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Guest Editorial

An old tree is a telling reminder

BY DON C. BRUNELL

Along the Oregon coast highway at the junction of routes 26 and 101 stood a stately old tree. It was massive and beautifully shaped, but the wicked December windstorm that knocked out power to over a million people in our region brought down that ancient giant.

Now it is a heap of debris piled along the road. That pile reminds us that trees don't live forever and are susceptible to nature's forces regardless of what we do to try to preserve them.

Forests are dynamic, living places that are constantly changing. Today, many people think of them as static, much the way they see stone monuments. As a result, some elected officials and bureaucrats try to freeze forests in place by passing regulations and laws to preserve them. But nature often circumvents those edicts and is constantly thinning and rebuilding the woods by wind, fire and disease.

For example, 2006 was the most destructive forest fire season in 50 years, costing taxpayers over $1.5 billion by the end of September. More than 9.1 million acres burned, almost twice the yearly average.

In Washington last year, the massive Tripod Complex fire in the northern Cascades burned 175,000 acres and cost $82 million to fight. In the southeastern part of our state, the 109,000 acres Columbia Complex fire near Dayton consumed 28 buildings, tracts of wheat fields and grasslands, and a big chunk of the Umatilla National Forest.

These fires do far more than kill trees and denude the land. Fires pollute the air with smoke and soot, consume massive volumes of oxygen, and produce tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Erosion from blackened lands often chokes salmon and trout streams, especially if heavy rains or quick spring runoffs punctuate the following years.

While it may be taboo to even mention President Bush's healthy forests initiative, we ought to revisit it this year and salvage the timber from our storm-ravaged and burned forests that still have value. It makes no sense to let millions of tons of wood in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia rot when many saw mills and paper plants are starving for logs, chips and energy-producing wood wastes.

Salvaging damaged forests reduces the fire danger, creates jobs for loggers, papermakers and tree planters, and allows our government to recover some costs to rehabilitate the land, fight fires, protect water quality, and enhance fisheries.

There is nothing new about Bush's approach. It just makes common sense, and it works.

For example, back in the 1930s, mountain pine beetles killed more than half of the lodgepole and whitebark pine in Montana's Anaconda Pintler Wilderness. Because its 158,000 acres were designated as a primitive area in 1937, salvage logging is prohibited. By the 1950s when our family started hiking and fishing in the area, debris from dead and dying trees blocked the trails to our favorite fishing lakes. Each year, we had to wait until Forest Service crews dropped dangerous trees called "widow-makers" and cleared fallen trees from the trails.

Forest managers feared that a massive wildfire would cause the loose soils to choke trout streams and lakes, so they clear-cut strategically selected small areas just outside the wilderness to create firebreaks. The logged areas were replanted with young, healthy and oxygen-producing forests, and if that management approach was allowed to continue, there would be a succession of small logged and replanted tracts. However, today that forest is once again approaching maturity and the time when the mountain beetle will again invade.

The point is forests are not frozen in time. They are constantly in motion. Like that wonderful old pine along Oregon's coast highway, trees sprout from seeds, grow and then finally die. Meanwhile, they are exposed to nature's fury from fire, wind or disease.

Careful forest stewardship won't solve all our problems. Salvage operations, maintaining utility corridors, and creating firebreaks will help, but they won't stop all power outages, avert tree blow downs, or prevent every forest fire.

Some protected areas like the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness will not be salvaged, and nature will continue to have its way. But for the rest of the forest, wise management through environmentally sensitive cutting, clearing and planting a succession of new forest makes sense.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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