'Whatever land the government does own, it should be a good steward'
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers believes members of the public would be outraged if they knew the state of America's national forests.
The trees in one-third of all national forests are dead, diseased or insect-infested, McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., told the Society of American Foresters national convention in Spokane on Oct. 26.
"I think that's unacceptable," she said. "I think most Americans imagine our forests as being green and healthy stands of trees."
More than 73 million acres of U.S. Forest Service lands are at an elevated risk of catastrophic wildfires or insect or disease outbreaks, McMorris Rodgers said. About 9 million acres burned this year.
Nearly half of Washington state's forestland is publicly owned, she said, with some counties reaching levels as high as 70 to 85 percent. Communities in those areas depend on public land, and McMorris Rodgers believes the government should manage it with their interests in mind.
"Congress often debates whether the government owns too much land or not -- personally I think it does," she said. "There's no question that whatever land the government does own, it should be a good steward."
As an example, McMorris Rodgers said family-owned Vaagen Brothers Lumber, of Colville, Wash., has seen the number of sawmills it owns drop from four to two, and the number of employees drop from 500 in the 1990s to about 175 today.
In the last 15 years, McMorris Rodgers said, the company struggled to maintain an adequate supply of timber to operate, despite the fact it's located in the heart of the 1.1 million-acre Colville National Forest.
The number of lumber mills in the West has dropped from more than 700 to 120. McMorris Rodgers said 56,000 direct jobs have been lost, in addition to tens of thousands of indirect jobs.
"Our federal forests are sick, and the communities that depend on them have struggled for decades due to inaction," McMorris Rodgers said.
McMorris Rodgers is working on an "A to Z" project in the Colville National Forest, a public-private partnership for management. She called local stakeholder coalition efforts in the national forest a success, noting timber sales and stewardship projects haven't been litigated for 10 years. The U.S. Forest Service awarded the forest $1 million this year for restoration efforts.
McMorris Rodgers represents Washington's 5th District.
Prior to her address, McMorris Rodgers briefly spoke with the Capital Press about several other issues:
* Efforts to close roads in national forests: "I think we need to be smart in our approach. I get concerned about comprehensive or sweeping proposals that just close roads without really looking at the impact it might have on the ground. It's so important we have those roads for a variety of reasons, including fighting forest fires when the time comes."
* Timber production in national forests: "I certainly hope we recognize these forests need constant management. So many of these trees have become just kindling. Lawsuits or regulations have made it very difficult at times to manage these lands in a way that will ensure these trees are green and healthy. At a minimum, we need to be focusing on taking steps to ensure forest health."
* Public concerns about livestock grazing on public lands: "It's important to distinguish that forestlands and U.S. Forest Service lands have a different purpose than wilderness lands, monuments and parks. These were lands that were set aside to be managed for multiple purposes, and part of it is making sure these are trees that would produce revenue for local communities. I believe these lands should be available to the public, including recreation, grazing and other uses."