By Nick Smith

Opponents of active management on national forests often claim it degrades recreational opportunities on public lands. Yet two recent news stories demonstrate why that claim is flawed.

The Deschutes National Forest recently was forced to temporarily close Cultus Lake Campground and a day-use area after discovering it’s surrounded by over 450 dead or diseased trees that “could fall and kill people.” Instead of responding quickly to the public safety risk and keeping the popular recreational site open to the public for the full summer season, the restoration work is delayed because it might affect a spotted owl wandering into the area.

In Southern Oregon, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is closing its Big Pine Campground, known as the home of the tallest known ponderosa pine tree on the planet. The 259-foot ponderosa, which was alive when the Constitution was ratified, succumbed to beetle infestation. Now, it’s dead. A national forest spokeswoman said the campground is closing because the dead tree posed a danger to campers, and couldn’t be removed because “some people might be upset by that.”

In order to accommodate “some people,” the U.S. Forest Service will spend taxpayer dollars to rid the campground of its fire pits, the picnic tables, and other amenities with the hope of opening up in the future to “dispersed” camping. The hundreds of local visitors who treasure the campground as a favorite spot — from family reunions, to high school sports teams, to the casual weekend BBQ — are out of luck.

There’s little doubt Forest Service officials would’ve preferred to move quickly to remove hazard trees and keep these recreation sites open. But their hands are tied. The system of federal forest management is stacked in favor of those who oppose any logging activity, and will use the court system to sue the Forest Service or bury their employees in bureaucracy and red tape.

For instance, the Forest Service just produced a record setting 460-page environmental analysis to try and “bullet proof” their work from legal challenge. The environmental analysis is so large, it’s not printing copies for the public. There’s a good chance the project will be litigated anyway.

It’s sad, but federal land managers spend more than 40 percent of their time preparing planning and analysis paperwork instead of directly managing our federal forests and rangelands. It can take 18 months to four years to satisfy analysis requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act. And the Forest Service can spend months performing required “consultations” with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, even though the agency has its own biologists.

Federal forest policies and the mere threat of lawsuits don’t benefit our public lands, wildlife or recreation. Over 60 million acres of federally-owned forestland is at risk of catastrophic wildfire, insects and disease, yet the Forest Service is only able to treat a tiny fraction in any given year.

The decline of active management on national forests has contributed to overgrown vegetation that fuels massive wildfires, exposed our public forests to serious ecological threats like drought and climate change, and has reduced access to recreational facilities and opportunities.

Forest management versus recreation is a false choice. Whether it is on the Deschutes or the Rogue River-Siskiyou national forests, responsible management can help reduce threats to some of Oregon’s most incredible natural treasures, most popular destinations, and our at-risk recreational facilities. Those who seek to eliminate logging and thinning in the woods are not only creating extraordinary expense to the taxpayer and obstacles to land managers, they are ultimately reducing recreational opportunities for the rest of us.

Nick Smith is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, which advocates for active management of federal forest lands.