A proposed 80,000-acre pilot project to improve forest health while producing timber harvests on federal land in the Applegate Valley is gaining traction, both locally and in Washington, D.C.

A proposed 80,000-acre pilot project to improve forest health while producing timber harvests on federal land in the Applegate Valley is gaining traction, both locally and in Washington, D.C.

Proponents on both sides of the timber wars met in the nation's capital on Wednesday to talk about the project roughed out by two top forest scientists in the Northwest. Joining them were Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, members of the Oregon congressional delegation and federal agency employees.

The project would be in the mid-Applegate Valley on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, and would include portions of watersheds in the Chapman and Keeler creek drainages. A sister project is proposed on BLM land in the Myrtle Creek drainage in Douglas County.

"We've reached a point where our interest in restoring the forest overlaps with the economic interest of getting jobs in the woods — there is a lot of common ground on this," said Joseph Vaile, campaign coordinator with the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Project.

"What is different about this pilot is that, instead of just the BLM coming up with a plan, there will be an incorporation of stakeholders up front in the planning process," he said after attending the meeting. "This will be everybody's project."

"I am hopeful," added Dave Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association. "It's nice to know there is comprehension that our forests are in horrible shape, in massive trouble with the chance of a catastrophic fire increasing each year.

"Of course, there needs to be some give and take on this," said Schott, who was not at Wednesday's meeting. "But we've got to try something."

The two large-scale restoration projects were proposed to Salazar this past summer by forest ecology professors Norm Johnson of Oregon State University and Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington. The professors made their pitch when Salazar visited Roseburg.

The specifics are yet to be hammered out, but all factions seemed to agree the oldest, largest trees would not be logged but the projects would provide logs for local mills. A BLM spokesperson said the goal of the local project is to restore forest health, reduce fire danger and to produce products that create jobs.

"Everybody is interested in what is being proposed," said U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from Hood River, who was at Wednesday's meeting. "But I got a sense that in the Oregon delegation there is a strong view that, if this is done, it should be in a timely manner and in a manner that helps bring clarity and resolution to our decimated timber-based economy."

While noting he supports efforts by a variety of factions to work together, he cautioned it has been tried in the past with no success.

"We (delegation) were all pretty much saying the same thing, 'If something doesn't happen fairly soon, we would very seriously legislate,'" he said. "That is not a threat but we've come to a point where something has to change. This (project) should happen sooner rather than later."

A two-year lag would be too long, he said, noting the high unemployment across the region as well as the state. He also expressed concern the BLM Medford District is losing skilled specialists to other districts because of the lack of timber harvests locally.

"I'm for research and for demonstration projects but this doesn't mean you can put everything else on hold," he said, adding, "I'm glad they are putting it together and I hope they are successful. Let's give it a try."

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, referred to it as a "historic" effort.

"We've got direct secretarial involvement in a much more public process involving a much more diverse group of stockholders than at any time I have seen in the last 20 years on the controversy over management of our forests," he told The Associated Press. "That is a big deal."

Oregon's senior U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democrat who chairs the public lands subcommittee, also wants to remove the log jam to improve both forest health and increase jobs in the woods, said Tom Towslee, his spokesman in Oregon.

"The senator felt it was very constructive, a good discussion about what needs to be done," Towslee said. "He also made it very clear we need to do everything we can to meet the timber harvest targets in the (1994) Northwest Forest plan."

The timber sale program on the BLM's Medford District sold 27.6 million board feet for the 2010 fiscal year, compared to its annual target of 57 million board feet, he noted. In the Roseburg District, 40.9 million board feet were harvested while the annual target is 55 million board feet, he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.