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Fire is Native to Oregon

August 17, 2018

Last month, we were at a meeting with the Forest Service and American Forest Resources Council, a timber industry lobby group, in which the timber lobbyist insisted that “everyone knows fire is the biggest source of carbon pollution,” and concluded that more logging is needed to reduce the threats of climate change.

 

He’s wrong. A recent OSU study found that the wood products industry is the largest contributer to carbon pollution in Oregon because of emissions resulting from fuel used by logging equipment, hauling timber, milling, wood burned during forestry activities, and the ongoing decomposition of cut trees.  In contrast, emissions from fires contribute a small percent of the state’s carbon pollution. 

 

Large scale commercial logging is a newcomer to this land, while the forests have burning as long as there have been forests. Much of this burning was intentional, as the indigenous Chinook, Kalapuya, Molalla, Wishram & Wasco peoples all used fire as a key management tool to cultivate shade-intolerant understory plants and fungi used for food, fiber, and medicine, as well as browse for deer & elk.

 

Colonization forced an abrupt end to the practice of regular burning. A recent Forest Service synthesis acknowledged: “Over a century ago, forest managers rejected Native American land-tending practices such as intentional burning because they regarded them as misinformed, grounded in superstition, and inconsistent with producing the services that they believed the general public expected from those forests, in particular, timber. Although those decisions may be attributed to insufficient foresight, it is important to recognize that they were deliberate rejections of tribal interests and understandings.”

 

A century later, contemporary fire ecologists are making the case for reintroducing more fire and recognizing the importance of indigenous fire management in maintaining healthy forest ecosystems. Innovative cross-cultural partnerships, like the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership, bring together government agencies, tribes, conservation organizations and other local land tenders to “build trust and a shared vision for restoring fire resilience at the landscape scale.” 

 

Accepting fire as a necessary part of our forest ecosystems will take shifting both dominant culture and federal policy. It will mean pushing back on the false narratives that fire is a major carbon polluter, or a disaster for forests. It will mean undoing over a hundred years of colonial assumptions about how best to manage the forest.  It will mean re-writing the Mt. Hood forest management plan to include new provisions for wildland fire use and prescribed fire. If we can bring about these changes, it will also mean more ecological and cultural resilience for all those who live with the forest.

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