To the editor and interested residents of Grant County:
Many people have recently asked me for information regarding the Oregon Department of Forestry's tentative proposal to regulate the disposal of juniper slash.
Landowners have expressed concern about potential personal expense. Organizations working to limit juniper encroachment and fund related projects have expressed concern that regulatory changes might discourage forest owners from engaging in juniper control. Many individuals are under the misimpression that the state is proposing a new harvest "tax" on juniper wood, similar to the tax assessed on commercial timber species.
I have contacted the State Board of Forestry and the Department of Forestry and been given the following information:
Contrary to rumors, the state is NOT proposing to initiate a stumpage or harvest tax on juniper logs. The state has no intention of taxing juniper like commercial species traditionally sold for profit.
State foresters ARE, however, increasingly concerned about the fire hazard posed by large amounts of untreated juniper slash following juniper control projects. This slash presents a fire risk not only to the treated properties, but also to adjacent private and public lands. As is commonly known, dry slash piles of any forest species are explosively flammable. If they are large or numerous they can quickly cause a wildfire to burn out of control.
The state is obligated to provide fire control for wildfires on private lands. This is very expensive. Fire suppression costs often exceed $1,000 per acre. Private forest landowners statewide and the state's general fund provide a pool of funding for fire protection on private lands. This ensures that an individual private landowner is not required to pay for the State's help in controlling a naturally occurring wildfire such as one caused by lightning.
Individual landowners are, however, legally required to pay for the control of any fires that arise from or are contributed to by their own negligence. This includes fires in slash left after the logging of commercial species such as pine and fir. This also applies to noncommercial treatments such as thinning of young, overstocked stands where the trees are too small to be merchantable and are left on the ground. Private forest owners are required to appropriately dispose of slash to reduce fire risk. If a landowner does not, the landowner is potentially liable for all firefighting costs related to that slash.
The current regulations do not, however, similarly address fires associated with slash from juniper control projects, although juniper slash poses as much fire risk as any other type of forest slash. Consequently, the state is considering ways to deal with the fire risk created by the steadily increasing amount of this type of slash.
At the same time, the state does not want to discourage forest owners from controlling encroaching juniper trees. Instead, the state wants to encourage private landowners and organizations funding juniper control to voluntarily include appropriate slash control measures in the design of all juniper control projects. Landowners who do dispose of the juniper slash would not be subject to new control fees or rates from the state.
Landowners who instead decide to leave large amounts of untreated juniper slash on their land after juniper control projects would have a choice. They could either pay the state to assume the full liability for the cost of any fire that starts in or moves through the untreated slash, or landowners can take on that liability themselves. If they choose to pay the state, the amount is limited to a maximum of $10 per acre. This amount would not come close to covering the state's cost if there was a fire so this alternative is least preferred by the state.
The state plans to assemble a committee in this autumn to consider this matter and make initial recommendations to the State Board of Forestry. The committee will include a member representing private forest owners as well as experts in modeling fire behavior.
If you have questions concerning this issue, please feel free to contact me or the local Department of Forestry office.
Roje S. Gootee is a forest policy consultant and landowner in the Ritter area.