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Hazard tree logging should stop temporarily

There is plenty to debate about salvage logging of burned trees after wildfires. The timber industry says it’s important to cut down and remove still-usable trees before they rot and become worthless for lumber, and then replant to replenish the forest for future generations. Environmentalists say cutting down burned trees does more harm than good, damaging fragile soils and making logged areas more vulnerable to future fires, not less.

But some burned trees must be removed because they pose a hazard to human life and property. But there are rules about how many can be cut and where, and those rules should be followed. It appears unscrupulous contractors may be ignoring those rules, and that should stop.

So-called hazard trees, if left standing after a fire, can fall across roads and highways, potentially causing injury or death to motorists, and those standing near homes can pose a danger as well. The Oregon Department of Transportation has contracted with companies to remove hazard trees left standing after last year’s wildfires.

But in testimony before the Senate Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery Committee in Salem last Wednesday, whistleblowers, landowners and others told lawmakers the program lacks oversight and is plagued by unqualified staff, disputes over what trees should be cut and even outright fraud. If confirmed, the allegations could jeopardize funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is reimbursing the state for the work.

Committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, wrote a letter to Gov. Kate Brown last week asking her to suspend the hazard tree program immediately and launch an investigation by a neutral party.

On Friday, ODOT officials said they plan to hire an independent arborist or forester to review the hazard logging program, which has already cut 30,000 trees.

Concern about the management of the tree removal program comes as the price of lumber on the open market has skyrocketed as a result of pandemic cutbacks in production coupled with soaring demand for building materials. That makes every tree cut far more valuable than it was even a year ago, and only increases the temptation for contractors to cut corners or exceed logging limits to boost profits.

In a hearing before the House Special Committee On Wildfire Recovery on Friday, committee chair Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, acknowledged that lawmakers have pressured ODOT to speed up tree removal operations so highways can be reopened, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. A Marion County commissioner urged lawmakers not to halt the logging because people in the area are waiting to rebuild and hazard trees must be removed before that can happen.

The urgency to rebuild is understandable. But Oregonians deserve to have confidence that publicly funded work is being done correctly. A temporary halt to make sure the rules are being followed is not unreasonable.