The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling regarding Ashland Watershed thinning Tuesday, causing thinning proponents and opponents to claim partial victory.
The ruling shows thinning by the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project violates U.S. Forest Service standards designed to prevent soil erosion in the sensitive Ashland Watershed, said former Ashland City Councilman Eric Navickas and Center for Biological Diversity Senior Scientist Jay Lininger, who filed a lawsuit challenging portions of the thinning project.
But the partners who have teamed up on the project said actual on-the-ground work is protecting soils better than is called for by Forest Service standards.
The ruling is not expected to delay ongoing thinning in the watershed, said Ashland Fire & Rescue Forestry Division Chief Chris Chambers.
The Forest Service, the city of Ashland, the Lomakatsi Restoration Project organization and The Nature Conservancy are partners on the multi-year project to thin 7,500 acres of forest in the mountains above town.
In its Tuesday ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said "the Forest Service acted arbitrarily and capriciously in approving a project" that will exceed soil exposure standards.
The Forest Service requires protective soil cover of 60 percent to 85 percent, depending on soil sensitivity to erosion, but monitoring of work that has been done shows at least 94 percent ground cover after thinning operations, the watershed partners said.
"We retain at least 94 percent effective ground cover," said Darren Borgias, Southwest Oregon Program director for The Nature Conservancy. "We've far surpassed the minimum requirement established by the Forest Service."
The ruling calls on a lower court to instruct the Forest Service about clarifying documentation related to ground cover standards, the thinning partners said.
Lininger said the ruling will help remedy obvious problems with the project that should not have been ignored.
He said he remains concerned about moves to spread thinning slash on the ground to provide soil cover.
"That's problematic in my view. That fine debris is highly flammable. If ignited, it will burn intensely," Lininger said.
He said he is also concerned about impacts to areas at high risk of landslide and severe soil erosion.
"It was clear from the beginning that this project was not designed with an emphasis on protecting water quality," Navickas said. "Logging of landslide prone areas is never appropriate in the Ashland Watershed."
The thinning partners said landslide-prone areas are off-limits to commercial thinning — which removes trees large enough to have market value. Instead, only light-touch, non-commercial thinning is done when necessary in those areas.
Borgias said at a time when forests, watershed and communities across the West are faced with increasingly severe wildfires, the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project is a model for a science and community-based collaborative approach.
The recent soil monitoring report is available at www.ashlandwatershed.org.