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Open for play

ASHLAND — The intersection of the Catwalk and Toothpick trails is a good place to survey changes that will greet hikers and bikers this weekend in the outdoor playground known as the Ashland Watershed.

For years the watershed has sported a dense forest canopy and thick underbrush that curbed visibility so completely that mountain bikers bombing down Toothpick would surprise uphill hikers and vice versa.

"There is that element of surprise," says Chamise Kramer, a Forest Service spokeswoman about to embark on a backwoods run.

Hikers and bikers will be invited back to the watershed Saturday after a four-month lockout for a forest-thinning project, and they might find a new element of surprise along this network of trails on Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest land above Ashland.

Helicopter logging and brush-clearing designed to curb the threat of catastrophic wildfire have opened the forest canopy at the Toothpick and Catwalk intersection, and the forest floor is far less dense than before.

"People can expect to see bigger trees than they've never realized were there before," Kramer says. "They'll see slash piles that aren't permanent. They'll eventually go away. "It might be kind of a shock to people," she says.

Public access to about 14 miles of trails will reopen Saturday now that most of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project work has ended in part of the watershed where trails draw 50,000 visitors annually.

Tolman Creek Road, which has been closed for safety during the thinning project, will also reopen Saturday, making it possible for people to drive to 4 Corners and access trails there, Kramer says.

The reopening will not only give hikers and bikers their trail system back, it will give the public a glimpse at what wildfire protection in the urban-rural interface looks like.

Launched in 2009, AFR is a partnership involving the Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, the city of Ashland and the nonprofit Lomakatsi Restoration Project to address wildfire fuel loads that have altered the watershed.

The project, on about 7,600 acres of Forest Service land, seeks to reduce potential wildfire intensity, protect Ashland's drinking water, and improve forest health, including protecting or enhancing habitat used by northern spotted owls, Pacific fishers and other animals.

By silviculture standards, it's a light touch on the land. Because there were no clearcuts, only the small helicopter landing areas used to load logs will be rehabbed, so Forest Service officials believe what visitors will see beginning Saturday is more like a scab than a scar on the landscape.

The Catwalk and Toothpick trail intersection is a snapshot in this new forest collage.

The selective logging has opened views deep into the forest, revealing pines, firs and madrones that have been hidden from the sight of hikers and mountain bikers. Some, however, won't like the stumps and slash piles.

"It's disturbed now, but give it a few years," says Brian Long, the forest's recreation planner.

Many trail users might actually enjoy the new paradigm on the Toothpick Trail, for instance. In the past, Toothpick has been the site of a different kind of forest interaction. 

"It's steep," Long says. "People run up, bikers come down. It was hard to notice each other. This is probably where we had the majority of user-conflict complaints from the public. Now you can see people coming up and coming down. It'll help us in a lot of ways."

Now Kramer is visible from Catwalk as she snakes up the Toothpick Trail.

Other trails are open enough to create panoramic views that have been blocked for years.

Long says he discovered a spot on the Caterpillar Trail where he could see Medford.

"It's definitely a different perspective," Long says. "You can see it's really different. But in a couple years, it'll be nice."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Chamise Kramer walks down the Catwalk Trail toward the Toothpick Trail, where the forest canopy and dense underbrush have been thinned, opening new views for hikers and bikers in the Ashland Watershed. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta