Are we “Protecting” our Forests to Death? 

Doug Robertson | Communities for Healthy Forests | June 9th, 2022

Is it possible that the federal forests are actually put at elevated risk of wildfire by the laws that were written to protect them? 

You don’t have to have spent most of your life in the forest to see the boundary lines in an area recovering from wildfire. In some areas in the west, it is clear to see the boundary between Federal Forestland and private timberlands simply by what has happened since the fire went out. 

I was on yet another tour of another burned area in Oregon recently when a member of our tour asked a common question. “Why has the area on this side of the road been logged and replanted and that side still has burned trees on it?” 

The answer opens up a golden opportunity for veterans of the wildfires in the west.  “Well, to the left you see private timberland, which was logged as soon as the fire was out to get the maximum value for the timber and to clear the way for another generation of trees. The other side of the road is Federally owned ground. Before they can cut those trees, they have to work their way through a long list of federal laws.” 

The irony hits me every time. The combination of competing federal policies that were written to protect our federal forests is actually increasing the likelihood of more massive wildfire. Like a forest of red tape. 

Today the number of laws, rules, regulations, and restrictions governing how our Federal Forest lands are managed is staggering. Many are complicated, confusing, and contradictory. This layer upon layer of bureaucratic regulation not only complicates and delays needed management but also provides a rich environment for litigation, often over legal interpretation of obscure agency policies. The following list is just a small example of some of these laws. 

  • National Environmental Policy Act – 1969 
  • National Historic Preservation Act – 1966 
  • Multiple Use Sustained Act – 1960 
  • Wilderness Act – 1964 
  • National Forest Management Act – 1976 
  • Endangered Species Act – 1973 
  • Clean Air Act – 1970 
  • Clean Water Act – 1972 
  • Federal Land Policy and Management Act – 1976 
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response Liability and Compensation Act – 1980 
  • Most, if not all of these acts, were well-intended. But as the list grew so did the requirement for interpretation and enforcement. This has resulted in what today is a nearly impossible task for the managing agencies to actually do on the ground management of our Federal Forest Lands.  

Note the dates these acts were put into law. The conditions on the ground were dramatically different nearly a half-century ago when many of the Laws were passed. Reviewing, updating, modernizing, and providing opportunities to suspend certain regulations to meet emergency situations is critical if we are to deal with current conditions on the ground today, not as they were many decades ago.  

Protecting what we have left of our Federal Forest Lands does not require more restrictions, and layers of new regulations. It requires identifying the real threats posed by a warming climate, including insect infestation, disease, and especially wildfire.  

Doug Robertson served as Commissioner of Douglas County, Oregon for 33 years, and as the President of O&C Counties for 25 years, stepping down in 2014. Since then, Doug has remained involved in advocating for common sense management of federal forests through organizations including Communities for Health Forests. Email Doug at robertsonjd44@outlook.com and watch for more commentary from CHF, or sign up to receive the CHF newsletter at www.communitiesforhealthyforests.com.