Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:


Albany Democrat-Herald, Aug. 29, on steps toward new thinking about wildfire:

As Western fire seasons continue to burn hotter and longer, it's becoming clear that we need to start thinking differently about fire and its role in our ecosystems.

If you're keeping tabs on this summer's wildfire season — and it's hard not to do so, the way that smoke keeps coming and going — you might have noticed signs that we're starting to do exactly that.

Exhibit A: Our Sunday story about Paleologos Paleologou, who was studying geography at a Greek university in the summer of 2007 when a series of deadly wildfires erupted around the country. The shocked Paleologou shifted his academic focus, earning a Ph.D. in wildlife behavior modeling and fire effect assessment.

He now lives in Corvallis, where he's working on an 18-month postdoctoral research project as a visiting scholar for the U.S. Forest Service in collaboration with Oregon State University and Portland State University.

Paleologou is part of a team of researchers using computer modeling techniques to analyze where wildfires start and how they spread. The research could make a big difference not just in Greece, but also across the Western United States. One big conclusion thus far: Fire suppression is not enough. Work to lessen fuel loads also is essential. But, too often, that work follows political boundaries such as city limits or county lines — boundaries that wildfires don't respect.

The work that Paleologou and his colleagues are working on revolves around the idea of what they're calling "firesheds." Think of them as you would watersheds; a fireshed is a region defined by wildfires that have affected it in the past and may affect it in the future. Using computer simulations, researchers can predict what sort of wildfire scenarios are most likely to pose a threat to a given community and where those fires are most likely to start.

This sort of sophisticated modeling can also tell foresters where it makes the most sense to take preventive steps such as cutting fire breaks, thinning forests and setting prescribed burns. It won't be unusual for a fireshed to cross over political or ownership boundaries, but that's the way it should be: Fires don't stop burning when they reach a county line or a boundary between private and public ownership.

Paleologou and his colleagues also are encouraged by signs that we're starting to change the way we think about wildfire in our forest.

"The policy we have had for the last 100 years is we suppress every fire that comes to the mountains," he said. "We need fires — this is a change we need to make in people's minds. The new strategy is to allow some natural ignitions to burn naturally, to restore the role of fire in the forest."

Of course, he adds, firefighters must be ready to move in if these fires threaten to burn out of control, and more work needs to be done to reduce fuel loads.

These attitudes won't change overnight; after all, they've been building for a century. But even the U.S. Forest Service — the agency that for decades sought to extinguish fires by 10 a.m. as often as possible — is starting to shift its thinking about wildfire.

And it's not as if smoke will be disappearing from our skies overnight, which is why a new proposal from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden caught our attention: The Oregon Democrat on Tuesday introduced legislation that would help people forced to seek shelter from wildfire smoke when it reaches unhealthy levels in communities.

The bill is dubbed the Clean Air Refugee Assistance Act of 2018. It would allow those seeking temporary shelter from smoke to apply for relief under a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that covers temporary lodging for people who can't immediately return home after a disaster. The bill is worthy of consideration: Just as we're making new discoveries about fire behavior, we're also learning more about the health hazards caused by extended exposure to smoke.


The Daily Astorian, Aug. 28, on needing a replica Goonies house:

What does Astoria's Goonies house have in common with Abe Lincoln's boyhood cabin? Both are examples of humble dwellings that have taken on outsized symbolic importance.

Unlike the Lincoln cabin in Illinois, which is a replica — the original is said to have been used for firewood after being displayed at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago — the actual Goonies movie setting continues to attract visitors to the site it occupied long before the filming of the 1985 cult classic.

In fact, we don't need to look all the way east to Honest Abe's cabin to find a close corollary to the Goonies house. Just a few miles away from it, the replica of Fort Clatsop — or perhaps actually a replica of the replica that burned down in 2005 — attracts thousands of visitors. Even closer at hand, the far less-famous Astoria Customs House is a replica of the actual structure, which was built in 1852.

These comparisons are relevant in light of perennial complaints about Goonies fans intruding into the 38th Street neighborhood where the movie house is located. Many of Astoria's steep old streets only barely manage to accommodate the access and parking needs of residents. When Steven Spielberg made "The Goonies," production activities were a short-term novelty and inconvenience. Little did Spielberg or the neighborhood realize the story of a plucky band of treasure-hunting kids would spark a playful decades-long love affair between fans and all things Goonie.

While it may seem to Astorians that this phenomenon must surely someday run its course, "The Goonies" has amazing staying power. Daily Astorian reporter Katie Frankowicz's story last week about continuing efforts to resolve conflicts between fans and residents quickly became our most-viewed article of the month. On a more positive note, Astoria's popular Oregon Film Museum really owes its existence to this one movie — more than to all the others, including "Free Willy" and "Kindergarten Cop." ''The Goonies" plays a significant role in Astoria's economy and mystique.

