Roy Keene Guest Op Logging Is Not Cure To Wildfire

“Don't waste public funds on more logging”

Guest Opinion in Eugene Register Guard 

September 24, 2020

The week before the Holiday Farm Fire roared through Blue River and down the McKenzie, my wife and I stayed on the river next to a friend. She lost her house in the fire along with several other friends in the canyon. Our hearts and prayers go out to her and the others who have suffered loss from this fire.

While on the river we noticed how dry the forest seemed and how unseasonably low the water was. Driven by drought and a once-in-a-century gusty eastern wind that fanned the flames, it's miraculous to us that though hundreds of structures quickly burned, only one life was lost.

Eighteen years earlier we had a more personal experience with another huge weather driven blaze, the Biscuit Fire in southern Oregon. Unlike the Holiday, the half-million acre Biscuit burned in wilderness. Our little cabin in these wilds survived in part because we had maintained perimeter fire breaks, cut small forest in-growth, pruned up large trees, and gently burned the surrounding forest floor. After spending $30 million dollars and deploying 6,500 fire fighters, it was the October rains that extinguished Biscuit.

Living in Oregon for 50 years, our forest fires are always followed by management debates. In my recollection there's never been a fire season like this one, yet the timber industry and its politicians still push for more intensive forest management, usually logging, 'to reduce wildfire risks.' When considering imagery emerging from the Holiday Farm Fire, Lane County's current big blaze, calling for more intensive forest management appears, at best, short-sighted.

A report by Mason, Bruce, and Girard, a prestigious Oregon forestry firm, shows current forest fire acreage estimates by county and type of ownership. Their work confirms rougher but knowledgeable estimates myself and my associates have made. In Lane County, where Weyerhaeuser is the largest private landowner and most intensive forest manager, tens of thousands of their tree-farm acres have burned. In total, at least two-thirds of the 170,000-plus acres burned within the Holiday Farm Fire perimeter appear to have been in intensively managed areas.

Intensive forest management didn't help McKenzie residents withstand the Holiday Farm Fire. Historically, industrial clear-cutting in the McKenzie's headwaters has also been less than helpful. Denuded drainages exacerbated the runoff from rain and snow, causing downstream flooding, erosion, and property destruction. The McKenzie's headwater drainages will soon be heavily salvaged, again degrading and destabilizing them. Ridge-to-ridge logging will be followed by aerial spraying to poison surviving vegetation and sterilize the ground for replanting. This kind of intensive forest management will further reduce life quality for most citizens of the McKenzie, not improve it.

The 2019 Governor's Wildfire Council sought $4 billion dollars to 'reduce wildfire risks through actions such as logging overstocked forestland.' There is broad scientific consensus that more logging, called 'thinning' or 'restoration,' will have little effect resisting the huge weather-driven fires now burning the West. Having reviewed post-fire forests for decades, it's obvious by observation that thinning often contributes to faster fire spread and greater burn severity. This will be evident to unbiased observers when they physically access the Holiday burn. The $4 billion would be more prudently and fairly spent helping to restore and reconfigure burned forest communities like Blue River.

As a long-time forest practitioner, I've designed many fuel reduction and restoration projects that benefitted from no logging. Several withstood wildfires. An associate and myself consider the degree of logging to be inversely proportional to the degree of true restoration. More logging means less restoration and resilience.

If there is taxpayer-funded logging, let it be to create shaded fuel breaks along forested roads, clear perimeters around communities that can be used for escape routes, and removing trees away from structures. Loggers can be highly innovative and do great things with dozers, yarders, loaders and trucks. Put them to work helping to restore and reconfigure our forest communities. Pragmatic zoning and building code changes are also needed. Highways and roads need modifying and upgrading. Safe areas and gathering places need addressing.

Those in Eugene who have only endured the Holiday Farm Fire's smoke would do well to be forewarned and prepared, especially in the dry, heavily forested South Hills.

Roy Keene is a forest conservationist, cruiser, and consultant with 45 years of hands-on experience.