that large-scale fires in western and southeastern states can pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a few weeks as motor vehicles do in a year. Scientists estimate that U.S. forest fires release 290 million metric tons of CO2 a year.

Instead of locking up our national forests – creating the conditions for these massive wildfires – we should put people to work thinning the woods and salvaging dead and diseased trees. We can then use that wood as fuel for highly efficient "green energy" biomass plants.

The "lock it up and throw away the key" attitude for our federal forests is neither practical nor wise. Allowing responsible harvests outside the boundaries of national parks, wilderness, or sensitive areas would put people to work, provide lumber and paper products, and lessen the risk of more massive fires.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state's oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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