CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new study concludes that residents of northeastern Oregon are quite knowledgeable about the problems facing their forests and strongly favor active management to improve forest health - even if it means putting up with a little smoke.
Researchers found that both increased use of prescribed fire and mechanical thinning were supported, far more than might have been anticipated, by people regardless of their age, sex, education or income level.
This Oregon State University survey of residents in Oregon's Blue Mountains region was designed to identify broader public opinion, getting past the vocal minorities and interest groups that often dominate public hearings.
It found that the public prefers to be involved in management decisions on national forest lands; likes to see demonstrations of approaches being considered; and heavily supports forest management for both ecological and economic goals.
"As much as anything else, our survey detected a public impatience with the lack of action, court fights, immobilized bureaucracies and loss of local control," said Bruce Shindler, an OSU assistant professor of forest resources. "People see large stands of dying trees and generally support Forest Service actions to reduce hazardous fuel loads."
This study included responses from 535 individuals in several communities around the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon.
Drought, wildfire, insect and disease epidemics in recent years have ravaged these forests and led to extensive debates on two techniques -prescribed fire and mechanical thinning - that hold the most immediate promise to improve forest health.
Among other findings, the survey showed:
-Use of prescribed fire was supported by 84 percent of the public.
-Even higher support, 93 percent, was voiced for mechanical thinning, especially among those who favored an economic return from the forests - and 85 percent said thinning dead or dying trees was better than leaving them in the forest.
-About 75 percent of those surveyed felt that smoke from prescribed fire was not now a problem, and two-thirds said the smoke is acceptable if it results in a healthier forest.
-A majority, 53 percent, believe that federal forest managers usually create plans without really listening to the local communities.
-In a clear shift away from a "Smokey the Bear" mentality, only 30 percent of those surveyed now feel that all fires, regardless of origin, should be put out as soon as possible.
Much of the economy of northeastern Oregon is based on natural resources, such as forestry, farming and ranching. This may account for the sympathy to the problems facing forest managers and the strong opinions about management options to deal with them, Shindler said.
The survey showed that 84 percent of the public was at least moderately informed about forest conditions, often based on their own observations during outdoor activities. More than two-thirds said the forests were unhealthy, or worse.
"Community members supported a spectrum of policies to improve forest health, but overall they placed the highest priority on approaches that balanced environmental and economic factors," Shindler said. "If forced to make a choice, they leaned slightly towards economic considerations."
More than 1,300 written citizen comments were also obtained in the process of conducting the survey. Common themes included a need for public involvement and local control, frustration over politics, and the desire to lessen influence by special interest groups.
"The Forest Service is threatened by too many politicians, lawsuits and groups pulling in different directions," one survey respondent said. "The courts are making the decisions. Decisions should be based on science and what is best for the forest, not by how people will react."
This survey included communities near the Ochoco, Malheur, Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests. It was done in collaboration with the Blue Mountains Natural Resources Institute in LaGrande and the Global Environmental Protection Program of the U.S. Forest Service.