Western white trillium emerges from the ashes in the North Umpqua (photo by Cascadia Wildlands).

Opinion: Will we learn from the 2020 wildfire season?

by Rebecca White, CW Wildlands Director
Originally published in The Register-Guard, July 24, 2021.

Gazing at the Milky Way from my tent in the Three Sisters Wilderness last weekend, I reflected on a day well spent by an alpine lake, watching dragonflies skim and otters frolic. The forest was so alive, I’d completely missed the signs of past wildfire until I noticed charcoal on the ground and standing white snags among the vibrant green larch and pines.

As a designated wilderness, the forest was allowed to regenerate naturally, without so-called “salvage” logging or replanting. A few decades on, it took me most of a day to realize I was standing in the ongoing evolution of a post-fire landscape.

A big leaf maple emerges from the Archie Creek Fire in a stand proposed for clearcutting by the Bureau of Land Management (photo by Francis Eatherington).

That startling reminder about nature’s resilience was welcome as the largest fire in the U.S. exploded just across the Cascade Crest. The Bootleg Fire northeast of Klamath Falls is generating its own weather and raising hard memories of last year’s fires and fears of a tough fire season to come. 

For many, the aggressive logging following 2020’s fires is adding additional trauma. Far more than a million acres of Oregon forests burned, much of which is slated for clear-cutting.

In some of our most valued, scenic river corridors, the Oregon Department of Transportation’s frenzied roadside logging has ballooned far beyond what was needed to provide for public safety.

Extensive roadside hazard tree removal after last year’s wildfires has raised concerns that the state is over-cutting trees that aren’t actually hazardous (photo by Cassandra Profita – OPB).

Other state and federal agencies have piled on. The Oregon Department of Forestry, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are all implementing widespread post-fire logging.

On private lands, industrial timber companies have clear-cut much of the viable burned timber, without most of the minimal restrictions of the Oregon Forest Practices Act. The private timber industry is hellbent on opposing long overdue regulatory reforms, undermining science and cutting the last remaining mature and old-growth forests. State forest policy reform is in the works, but it comes too late to mitigate this year’s overharvest.

Scientific consensus points to the massive ecological damage caused by post-fire logging. It impacts water quality and wildlife habitat, releases sequestered carbon thereby exacerbating climate change, and when followed by dense replanting, it increases future fire risk. It not only delays forest recovery, but also deprives our fire-adapted forests of an important stage in their lifecycle. 

It has become clear that we can’t log our way out of our fire challenges. Every big tree that comes from our forests makes them less resilient and increases risks to our communities. Climate change and poor forest management focused on suppression mean we are experiencing scarier, more intense fires more often.

As we move inexorably into 2021’s fire season and into a new normal of more frequent fires, we must squarely face the lessons learned from 2020’s fires. Our challenge is to address the root causes and see our remaining old growth and mature forests for the essential climate defense they are. Will every fire be followed by a clear-cutting spree that razes our burned forests for profit until they are gone? Or will we make room for nature to replenish the land, to welcome rare, fire-adapted species and to provide future generations with the surprising joy of Earth’s resilience?

Sword fern emerging from the ashes of the North Umpqua’s Archie Fire (photo by Cascadia Wildlands).

Rebecca White is the Wildlands Director for Cascadia Wildlands. She directs Cascadia Wildlands’ forest defense work across Oregon and the Cascadia bioregion.