Aggressive plans needed to avert a catastropheOne of the legacies of the kind of forest management espoused by the Hells Canyon Preservation Council (HCPC), the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC), the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups is the increase in catastrophic wildfires throughout the western United States.

For better or for worse, these groups have convinced the public that it is better to let forests burn than it is to let loggers in to remove trees with chainsaws. Consequently, millions of acres of forest land are burning in the western United States every summer.

Fortunately here in Wallowa County the human toll of this hands off approach to forest management has been largely financial. Sawmills have closed, loggers have left the region in search of work elsewhere, schools and businesses have downsized, government services have been reduced, and personal income has failed to keep pace with the metropolitan areas. Painful as these consequences are to the community and its members at least no human deaths have yet been attributed to wildfires, which over the past 10 years have blackened hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land between Hells Canyon and the Wallowa Mountains.

The operative word is "yet." Unless dramatic steps are taken it is only a matter of time until this community will see some fire-related deaths.

It is a miracle the more than 300 homes at the south end of Wallowa Lake have thus far been spared. Conditions there are considered ideal for a wildfire that could put thousands of lives at risk. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that on Mount Howard up to 80 percent of the trees above the 6,400 foot level are dead, with an additional 40 tons per acre of fuel laying on the ground. Below that elevation there are even greater amounts of fuel. In other words, under the right conditions Mount Howard could burn up in a matter of minutes. To complicate matters further, the Wallowa Lake community is surrounded by two other mountains - Bonneville and Joseph - where similar conditions persist. Worse, they are located within the Eagle Cap Wilderness where fire fighting efforts would be severely limited under federal law.

Public officials close to the situation imagine a real nightmare quickly unfolding at the head of the lake if, God forbid, a wildfire of the magnitude that is very common in Wallowa County these days would come roaring down over Howard, Bonneville or Joseph. These public officials imagine a traffic jam on Highway 82, the only road into and out of the resort area, preventing the arrival of fire fighting apparatus and the exodus of people trying to get out of harm's way.

Fortunately the issue is being addressed by the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners and its Natural Resources Advisory Committee (NRAC), which is putting pressure on the U.S. Forest Service to take steps as soon as possible to mitigate the danger on Mount Howard. The county is advancing a systematic plan for reducing the fuel loads on the mountain that includes educating the public, controlled burning near the mountain top, and logging at the lower elevations. Hopefully these plans will not encounter the same kind of opposition that other fuel reductions programs in Wallowa County have encountered at the hands of environmental groups.

By and large, the county is on the right track by sounding the alarm on Mount Howard. However, we wish county officials would do more to integrate their plans with those of the only permittee on the mountain, owners of the Wallowa Lake Tram and their long range plans for a ski area. If the Forest Service can reduce fire danger and at the same time provide for additional recreation on the mountain, that would be a win-win for the ecology, economy, and public safety. R.S.

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