ASHLAND — This spring’s high school graduating seniors were newborns the last time the U.S. Forest Service proposed a major forest thinning project around here — 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.”

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.”

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.”

The Lomkatsi crew’s work this day is the fruit of a new wave of collaborative agreements on timber in Oregon. Instead of locking horns in expensive court battles that often delay work for years, collaborative groups of environmentalists, timber leaders, agency officials, and local residents negotiate long-term agreements that provide a little something for everyone.

In Ashland, the stakes are high for area businesses. In 2013, smoke from nearby fires forced the Ashland Shakespeare Festival to cancel several shows, and the Rouge Valley’s outdoor recreation sector reported losing more than $100,000 per day during the blaze.

Restoration projects are designed to minimize these disruptions, and they can bring an economic boost, especially for the rural mills that purchase their logs. After closing in 2013 due to uncertain timber supply, the Rough & Ready mill in nearby Cave Junction re-opened last year after redesigning its mill to better handle the small-diameter logs that are harvested in restoration projects. For the investment to pay off, mill President Link Phillippi says, thinning projects must begin to move past the planning stage. “Instead of just talking about it,” he told InvestigateWest, “we need to start doing it.”

In economically depressed communities around the state, local leaders are betting on collaboration as a solution to the gridlock.

The project in Ashland has emerged as a model for success. Learning from its failed HazRed initiative, the Forest Service worked with community partners and local residents to develop a plan for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project. The 10-year stewardship agreement helps protect a community of 20,000 residents from catastrophic fire by cutting back overgrown forests — work that has also created as many as 150 seasonal jobs and provided timber to local mills.

The problem: like most models, the Ashland project is built to scale. Its 7,600-acre footprint represents only a tiny fraction of the 1.4 million acres in the Rogue Basin alone that forest ecologists say are in need of treatments. The work around Ashland is also expensive, about $1,200 per acre, and federal agency budgets for this type of project have been shrinking since the Great Recession.

But project collaborators say the costs of inaction in Oregon’s forests are even greater. As fires become increasingly severe, suppression costs will rise and more homes and lives will be lost. Local economies will experience disruptions from lingering smoke, and residents’ health will suffer. And what economists call “ecosystem services” — costs we largely take for granted, like forests’ natural filtration of water — will go up in flames.

While restoration projects may offer hope for better results, scientists say treatments must cover a significant portion of the landscape to truly be effective. That takes money, either from federal agencies or timber sales—or both. “In the long run, there are savings,” Bey says. “But we need money to pay for the work.”

Unnatural fires 

During the Northwest’s record-setting fire season in 2012, southern Oregon’s Barry Point fire took only 22 days to blaze across 145 square miles of private and federal forestland, reducing thousands of Ponderosa pine trees to blackened skeletons. This wasn’t your grandfather’s forest fire, either. Unlike the low-severity burns that used to arrive every 10 to 20 years in these forests, the Barry Point fire burned extremely hot, resulting in tree mortality rates above 75 percent on nearly half its footprint.

The kicker: the fire burned across 67 square miles that were scheduled to be partially restored under a proposed 14-year collaborative effort to reduce fuels in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Crews were set to begin restoration work within months, but fire beat them to it, torching thousands of acres of private timberland, killing ranchers’ cattle, and costing the Forest Service $23 million to suppress. (Later studies showed that fire intensity decreased in areas that had previously been restored.)

The Barry Point fire highlights the mounting costs of gridlock on public lands and helps explain exactly how environmentalists and the timber industry — once bitter adversaries — became allies on forest restoration.

In Oregon, that story begins in the 1990s after efforts to protect the endangered spotted owl forced major reductions in logging on federal land. Facing a shortage of logs, rural Oregon’s struggling mill towns wanted desperately to keep their processing plants supplied with affordable timber.

Meanwhile, progressive conservationists were beginning to question the wisdom of a hands-off approach to forest management. The problem, science showed, is that nature’s forests aren’t all that natural anymore. Native “legacy” trees have been crowded out by smaller intruders that fire once cleared out, depriving the old growth of nutrients.

And the over-accumulation of biofuels has created a dangerous new breed of forest fire. Instead of sweeping through quickly and killing off the underbrush, these mega-fires scorch the soil, nuking beneficial microbes as well as robbing the soil of carbon and nitrogen. (In fact, researchers studying the 2002 Biscuit fire in southwestern Oregon found thattemperatures of more than 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit robbed each acre of 10 tons of carbon and 400-plus tons of nitrogen, a key nutrient. In such a case, it will take a century for the soil and the forest to recover, scientists estimated.)

For Oregon’s dry-area forests, science pointed to a solution: reducing tree density to eventually help fire return safely. While this often entails tedious thinning of plants and small trees that cannot be sold, the restoration prescription also sometimes calls for selective removal of medium-sized trees, which then can be sold to local mills. Leaders in both the environmental and timber communities appear to buying in. According to a list compiled by the University of Oregon’s Ecosystem Workforce Program, there was just one forest collaborative group operating in Oregon 20 years ago. Today, there are at least 25.

“There has been a lot of rebuilding of trust,” says Tom Partin, CEO of the American Forest Resource Council. “Where there are active environmentalists wanting to do something about restoration, the industry is working with them to move projects forward.”

