Timber companies and environmental groups take a stab at collaboration to boost logging and restoration in Oregon fires.
This spring’s high school graduating seniors were newborns the last time the U.S. Forest Service proposed a major forest thinning project around Ashland — and the outcome was a disaster. Nicknamed “HazRed,” the controversial fuels-reduction proposal included plans to commercially log large sections of forest, with trees as wide as six feet reportedly marked for removal.
In the explosive public backlash, residents bombarded the Forest Service with negative comments, conservation groups filed appeals, a district ranger was fired (then rehired) and years of administrative and legal wrangling undermined the public’s already uneasy trust.
“The Forest Service had a different direction then,” says Marko Bey, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Lomakatsi Restoration Project, which manages forest restoration projects in Oregon and northern California. “There was a lot of contention.”
In the long run, there are savings. But we need money to pay for the work.
Today the buzz and rattle of chainsaws along a steep slope in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest tells a story of redemption in Ashland’s watershed. It’s an unseasonably balmy morning in March, and a 12-man Lomakatsi crew is carefully clearing out densely packed, spindly fir trees from around the thick trunks of pines and black oaks.
The brush buildup is the legacy of a century-plus of suppressing all forest fires, an official government policy now widely understood to be misguided. Fires clean out forests. Now, though, forests around Ashland and across the state are so packed with dense growth that fears of unnaturally catastrophic wildfires loom.
This summer could be especially severe. As crew members cut and slash their way across the 90-acre unit, Mt. Ashland towers in the distance, its paltry snowpack a reminder of the abnormally warm, dry weather that parked itself over southern Oregon and much of the Northwest last winter. With fire officials saying these conditions could usher in a doozy of a fire season, every treated unit counts. Come summer, the work might make the difference between a manageable fire and a catastrophic blaze.
The Lomakatsi crew labors on. “One acre at a time,” Bey says. “One stick at a time. If we have a fire in here, we’re going to be able to deal with it much better than five years ago.”
In a county that's as broke and strapped for jobs as Josephine County, there are tremendous opportunities in finding the low-hanging fruit.
Bey’s stick-by-stick approach is no joke. His technical team carefully plans treatments in advance, identifying landslide hazard zones (look for the orange-and-black ribbons) and selecting which trees to cut (marked blue). And while most of the thinned brush is piled and burned to reduce fire fuels, the crews also leave some downed trees untouched to mimic natural “wind-fall” events.
It’s a mix of science and artistry — and a far cry from the thinning projects of a generation ago, when forest ecology took a backseat to timber economics. The work in Ashland still generates some commercially marketable logs — 3.5 million board feet so far — but the motivating goals are different. “The objective here is restoration,” Bey says. “The objective is to protect the habitat, protect the water quality, reduce fire severity and maintain the integrity of the forest.”