I am an environmentalist.  I also work for the timber industry.  Some people might see that as a contradiction.  But in the timber industry, that’s the norm.

I grew up in Springfield exploring Oregon’s incredible natural treasures.  I have hiked Oregon’s volcanoes, rafted down our state’s wild and scenic rivers, got lost in the woods, and swam and fished in our ice cold lakes.

I plan on living in Oregon for the rest of my life and hope to share these same, amazing experiences with my kids and grandkids.  My coworkers and colleagues feel the same way.  That’s exactly why we work for the timber industry: to keep Oregon’s forests healthy, the environment clean, and to ensure our rural communities are vibrant and safe.

But we have a lot of work to do if we want to protect Oregon’s special places.  The truth is, our state is facing an environmental crisis.  Climate change, disease and bug infestations, drought, and catastrophic wildfires are threatening Oregon’s public forests and the extraordinary economic and ecological benefits they provide.

The impacts of our forest health crisis are already apparent in California, where more than 65 million trees are dying or dead.  Leaders in California are asking the Federal government for emergency relief to treat and replant its dying forests.  But under current Federal rules and regulations, it would take years and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars before restoration work could even begin.

The more likely scenario will be for millions of California trees to rot, burn, and spew stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – to say nothing of the economic loss and public safety risk.  With the resulting lack of replanting and a changing climate many of these forests will instead become brush fields.

Oregon should take note and then take action.  Now, more than ever, we need a plan to save Oregon’s public forests through proactive management and local and regional partnerships.  Congress has passed new laws, such as the Good Neighbor Authority, that would allow the State of Oregon to work hand-in-hand with the Forest Service to thin hundreds of thousands of acres of unhealthy forests before it’s too late.

Under current policy, Federal agencies are only treating hundreds of acres at a time.  That’s not good enough.  Oregon has 30 million acres of forest land and the Federal government owns more than 60 percent.  In order to avoid California’s fate, land managers must increase both the pace and scale of forest restoration projects.  Additional tools and money are needed from Congress to accelerate planning processes and implementation of work in the woods.

If Oregon takes action now, it can also help avert another crisis: the economic and social collapse of our rural communities.  As the Portland metro-area continues to pull itself out of the Great Recession, rural Oregon is being left behind.

Real unemployment in southern and eastern Oregon communities is still in the double-digits.  The number of students eligible for free or reduced lunches in rural Oregon – a key indicator of poverty – is staggering.  Sadly, more than 63 percent of kids in my hometown school district, Springfield, are eligible for the program.

In places like Josephine County, a county that recently lost its last remaining sawmill, one in four Oregonians lives in poverty and 30 percent rely on food stamps.  To make matters worse, essential county government services like law enforcement, search and rescue, mental health, education, and roads – are being slashed as county revenues from federal timber sales remain at historic low levels.

Oregon’s timber industry is perfectly positioned to help the State of Oregon solve the looming environmental crisis and our state’s rural economic crisis.  Our industry could put thousands of unemployed and under-employed Oregonians back to work thinning our forests, transporting materials to local facilities, manufacturing carbon friendly wood products, and generating renewable energy by using every scrap of wood that comes from our forests.

Exciting new advances in technology, engineering, and architecture put Oregon’s timber industry at the forefront of innovative and game-changing products, such as cross laminated timber.  As Portland continues to grow up and out, Oregon could use its own raw materials, made by local workers, in local mills, to build some of the most sustainable and beautiful buildings, schools, and houses in the United States.

Oregon faces serious ecological and economic challenges.  But these challenges provide very real opportunities to protect our incredible natural treasures for current and future generations, grow our economy, and put rural Oregonians back to work.  Now is the time for a vision and action, or else we may watch our state’s unparalleled natural beauty go up in smoke with the fate of Oregon’s rural communities not far behind.

-Travis Joseph