Federal stimulus funding that has paid for the bulk of wildfire-fuels thinning in the Ashland watershed will dry up this fall, leaving the future of a major multiyear thinning project uncertain.

Federal stimulus funding that has paid for the bulk of wildfire-fuels thinning in the Ashland watershed will dry up this fall, leaving the future of a major multiyear thinning project uncertain.

The Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project calls for thinning 7,600 acres in the forested hills above Ashland to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

About 3,100 acres will be finished this fall when funding runs out, according to Ashland Fire & Rescue, which has been extensively involved in the project.

With input from community members and nonprofit groups, the U.S. Forest Service designed the project to thin flammable trees and brush without targeting swaths of large, commercially valuable timber to pay for the project.

No one knew where the money would come from to pay for the work when the project was being designed.

The Forest Service approved the project in 2009 — just as the country was in a severe economic downturn.

Federal economic stimulus money that eventually totaled $6.5 million gave a shot in the arm to the project, which started in 2010.

"It got it going," Ashland Fire Chief John Karns said. "Had we not had that funding, we certainly wouldn't be as far along as we are — not even close."

The city of Ashland, the Lomakatsi Restoration Project and The Nature Conservancy — partners with the Forest Service on the project — also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and expertise.

The project has created 100 seasonal jobs for local workers and members of the Klamath Tribe ecological restoration crews, according to Lomakatsi, which is handling much of the on-the-ground work.

Karns said the partners are looking at a variety of funding options to continue the project, which will need an infusion of about $1 million annually for the next four years.

"We'll look under all the rocks," Karns said.

Possibilities include Forest Service fuels reduction funding, a National Forest Foundation grant and city of Ashland funding, according to Ashland Fire & Rescue.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Karns said.

Meanwhile, helicopter thinning operations began on the project on March 25 and likely will continue through April.

Helicopter removal of felled trees is being used to reduce impacts on steeper slopes in the watershed, according to city officials.

The helicopter thinning includes removal of trees that are large enough to be commercially valuable.

Those are being removed to reduce competition with other large trees and for other ecological or worker safety issues — not to generate revenue, according to project partners.