ROSEBURG, Ore. — Members of Communities for Healthy Forests said at a recent year-end meeting they are making progress in getting their message across to governmental agencies and the public regarding the recovery of forest lands following wildfires.

Communities for Healthy Forests is a nonprofit group that was founded 15 years ago with a mission of “informing the public and policy makers with facts supporting the need to restore forest lands after catastrophic fires.”

“Absolutely. We’re reaching folks at all levels, from the general public, the downtown folks, all the way up to the policy makers, the agency heads,” said Javier Goirigolzarri, executive director of the group.

Goirigolzarri said when CHF members traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2004, they could barely get through office doors to talk about the impact of catastrophic wildfires.

“Those we did talk to said, ‘Sounds interesting … good luck to you all,’” he remembered. “Now there is significant congressional level language about the need to move forward with management of forests after fires.

“With more people dying, more communities being evacuated, more social and economic impact, finally people are talking about it, wanting to do something about these mega-fires,” he added.

Doug Robertson, another CHF member, said that in a perverse way, the increase nationally in catastrophic fires has elevated the discussion to a much higher level. There have been numerous multi-thousand acre wildfires in several western states in the past decade, the most recent being the Camp Fire in northern California that burned and destroyed the community of Paradise and killed 85 residents.

“People are taking this issue much more seriously now,” Robertson said. “They are looking in earnest at the recovery of forests after catastrophic fires and now are also talking about making forests more fire resilient.”

The Umpqua National Forest, east of Roseburg in Douglas County, Ore., has suffered a few of these fires. After touring one of the burned areas in 2002 and seeing the severity of standing and fallen dead trees and soil erosion, Roseburg area citizens formed Communities for Healthy Forests.

“We saw a jumble of dead logs, all set up to be fuel for the next fire,” said Lee Paterson, president of the CHF. “There was such tremendous waste.”

That tour included some areas that had already burned a second time, causing even more severe damage.

CHF represents rural communities and not politically polarized interest groups. Members are from business, education, utilities, and community and tribal agencies. Funding is provided by businesses, utilities, tribes and several Oregon counties.

“I see what is going on in our western forests, I see what is happening to the beautiful forests we have, that we had, and it makes me want to cry,” said CHF member Wes Melo who is a 24-year volunteer firefighter.

The group decided the best way to accomplish its mission to educate people about mega-fires and the lack of forest restoration after the flames and smoke had cleared was to produce videos with scientists and foresters presenting scientific information on forest management. The videos include “The Carbon Factor,” “After The Fire Is Out,” “Smoke!” and “Adding Fuel to the Fire.” They’ve been widely distributed and shown during presentations to governmental agencies, conferences, elected officials, to chambers of commerce and service clubs, and to the public.

CHF’s original mission focused on emphasizing recovery and restoration after a fire, but in recent years the group has also included information on managing forests to prevent mega-fires. Members emphasize that sustainably managed forests are resilient forests that are able to withstand both the unexpected forces of natural and human-caused fires.

Goirigolzarri emphasized CHF is not advocating for clear cuts of burned areas, but rather selective cutting on these lands to salvage some timber for its value, reduce hazards, to clean up ground fuels to create fire breaks that will help prevent future mega-fires and to replant to help establish a new forest. The same management tools are being suggested for forests that are suffering and dying from insect infestations, resulting in more fuel for the fire.

“We have an epidemic of trees and a fuel problem,” he said. “There’s not enough logging and prescribed burning activity to reduce the fuel loads. With appropriate thinning and the reduction of fuel loads to a manageable level, the forests can withstand the next lightning strike and not burn so severely that we lose an entire watershed.”

Another group, Sustainable Forest Action Coalition, with a mission similar to that of CHF, formed in Northern California several years ago. The two groups work together to get their educational information out.

“There’s work to be done to get the message out because there are those who want to minimize any work on these federal forest lands,” said Goirigolzarri. “We’re working to expand our effort, connecting with other groups of like mind, trying to gather our voices into one common cause. We need help from Washington, D.C., to fix this.”

Paterson said he hates to hear others “pigeon hole us as timber advocates.”

“We advocate for restoration of burned over land before it becomes an economic wasteland,” he said. “We are an environmental community, an environmental protection group.”

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