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Community outreach tour draws dozens

It’s nine o’clock on a cool, clear Saturday, and more than 30 people gather at the skating rink parking lot, the jumping off spot for a tour of the Ashland watershed. While people’s reasons for attending the tour are varied, the general mood is one of learning and exploration.

For a decade, a partnership of the city of Ashland, the U.S. Forest Service, Lomakatsi Restoration Project, and the Nature Conservancy, has been developing a plan to not only protect Ashland from the threat of wildfire, but to help restore the surrounding ecosystem. While fire management was once a source of contention in the community, particularly with regard to the idea of cutting trees in the watershed, the Ashland Forest Resiliency project has been remarkably successful in bringing diverse groups together and garnering community support in recent years.

Years of taking public input, community outreach activities and an increased awareness of the threat fire poses in the region have turned public opinion in favor of projects like the AFR project. City of Ashland Forest Division Chief Chris Chambers says that is a critical part of the equation.

“People are just as important to this project as the trees,” Chambers says.

And that public support couldn’t have come soon enough. In a recent survey of counties in the region, Jackson County ranked second highest for threat of extreme wildfire.

The Nature Conservancy’s Darren Borgias says the importance of getting people out into the field to see the issues facing the watershed first hand can’t be overstated.

“It’s so important to get people out here in the watershed to have this discussion," he said. "Sometimes when you get into a conference room, with all the arm-waving and shouting, people have a hard time coming to an agreement. Out here where you can look up and see what the issues are and discuss solutions, it’s easier to get on the same page.”

Initially the methods used to extract timber had a high impact on water quality and aesthetics in the watershed and public opposition lead to cessation of timber harvest in the area. But Borgias says the Forest Service’s willingness to work with various stakeholders and a willingness to accept monitoring from groups like the Nature Conservancy has led to renewed trust in the organization.

This has led to the sale of more than a million board feet of timber to area mills by the partnership. Those timber sales have produced more than $1.5 million in timber receipts which have been reinvested into the project. In fact, the partnership has been so successful, it has become a model for other projects of its kind around the nation.

Kathy, a member of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership who declined to give her last name, braved fire-plagued roads to drive in from Happy Camp for the tour.

“We’re kind of where they were years ago," she said. "We’re fledgling. So I wanted to come here just to see what it is going to look like, because after a while it just gets so overwhelming all the work that has to get done. The amount of money it takes. Where are we going to get the money to do this? It’s mindboggling. So to come up here and see what’s been done is just awesome. They’re doing what needs to be done as far as protecting this community, but also wildlife, trees, you name it. Everything is taken into consideration.”

As the tour stops at a boundary between land that has undergone fuels reduction treatment and an untreated parcel, the effect is dramatic. On one side of the road, brush and debris litter the forest floor. On the other side, the understory is open and free of fuels that could potentially feed a devastating fire. While this is the most noticeable difference, when the team begins to discuss the canopy, it becomes clear why tree thinning is part of the strategy here.

To begin with, there is the density. The team leads the group through an exercise to identify which trees had been in existence more than 100 years ago. Only about three are visible on the tenth of an acre under examination, a density of about 30 trees per acre. That was the historic density of trees in the watershed. Today there are about 562 per acre.

Additionally, the forest has an unusually dense population of white fir, a shade-tolerant tree that has proliferated in the hundred years since fire suppression became the norm in the region. As AFR’s Chambers passed out two aerial photos to the group, one from 1937, one from 2011, the difference is startling. In the 1937 photo, large swaths of grassland and oak can be seen amid mixed conifers. In the 2011 photo, the watershed is densely blanketed in a predominantly fir forest. The forest floor, nearly completely shaded in many areas, sports no young ponderosa pine, once the predominant species in the area. The absence of fire has significantly altered the forest composition. When slices of ancient stumps from the watershed were analyzed using a process known as dendrochronology, it was discovered that, historically, there were fire events in the drainage every six to 12 years.

While it might not sound like higher tree densities are a bad thing, a core sample taken of a tree at the site tells a different story. The first five years show normal growth for the tree, but in subsequent years the growth rings get smaller and smaller until they are less than one tenth of the size of the first few years. A look at the canopy tells the story. The trees are so tightly packed overhead that the branches extend only a couple of feet from the trunk of each tree before tangling with other trees next to it. The result is a forest with insufficient nutrients, moisture and daylight to supply all of its residents.

But that will be changing. Ringing many of the larger trees are small firs, each with a white dot painted on them. There are hundreds marked this way, and come winter, they will all be removed and sent to local mills or to the Jackson County Fuel Committee. This will reduce fuel for wildfires and give remaining trees access to water, nutrients and light. And while this serves to accomplish the objectives of the AFR team, it also seems to suit other stakeholders in the area.

In areas that have received treatment so far, the team has seen an increase in Pacific fishers, a large member of the weasel family that has been rebounding in the area. Nearly 30 have been caught and fitted for tracking. While they still frequent the untreated areas as well, they seem to prefer spending time in the areas that have been thinned.

Former Ashland City Councilor Kate Jackson was involved with the original proposal to begin thinning in the watershed which eventually led to the stewardship contract with the Forest Service. She says she was impressed with the quality of the science behind the project.

“All of the presentation materials they have are really well-developed," she said. "The amount of scientific information they’ve compiled is something we didn’t have 10 years ago when we started this project. The fact that we have data for the actual frequency of forest fires in this watershed through dendrochronology, the fact that the Pacific fishers are present and that they are thriving more in the treated areas than the untreated areas — all of that is scientific information we didn’t have before.”

The AFR partnership plans to continue this type of community engagement activity. And with only 4,000 acres of the 7,600 acres in the watershed treated, there will be plenty of opportunity in coming years for residents to tour the project. Or, as many Ashlanders do, you can just walk out your back door.

Alec Dickinson an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at AlecAlaska@gmail.com.