As our story indicated, managing friction between fans and residents depends in part on consistent patrols and enforcement of parking restrictions. If a Goonies sequel is ever made — and Hollywood loves trying to capitalize on proven successes — much thought will have to be devoted to planning not only for filming impacts, but for an inevitable resurgence of attention for the story's original settings around Clatsop County.

Returning to the subject of replicas, it is remarkable that entrepreneurs haven't recreated the Goonies house set in a more convenient location, stocking it with photo backdrops, fake doubloons, an actor costumed as Sloth, and belly-revealing T-shirts.

Negotiating licensing agreements would take some creative legal footwork, but fortunes have been made on smaller premises than this. And if private industry can't manage it, perhaps the envisioned expanded film museum will incorporate a convincing house replica, luring fans away from the original where they are less than welcome.

For all of its well-earned reputation as a place with a commitment to remaining genuine and connected to its hardworking roots, Astoria remains more than a little starstruck. It's fun for such a small city to have such a big connection to the movies. We must continue exploring ways to make the most of this linkage, while finding better ways to politely play host to new generations of movie fans.


The Register-Guard, Aug. 28, on video surveillance in downtown Eugene:

The city of Eugene is moving ahead with limited use of mobile surveillance systems, opening a universe of choices about how extensive the systems should be, and how much the city should spend on them.

The city, wisely, looks to start small, buying perhaps three mobile systems with mast-top cameras and placing them downtown or in other areas with crime.

The equipment prompts many questions, none of which have been definitively answered, including how long the city will keep the video recordings, how often police would monitor the video screens live, and whether the systems have cut crime elsewhere.

Eugene is best advised to take small steps in this, and offer plenty of opportunity for community input.

Eugene is hardly the first U.S. city to consider municipal surveillance systems. They've been widely deployed in many cities for years. Chicago has more than 2,000 of what the city calls "police observation devices," or surveillance cameras, some in place for close to two decades. Atlanta has about 8,000 municipal surveillance cameras, including 130 license place readers.

Newark, New Jersey, earlier this year committed to installing hundreds of surveillance cameras after Hurricane Sandy demolished an older system. An innovation with the new system: members of the public can sign up and watch any of the footage the cameras are catching, live.

An Urban Institute research paper in 2011 said surveillance cameras had proven an effective deterrent in some locations but not in others. The institute also said costs of installation, maintenance and monitoring can be substantial. While the presence of the cameras has some deterrent effect, their greatest value is in live monitoring, allowing police to intervene in real time, the institute said. But that takes a lot of staff time, something Eugene isn't contemplating at the moment.

Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner said he doesn't rule out live monitoring, saying police could use the cameras to check in on what was happening at a particular location. But mainly, he said, he likes the deterrent effect, plus having archival video that police can retrieve to help prosecute and convict criminals.

He also likes the idea of mobile equipment, which can be moved to new locations as needed, instead of fixed cameras.

He'll work out exact protocols with city staff, the Eugene Police Commission and the City Council.

Some cities, in addition to having their own extensive surveillance systems, also partner with private property owners who have surveillance systems. That can involve residents or companies signing up with the city, so the city can quickly contact them to access the private footage. Or, the partnerships involve letting the city automatically access the private security footage. In Chicago, the city is reported to have access to some 27,000 private security cameras.

Eugene does not have such a sign-up system.

The American Civil Liberties Union has bird-dogged the issue of public surveillance for years. In 2011, it tabbed the Chicago system a "pervasive and unregulated threat to our privacy." The ACLU acknowledges surveillance systems can help in some cases to document crimes and track criminals. But it says the effectiveness of surveillance systems is unproven.

The ACLU laments the nation's shift into a "total surveillance society." It fears video surveillance may tentatively flag innocent people as provisionally suspicious. Stuart Kaplan, a director of the Oregon ACLU, wrote in an ACLU paper that with ubiquitous surveillance, "people lose their freedom to be anonymous in public space. The ability to act anonymously in public is a cherished tradition in free societies. Even though we know that other persons might observe us, we typically have an idea of who is watching and can act accordingly. That quality of public space is lost when the observer is a surveillance camera."

Many people probably agree with that sentiment, which means surveillance protocols will need clear provisions for access and archiving. But given fairly high crime levels and no money to hire more police, carefully implemented surveillance is worth a shot in Eugene.


East Oregonian, Aug. 26, on needing better forestry to avoid an age of bad air:

Americans have looked down our noses at the Chinese, whose dirty air we've seen on television — dreary gray and brown, shrouding ugly streets in a kind of sickly twilight. How disheartening it is to find ourselves dealing with such ugly air here in the Pacific Northwest this August.

