A Daily Tidings guest opinion writer recently suggested forests shouldn’t be actively managed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, nor to address a tree mortality epidemic that is steadily creeping north from California. I imagine this would be news to those working on the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project (AFR) and its efforts to reduce the risk of severe wildfire in the local watershed and to protect water quality and other conservation and economic values.

I am not a participant in the project and don’t speak on the organization’s behalf, but AFR does represents a step toward restoring forests in Southern Oregon. The project’s website states that if the forest is left untreated and a fire ignites, “it is more likely to be a high intensity fire that can burn the largest trees and sacrifice the protective layers which hold soils and keep the watershed intact.”

Certainly the science-based project recognizes the forest conditions are in an unnatural state, and a large fire will have serious consequences to the watershed. Various forest management activities are needed, including logging and prescribed burning, to achieve ecological restoration goals.

The AFR also recognizes that the forest has lost its ability to recover from the impacts on fire, drought or disease, and action must be taken. The project was not designed or intended enrich the timber industry, though it does support local jobs and deliver logs to area mills. It is projected to generate $1.5 million in logging-related receipts that will be re-invested in the project. Yet this is all inconsistent with the writer’s viewpoint that forests should remain untouched, and we should simply let nature take its course.

Surveys conducted by the Oregon Department of Forestry found above-average levels of tree mortality on forests surrounding the Rogue Valley, where many Douglas fir trees have died. Increased water stress from drought has led to weaker defensive reactions to attacks by insects, and additional damage caused by disease. As the trees begin to die, the needles turn red because they’re no longer receiving moisture, and the tree eventually falls.

ODF reports that the stressful conditions, driven by drought, can decrease “foliar moisture content and create fuel conditions that are more likely to result in torching, active crown fire, and more rapid fire spread.”

In a static world, fire, insects and disease are normal disturbances that are essential to a forest’s ecological health. But we live in a dynamic world where drought, a changing climate, wildfire suppression and past forest practices have contributed to unnatural conditions on the ground. One only needs to look at California’s tree mortality epidemic, where a staggering 102 million trees have died. California is struggling to keep pace, having removed only 423,000 dead trees, and the state may permanently lose entire forests as they succumb to drought and convert to shrubland.

Fortunately, Oregon’s tree mortality levels have not reached California’s, but more and more trees are dying on our dry forests. Our policymakers have a choice. We can actively manage our forests and help them adapt to drought and climate change, or we can walk away and do nothing.

Fortunately Ashland has made a wise choice to take action, but we must increase the pace and scale of forest treatments to protect more of our natural resources and all the benefits they provide.

— Nick Smith of Sherwood is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that advocates for active management of federal forest lands.