By Nick Smith

In her recent letter to The Bulletin, Sarah Cuddy is correct that public land managers will be challenged over the next 50 years to accommodate Oregon’s growing population. But the call to set aside more federal land as designated wilderness areas will only increase the risk of our public lands being “loved to death.” It will also reduce public lands access and activities for many Oregonians.

The U.S. Forest Service can best support the state’s recreation economy by actively managing our national forests to mitigate the effects of climate change, drought and catastrophic wildfire. This can’t be accomplished if certain groups are successful in adding over 525,000 acres of new designated wilderness on national forests in Central and Southern Oregon.

It’s important to understand the distinction between national forests and designated wilderness. National forests are intended to be managed under a multiple-use mandate, consistent with the Forest Service’s mission “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.” Such uses include timber, motorized and nonmotorized recreation, grazing and wildlife habitat. Designating national forests as wilderness areas significantly reduces the uses and activities of citizens on these lands.

Consequently, it ties the hands of public land managers by limiting the tools they can use to keep forests healthy and naturally resilient. Due to broken federal policies, our forests and communities already suffer from the lack of active management and the resulting spread of forest fires, insects and disease. Now more than half of the Forest Service’s budget is spent on fighting these large and severe wildfires. This often comes at the expense of nonfire programs such as facility and road maintenance, the very programs we need to accommodate recreation users.

Designating more wilderness also picks winners and losers among public lands users, and denies an important source of jobs and economic opportunities for many rural communities. There are good reasons why wilderness proposals for national forests in Central and Southern Oregon have generated so much local opposition. Much of the forestland is classified as high risk of catastrophic wildfire and in desperate need of proactive and preventive treatment to reduce fuel loads. Designating these forests as wilderness also undermines the work of forest collaboratives, representing diverse interests, to reach agreement on forest restoration projects.

Creating more wilderness around Crater Lake, where a national park and 280,000 acres of wilderness already exists, would be counterproductive to Oregon’s recreation economy. The area has experienced several large fires in recent years. There are growing concerns, including those from tourism-related businesses, that larger fires in future seasons could threaten the National Park, Diamond Lake and other natural resources and amenities.

Wilderness proponents often tout the economic impact of recreation, yet many recreational activities on federal lands require motorized and “mechanized” access. The Forest Service has already decommissioned thousands of miles of forest roads in Oregon. Closing more roads and outlawing activities such as snowmobiling and mountain biking will not support local jobs and the region’s economy. Limiting access will also reduce access to many disabled Americans who are simply unable to hike into the backcountry to enjoy these lands.

There’s no stopping Oregon’s population boom. Many newcomers will recreate on our public lands, and some will build homes and start businesses nearby. Creative solutions are needed to utilize and conserve our natural resources, but designating more land as wilderness and tying the hands of our public lands managers is not a creative solution.

Rather than doing less work on public lands, our federal agencies should be doing more. Rather than locking up our national forests, we should better manage them for multiple uses and benefits such as wildfire mitigation and forest access, so more citizens can enjoy these lands in the future.

— Nick Smith is the executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities. He lives in Sherwood.