Small Towns May Win Smoke Protection
Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard
Facing a dilemma created by population growth in Oregon's rural communities, the state Forestry Board will soon decide at what point small towns become big enough to merit protection from the smoke of logging industry slash burning.
State environmental officials say once a town reaches 10,000 population, state forestry officials should automatically take extra precautions before allowing timber companies to burn near the town's boundaries.
Under that approach, towns such as Florence, Sweet Home and Prineville, which are all nearing 10,000, might soon be eligible for the special protections.
But the forest industry opposes automatic thresholds and would rather that city leaders be required to petition the state with evidence that slash-burn smoke is blanketing their town.
The state Forestry Department's goal is to keep the air clean but also to maximize the timber industry's ability to burn slash - big piles of branches, stumps and other waste wood at logging sites - said Charlie Stone, a state employee who's shepherding a major overhaul of forestry burning rules.
"We don't want to cover the map - everywhere there are people ... because then you'll never be able to accomplish the burn," Stone said.
Oregon's logging industry wants to continue doing what it's long done: Torch 1.5 million to 2 million tons of slash annually on private and public timber lands.
In Lane and Linn counties alone, as many as 750 slash fires are needed every year to clear as many as 14,000 acres of logged forest and prepare them for replanting.
The forest industry and the U.S. Forest Service hopes the overhaul of the rules will allow them to burn even more, Stone said.
But new arrivals in Oregon's booming small towns have medical problems such as asthma and heart disease, which are exacerbated by smoke.
Meanwhile, on the behalf of people nationwide with those problems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limited the amount of smoke - from any source - allowed to hang in a community's air.
Oregon officials worry that townspeople might someday flex their muscles and seek to prevent timber companies from burning nearly as many tons of slash as they need to.
Bigger cities, bigger fires?
Under state law, the Oregon Board of Forestry and the state Department of Environmental Quality must agree on new rules for protecting the air over growing towns. The issue is part of a major overhaul of the rules governing the state's forestry smoke management program.
The forestry board is expected to consider the issue on March 7. The DEQ's advisory board may start deliberations in April.
The overhaul also could allow larger fires near big towns, such as Eugene-Springfield, which have been on the protected list since near the start of the smoke management program three decades ago.
Current law limits the number of total tons that could be burned within 30 miles of a protected city, with the amounts calibrated to match the weather conditions.
The proposed overhaul would take off the tons-per-mile limits and instead allow state meteorologists to decide day-by-day how many acres can be set ablaze next to cities.
"Science has improved. Technology has improved," said Mike Dykzeul of the Oregon Forest Industries Council.
But Gary Stevens, the program manager at Jackson County Environmental Health who was on the rule review committee, said meteorologists are fallible, and if the wind changes direction, towns are smothered. …