More than one-quarter million acres of private timberlands normally open to fall hunting are off-limits to the public in Jackson and Josephine counties, plagued by extreme fire conditions heading into the fall hunting seasons.
Private timber companies such as Hancock Forest Management and Plum Creek Timber Co. have shuttered motorized and foot access to their lands in southwest Oregon, while others including Lone Rock Timberland are allowing just limited public access, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Fire danger is now rated "high" in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, bringing a variety of restrictions on visitors to reduce the chance of igniting wildfires.
Building or maintaining fires is illegal now except for those built in concrete or metal fire rings or fireplaces in designated forest-recreation sites. Also, commercial stoves fired by liquid fuel or propane are legal as are self-contained stoves.
The Sky Lakes and Rogue-Umpqua Divide wilderness areas are exempt from these fire restrictions.
It also is illegal to smoke unless you are in an enclosed vehicle or building, stopped in an area at least 3 feet in diameter of nonflammable material or aboard a watercraft on a waterway.
They are part of nearly 4 million acres of private, industrial forestland in Western Oregon under tight restrictions heading into the region's Saturday, Sept. 29, start of general deer season for rifle hunters.
A mix of extremely dry and fire-prone woods, hot and dry days and no rain in immediate weather forecasts have timber managers afraid that campfires, smoking and even ricochet bullets could touch off wildfires that could decimate their forests and create financial liabilities.
"You may have heard and seen 'dry' in the past, but it's scary dry out there," says Mike Dykzeul, director of forest protection for the Oregon Forest Industries Council, who compiles a list of public closures on private timberlands for ODF.
Hunters used to their normal haunts will instead be met either with closed gates, posted closures or unsigned but still-restricted areas.
Land holdings closed to the public are listed at www.oregon.gov/odf/pages/fire/corporate_closure.aspx. It's up to the public to know if they are on closed or open property.
"You need to know before you go," Dykzeul says.
The latest closure announcement came earlier this week when Roseburg Resources Co., the land-holdings subsidiary of Roseburg Forest Products, announced a public-access closure on all of its lands. The company owns about 430,000 acres in Oregon — most in Coos, Curry and Douglas counties with less than 1,000 acres in Jackson County — and about 175,000 acres of California land near Weed and Redding.
RFP crews this week were battling a wildfire in the Scottsburg area of Douglas County that was believed to have been started from a visitor, company officials say.
"It looks like a public start, and to us, it's like the canary," says Phil Adams, the company's land and timber manager. "From here on out, our experience is that this is our danger time.
"Hunting's a big part of the Southern Oregon culture and we support that," Adams says. "But it's a scary time right now."
While mass closures have been common for years in the industrial forests of northwest Oregon, they have been rare in Southern Oregon in part because of the checkerboard ownership patterns that private industry shares with the federal Bureau of Land Management here.
Often, these closures were to vehicles when bad fire conditions and hunting seasons overlapped, but walk-in access generally was permitted.
That has included lands like the former Forest Capital Partnership, part of the once vast Boise Cascade Corp. holdings that recently sold to Hancock Forest Management, a subsidiary of Hancock Timber Resource Group.
Hancock is the largest owner of private timberland in Jackson County, and its holdings include about 126,000 acres in Jackson and Josephine counties.
The timber companies and BLM share an administrative easement for access onto these private timberlands. They are not public-access easements, though traditionally they've been treated as such by the public.
"It's been culturally or historically available," says Ken Cummings, Hancock's regional manager based in Medford.
Companies like Hancock have the right to gate what appear to be public forest roads where they travel over their property.
Cummings says some gates have been closed, but most areas are closed but not posted.
The reason for the closure is a combination of extreme conditions as well as consistency within Hancock holdings closed to public access elsewhere in Oregon.
"It's off-limits until something happens," Cummings says.
Not only are land managers worried about fire starts here, wildfires raging elsewhere in Oregon and throughout the West have resources so spread out that small fires easily quelled a few months ago might not get that burst of resources now.
"It doesn't look bad in our backyard," Cummings says. "But this is the time that if you have something start, you call for help and there's no one answering."