Healthy, thriving timber lands ensure vibrant communities in Oregon

As Oregonians, we all face economic challenges that are difficult to surmount.

Tragically, when it comes to economic decline, poverty, hunger and despair in our rural communities, a substantial amount of the harm comes from our own federal government and its lack of wise management of Oregon’s greatest renewable natural resource: timber.

The federal government owns 60 percent of Oregon’s forest land. Since 1990, the timber harvest on these lands has declined more than 90 percent, and currently contributes less than 12 percent of Oregon’s annual timber harvest. Timber operators have gone out of business, mills have closed and related businesses like trucking have disappeared.Nov. 27 guest opinion

As a result, there are no jobs, and parents can’t afford to provide their children the most basic of needs: food. In fact, as many as 23 of Oregon’s 36 counties have faced double-digit unemployment during 2013 (that number had dwindled to six counties in August, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics) and 25 Oregon counties have 50 percent or more of their schoolchildren eligible for free and reduced lunches.

A number of rural communities can no longer fund the most basic services. Earlier this year, Josephine County made headlines when it was unable to send a sheriff’s deputy to help an imperiled woman who called 9-1-1. Help never came.

Some suggest imposing additional local taxes as a remedy. Without jobs and economic activity to pay those taxes, such moves are pointless and, in fact, punitive. Such responses would only add more undeserved pain to these suffering communities.

Urban communities are not immune from this harm. The pain is certainly more diffuse along the Interstate 5 corridor, but it is both real and substantial in our largest cities. Family-wage jobs in processing, trucking and shipping in more urban areas also have been lost to this mismanagement of federal timber resources. When jobs are lost, schools, police, fire and other essential public services lose as well.

The harm goes beyond our communities. Our federal forests themselves are suffering. These once-productive forests now are overstocked and highly vulnerable to catastrophic fire, insects and disease, which directly threaten our fish, wildlife and watersheds.

From 1980 to 2000, eastern Oregon wildfires burned approximately 553,000 acres. In the same region, during the past 10 years, nearly 1 million acres have burned.

These large fires have significant environmental impact. A Colorado State University study shows that forest areas suffer higher than normal erosion for up to five years after these kinds of burns. The University of Idaho found that after such fires, sediment levels can increase more than 8,000 percent over normal runoff. Unfortunately, the environmental harm doesn’t stop there.

The question then is how we move beyond public policies that threaten to doom both our rural communities and our natural heritage at the same time?

As one whose family depends on the health of the land, I care deeply about the health of Oregon’s people, communities and resources. So do U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio. These three have reached across the aisle to work with one another and local communities to find a solution that works. The result is the Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act. This is exactly the kind of bipartisan problem-solving we need in Congress.

As chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden has the well-earned clout to move this important legislation through the U.S. Senate. Schrader, Walden and DeFazio have done the heavy lifting. Now, Wyden has the chance to provide both our struggling rural communities and our increasingly unhealthy federally managed forests the lifeline both so desperately need.

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