Forest-fire smoke surrounds us. As the National Weather Service maps have clearly shown, Umatilla and Morrow counties are the edge of the dustpan, where smoke from fires in British Columbia and elsewhere in the Northwest collects and sticks.

As a result of fires, air-quality monitoring systems in the two states have classified conditions as unhealthy across many thousands of square miles of the Pacific Northwest. This comes with warnings about limiting the amount of time spent outdoors and curbing physical activities that might cause us to breathe in more smoke. It's a little like being stuck in a smoky tavern with no exit — although diluted forest fire chemicals aren't as injurious as tobacco smoke, thankfully.

It's possible our region hasn't suffered such persistently bad air — especially in non-urban areas — since the catastrophic Oregon North Coast burns of the 1930s and 1940s, during which much of the Coast Range went up in smoke.

Aside from being grateful for clean-air rules that began curbing industrial air pollution in the 1970s, what should be our response to forest fires and the smoke they cause? If the past several years are anything to go by, developing better strategies will become vital as our continent's climate changes. And although it's safe to say that almost everyone is against smoke, dealing with underlying issues will be extremely tricky.

It rushes us headlong into controversies over forest thinning, timber harvests, under-story maintenance, controlled burns and how (or even whether) to regulate residential building within the Pacific Northwest's forest interface. All these subjects have evoked expensive lawsuits and destructive political battles. To say that there is little trust would be an understatement. Circumstances may force the combatants to overcome these differences, or at least spur less-polarized middle-of-the-road citizens to begin mandating smarter decisions.

So when it comes to avoiding dangerously destructive forest fires and the harms they create, what might smarter management look like?

Many solutions are likely to entail seeking and following the advice of professional forest managers, rather than either acquiescing to decisions forced by environmental lawsuits on the one hand, or back-room industry manipulations on the other. Forest policies should be made on a time scale of multiple decades or centuries, and not change with presidential administrations. Neither the environment nor industry are well-served by a tangled-up political mess in which strategic decisions are so hard to make and stick with.

Foresters aren't guaranteed to agree with one another, of course. While there was disagreement within the agency, National Forest Service policies notoriously favored harvest over all other options during much of the 20th century. The same was true of state forestry agencies in the Pacific Northwest. Only with generational change in personnel was there a gradual shift to more balance between harvest, thinning, conservation and other options. Moving forward in the 21st century, we should insist on carefully designed consensus-based management groups, with mechanisms to protect against political and judicial manipulation.

The answers won't be easy to find or accept. Additional harvest is likely in many cases to be the most affordable way to control fire risk, while providing a useful economic boost to rural areas. Thinning will be more environmentally palatable in other places, but tends to be expensive. Prescribed burns — never popular — will sometimes be the right way to go.

We in the Northwest don't want to have to get used to having dangerous air. Nobody should have to become good at wearing filtration masks, or interpreting air-quality warnings. We must get ahead of the fires before they get ahead of us.


The Bend Bulletin, Aug. 25, on squandering taxpayer money:

Today's lesson: How to squander taxpayer money. Start with a cause that looks good. Use public money to pick winners and losers. Add in questionable oversight. And wait.

Oregon's Department of Energy helped create a textbook case, highlighted recently by a new state audit and an article in The Oregonian.

Legislators created a small-scale energy loan program to "finance fixed-rate, secured loans for the development of energy conservation, renewable energy and recycling projects within Oregon."

There's your good cause.

Enter SoloPower. It was going to make better solar panels. They were lighter and thinner. It was going to create some 450 good-paying jobs in Oregon in north Portland.

The state of Oregon backed the concept.

The state Energy Department loaned the company $10 million in 2011. Business Oregon gave it $20 million in tax credits. There were another $197 million in federal tax credits. Portland chipped in too, agreeing to cover half the debt to the state if SoloPower created the jobs.

There were reasons to think it would all come together. The company had access to millions to invest in a factory and did so.

There's the picking of the winner.

What could possibly go wrong?

The product was untested. It was not a proven market.

There's some questionable oversight.

It all came crashing down. The panels turned out to be more expensive than other panels. They did not sell well enough. The company shut down the factory in 2013. Soon after, all the government entities were scrambling to get their money back. Multnomah County was looking to seize SoloPower's equipment for delinquent taxes. Portland was on the hook for its $5 million to the state. It will be paying that off until October 2020.

Then in July 2017, the state Department of Energy heaped on some more financial misery. SoloPower asked the department for money to cover its rent for a couple months. The department had already declared SoloPower in default. It gave SoloPower $641,835 for rent, anyway.

It was not a quick or casual decision. It took months of discussion. But a new state audit shows the state department got no collateral. It chose to believe verbal assurances that some injection of capital would revive SoloPower. Go ahead and call that stupid.

There's some more questionable oversight.

SoloPower now appears to be dead. Squandering complete.