For the Capital Press
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. As a result, there are no jobs, and parents can’t afford to provide their children the most basic of needs: food.
In fact, 13 of Oregon’s 36 counties face double-digit unemployment and 25 Oregon counties have 50 percent or more of their school children on free and reduced lunches. 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 deputy to help an imperiled woman who called 911. 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 are now 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, over just the last 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 over 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 Congressmen Greg Walden, Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio. These three have reached across the aisle to work with each other and local communities to find a solution that works, 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 Resource Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden has the well-earned clout to move this important legislation through the U.S. Senate. Reps. Schrader, Walden, and DeFazio have done the heavy lifting. Now, Sen. Wyden has the chance to provide both our struggling rural communities and our increasingly unhealthy federally managed forests the lifeline both so desperately need.
Barry Bushue is a farmer who owns and operates a nursery, berry and farm stand operation in east Multnomah County. He is president of Oregon Farm Bureau, the state’s largest family farm and ranch organization.