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ASHLAND — Loaded logging trucks soon will be rumbling along picturesque Granite Street in this town known for its vigilant environmental watchdogs.

But those planning the ecologically based commercial thinning and log-hauling project in the Ashland Creek watershed are betting the growling will be limited.

"Logging isn't the driving factor here," said Marko Bey, director of the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, an Ashland group dedicated to restoring ecosystems and sustaining communities.

"Our goal is to restore the forest to its natural state and reduce the hazardous fuels," he added. "We want to reduce hazardous fuels along strategic ridge lines and protect legacy trees — old-growth trees."

Within a few weeks, after nearly a decade of planning, community meetings and discussion, the first commercial logs from the Ashland Forest Resiliency, or AFR, stewardship project are expected to roll out of the hills and through the community.

The logs will be coming from roughly 100 acres on the Sky Line Mine Ridge in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, at about the 4,900-foot elevation on the edge of the Ashland Creek watershed. Four to five loads a day will be trucked down U.S. Forest Service Road 2060 to Granite Street and off to a local mill.

About 100 loads of logs are expected to be removed this summer, with up to a half-million board feet of timber being logged.

"The average log diameter (at chest height) will be 14 inches," Bey said. "There will be some decent-sized trees coming out of here but they are being removed from around much larger legacy trees that are 3 and 4 feet in diameter."

Forest Energy Group LLC, based in the Rogue Valley, was awarded the logging contract.

The project is a result of a stewardship agreement signed by Lomakatsi, the Forest Service, the city of Ashland and The Nature Conservancy. They say the result will be a healthier forest with a greatly reduced chance of a catastrophic fire that could threaten lives, homes and the city's water source.

Last week, while firefighters battled massive wildfires threatening communities in New Mexico and Colorado, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell renewed his call to accelerate forest restoration programs around communities in forested areas where they face the potential of catastrophic wildfires. He has endorsed everything from low-intensity burns to mechanical thinning on public forests near those communities to reduce the threat and improve forest health.

The concern about the threat of a catastrophic fire has long dangled over the Ashland watershed like the sword of Damocles.

Large fires swept through much of the Ashland watershed in 1910 and again in 1959. Elsewhere in Ashland, the Siskiyou fire burned 188 acres in 2009 and the Oak Knoll fire consumed 11 homes the following year.

"We have a rich fire history in this watershed," observed Chris Chambers, forest resource specialist for Ashland Fire and Rescue, during a visit to Sky Line Ridge last week.

"As we get closer to the wildlands/urban interface area, the concern is on private property, protecting lives and homes," he said. "But as we shift up here, we are looking at strategic fire management on a landscape scale and protecting the city's water source."

He was referring to the stream-fed Reeder reservoir, which provides the community's drinking water. A wildfire on the steep mountainside likely would cause severe erosion problems, contaminating the water, officials warn.

"The AFR is in essence a fire-management project," Chambers said. "We focused our initial funding in the lower watershed area and strategic locations."

Areas already thinned of brush and dog-hair thickets by Lomakatsi crews are being placed on a map so that firefighters will know where those sites are when making a battle plan to stop a fire, he said. The thinned areas provide tactical opportunities to fight wildfires, he explained.

"We (the city) wouldn't deploy people up on Forest Service land, but when we get down to the interface, we are all in this game together," he said.

The paramount problem is that much of the forest in the watershed is overgrown after a century of fire suppression, said project manager Don Boucher of the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District.

"This forest up here is in pretty rough shape right now," said Boucher, a former smokejumper. "It's overly dense. From a firefighting perspective, there is just no way you can attack that.

"Our biggest concern is keeping the fire on the ground. If we can keep it on the ground, we can manage it. But if we have this continuous fuel all the way to the top, the fire will go into the canopy and burn everything."

The strategy is to reduce the energy of the fire to allow firefighters to slow it down and eventually snuff it out.

"When a fire comes through, this is where we hope to stop it," he said.

While removing the overgrown thickets will reduce what amounts to kindling around the larger trees, the commercial thinning also will allow more water and nutrients to be available to the larger remaining trees, he said.

"What we are looking for in these strategic areas is to provide more shading to keep the fuel moisture a little bit higher," he said.

"We're walking a thin line between thinning enough for forest health but leaving enough cover to prevent a lot of regrowth in the understory on these strategic ridges," said Darren Borgias, an ecologist and program manager for The Nature Conservancy.

A research study paid for by the conservancy concluded that fire has visited the watershed about once a decade, he said.

"Those regularly returning fires actually sustained the health of the biggest trees," he said. "They have thick bark and are fairly widely spaced. The fire creeps along and has no impact on them but clears out the young seedlings that are competing for the moisture and nutrients."

The study showed that forests of the distant past likely contained half the density of forests in the watershed, he said.

"We want to make sure we sustain the health of the forest, of the soil and of the clean, abundant water that is delivered to town," he said. "We are trying to meet the needs of nature and people. This has been a community-based, science-based collaboration."

That collaborative approach, in which community comments have been encouraged along the way, makes the project unique as well as possible, Bey said.

"The document is written with flexibility — I don't think anything like this is going on elsewhere," said the Lomakatsi director. "Here you have a record of decision by an agency, but you still have the ongoing framework for community input.

"There has been a lot of social capital put on this project with a lot of outreach and community input. When there is community concern expressed about an issue, we try to adjust to address those concerns."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Darren Borgias, program manager and ecologist for The Nature Conservancy, walks through the Ashland Creek watershed. - Julia Moore