A tense truce

But if the coming together of timber and conservation interests seems inevitable, it’s not — a point underscored by the ongoing legal challenges across the state. Last year, lawsuits and public pressure forced the state to cancel 26 timber sales in the Elliott State Forest, the latest in a string of courtroom victories for environmental groups attempting to halt logging on public lands. Meanwhile, the timber industry is pursuing a legal remedy of its own — the Swanson v. Salazar case — which aims to compel the Bureau of Land Management to increase timber harvests in southern Oregon.

“Frankly, you see the lawsuits happening from both sides,” Sustainable Northwest forestry director Patrick Shannon says. “And anytime there are lawsuits, it shows that some people aren’t getting what they want from the collaborative process.”

For timber companies, restoration projects don’t have the same payoff as traditional timber sales, which generally allow harvesting of larger, more valuable trees. The advantage of collaborative restoration agreements is that they’re supposedly less likely to be shot down in court — but Partin says that hasn’t always panned out. For example, after the Clackamas Stewardship Partners reached an agreement in 2012 for a 2,000-acre thinning project near Mt. Hood, the environmental group “Bark” still sued the Forest Service in an effort to halt logging. Partin says these lawsuits undermine the purpose of the collaborative process.

“If a broad, diverse group wants a project to move forward, then it needs to happen,” Partin says. “It can’t face the risk of being tied up in court.”

Even the Ashland project — widely considered a model for ecology-driven restoration — hasn’t managed to avoid legal challenges. Despite years of collaborative planning between the Forest Service and community partners, the push for consensus hit a snag over just how much logging should be allowed — and where. Local activist and scientist Jay Lininger disagreed with proposals to thin trees in the roadless backcountry and on steep slopes, where he argued that logging could cause soil erosion and increase the risk of landslides. He also attacked what he called a lack of transparency about exactly what was being logged. In 2010 he and former Ashland city councilman Eric Navickas filed a lawsuit challenging the collaborative plan approved by the Forest Service, initiating a series of hearings and appeals that are still unresolved.

Lininger has said he supports the vast majority of the work in question — and the narrow scope of his legal challenge never threatened to kill the project entirely. But the speed bump did reveal just how fragile collaborative agreements can be. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the Forest Service revoked $2 million of the project’s original $6 million grant award, citing concerns that the project might not be completed on time. Only after public pressure from Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley was the funding restored.

Forest restoration near Ashland. Credit: Ben DeJarnette

Yet despite these setbacks, the Ashland effort and collaborative projects around the state appear to be gaining momentum. In 2013, the Forest Service and eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountain Forest Partners worked out a 10-year stewardship agreement to thin trees in the Malheur National Forest, promising an annual timber yield of more than 50 million board feet. The deal helped rescue the town of John Day, a small eastern Oregon timber community where the last surviving sawmill was on the brink of shutting down.

Collaborators in Ashland received similar good news this spring, when the Ashland project was awarded grants totaling $3.2 million to continue its restoration work. The boost came amid indications that community support for the project is at an all-time high. According to a study by Southern Oregon University professor Mark Shibley, 74 percent of residents surveyed in 2013 agreed that commercial thinning and density management in Ashland is a “legitimate tool that resource managers should use more often” — up from 53 percent just a year earlier.

For a region still scarred by the timber wars, it’s a number that once would have seemed impossible, especially after the HazRed fiasco 18 years ago. “I think we’ve come a long way when log trucks can drive down the streets of Ashland and get a thumbs up as opposed to a middle finger,” Bey says. “There are still issues that come up, but this project has a lot of support.”

But who will pay?

Even when collaboration yields agreements with widespread support, projects face another major challenge: finding the funding to get started. Since 2009, Forest Service spending on fuels treatments in Oregon has dipped 41 percent, from $21.9 million to $12.9 million annually. The budget shortfalls have been even more severe at the Bureau of Land Management, where the Medford District’s fuels-reduction budget fell from $11.8 million in 2003 to just $3.1 million a year ago.

The cuts have hit hard for local contractors. Michael Wheelock, president of Josephine County-based Grayback Forestry, says his company has lost half of its thinning and restoration workload in southern Oregon, resulting in layoffs for some 40 employees. Other workers have been forced to travel to projects hundreds of miles away, while their hometown forests — among the most overgrown in the state, according to a study by the Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy — slip further into disrepair.

With federal dollars in short supply, one solution is to develop projects that bring in enough revenue to cover treatment costs. In 2014, a report by the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative identified 54,000 acres in the Illinois Valley alone that would be eligible for treatments — and unlike the Ashland stewardship project, these forest parcels were screened for economic viability. The high density of merchantable timber there and proximity to existing roads would allow agencies to recoup most of the direct treatment costs, while still enhancing forest health, said George McKinley, executive director of the forest collaborative.

The study has the support of a diverse coalition of partners, including The Nature Conservancy and Rough & Ready Lumber Co., and work is underway to expand analysis across the entire Rogue Basin. Phillippi, Rough & Ready’s president, says restoration alone won’t replace the need for timber sales on public lands, but it could go along way to ensuring rural mills like Rough & Ready keep their workers on the job.

“In a county that’s as broke and strapped for jobs as Josephine County, there are tremendous opportunities just in finding the low-hanging fruit,” Philippi says. “It makes so much sense to start treating these acres, provide some jobs, and have beautiful forests.”


Additional reporting: Robert McClure

Photography: William Saunders

Production: Jason Alcorn

Editor: Robert McClure

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