Oregon is well on its way to full containment of wildfires that started around Labor Day. As Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams assess the damage, actions are already being taken to mitigate hazards and Oregon’s timber industry recently pledged its commitment to the recovery and restoration of our forested landscapes.
As a forester, I am often asked what will happen to our forests with hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of dead and dying trees caused by this year’s historic wildfires. The answer comes as a surprise to many: It depends.
Post-fire restoration on privately owned lands will start quickly, as required by law (ORS §527.745), while the majority of federal lands will turn into carbon sources exacerbating the negative climate change effects from the wildfires.
Efforts are already underway to remove burnt timber on private lands in order to replant and restore them. Burnt material will be delivered to local mills, turned into lumber and other critical forest products and serve our community’s forest product needs. When completed promptly, the process will stabilize soils, protect water supplies, provide habitat to wildlife and ensure a future generation of healthy trees providing climate solutions.
While private lands will recover quickly, similar post-fire operations on federal lands is prohibitive.
On federal lands, management plans governing our federal forests (Bureau of Land Management’s Resource Management Plans and U.S. Forest Service’s Northwest Forest Plan) strictly ban or heavily restrict any form of post-fire mechanical activity in designated reserves, wilderness, wild and scenic river corridors, and other congressionally protected areas. More than 80% of the federal lands in Oregon fall under these “no touch” and restrictive areas.
Where post-fire activities are allowed, agencies will have to be strategic, prioritize limited resources and use every tool in the toolbox to tackle this environmental catastrophe.
To add insult to injury, anti-forestry groups are promising to do everything in their power to legally block or delay restorative actions from being implemented on the ground.
The inability to remove standing dead and decaying timber will not only contribute to high fuel loads and greater carbon sources in the future but may also complicate both agencies’ ability to reforest these areas safely and effectively.
Furthermore, research by the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station shows that young trees pull carbon out of the atmosphere at an exponential rate, which enhances carbon sequestration and restores the forests’ role as carbon sinks.
Instead of observing an endless sea of dead trees out of the car window when driving Highways 126, 22, 224, 138, 97, etc. for decades to come, we should take common sense and climate-friendly action: Remove dead timber from our federal lands to reduce future safety and fire risks; process the wood at local mills to create jobs and lumber to rebuild our communities; and replant our federal forests to avoid fire-caused deforestation and enhance carbon sequestration.
These actions are important because the only way to restore our forests while mitigating climate change is by doing necessary post-fire management.
Amanda Astor writes a monthly column for The Register-Guard and has degrees in forestry and forest carbon: science, policy and management. She advocates for sustainable, economic and operationally feasible federal forest management.