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Reviving a forest project


We’re pleased that the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is reviving a large logging project in eastern Baker County that was derailed two years ago when a federal judge, ruling in a lawsuit filed by two environmental groups, blocked further tree-cutting.

The Sparta project — previously known as Snow Basin — is designed to address some of the problems created by management strategies that dominated Forest Service policy for much of the 20th century.

In general that meant putting out every wildfire as quickly as possible, and logging the biggest, healthiest trees.

Scientists have learned that this combination can significantly change a

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We’re pleased that the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is reviving a large logging project in eastern Baker County that was derailed two years ago when a federal judge, ruling in a lawsuit filed by two environmental groups, blocked further tree-cutting.

The Sparta project — previously known as Snow Basin — is designed to address some of the problems created by management strategies that dominated Forest Service policy for much of the 20th century.

In general that meant putting out every wildfire as quickly as possible, and logging the biggest, healthiest trees.

Scientists have learned that this combination can significantly change a forest from its historical condition. Among the more notable effects in the drier forests of Baker County is that ponderosa pines and tamaracks became supplanted by grand and white fir trees — species that in the past were kept in check by relatively frequent lightning fires.

But firs tend to be more susceptible to fires, insects and disease — especially when they grow in dense stands as is the case in parts of the Sparta project.

The Wallowa-Whitman is proposing to reverse this trend through a combination of logging, focusing on the firs, as well as prescribed fire.

We think this is a reasonable approach.

Which is not to say we believe it is a way to “fireproof” public forests.

This is a topic much in the news this summer as dozens of major wildfires have burned more than a million acres across the West.

We’ve read many comments, on websites and social media, that could be summarized in a bumper sticker slogan: “If you don’t manage the forest it will burn.”

There is more than a kernel of truth to this sentiment.

Trouble is, “manage” can mean many things. And as in some of Baker County’s forests, the way we managed them in past decades actually increased rather than decreased the fire risk.

The notion that Oregon wouldn’t be cloaked in woodsmoke today if only we had heavily logged the forests that are burning is at best overly simplistic.

Ultimately, the problems in our public forests are the product of decades of decisions, and it will take decades of different decisions to begin to address these problems.

Moreover, it will take action. And projects such as Sparta/Snow Basin represent the kind of action that our forests need.

Environmental groups that have opposed this and other logging projects often object not to the general concept — thinning dense fir forests and reintroducing fire — but specifically to the commercial logging. This is illogical.

If some of the firs are big enough to be sold to mills, supporting jobs and creating valuable products — as is the case with the Sparta/Snow Basin project — then it would be silly, and wasteful, to do anything but sell those trees.

From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of publisher Kari Borgen, editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.