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Stewardship contracts might be a hard sell

Forest officials want the revolutionary approach to forest management to succeed, but logging representatives say there's too much paperwork

The idea of trading road construction and fuel reduction services for timber appealed to logger Dean Bohn until he attended a Bureau of Land Management workshop on a 124-acre stewardship project about 14 miles east of Ashland.

After spending a full day on the workshop and a visit to the site, Bohn decided against bidding on the wildfire-reduction project, called Plantation Thin.

The work is basic, and the complexity of the contract is ridiculous, said Bohn, owner of Ashland-based Woodland Harvesting.

BLM and Forest Service officials say stewardship contracts save their agencies money by allowing them to barter timber for services, such as forest thinning, fuels reduction, tree planting, pruning and road construction.

Early results from this revolutionary approach to forest management suggest the contracts create a niche for small timber operators because most of the projects are small, require multiple skill sets and involve community collaboration.

— At the same time, the contracts can be formidable to small operators because of their complexity, some timber company owners say.

The intent is right on because it is trying to find a way to value services a contractor can provide in exchange for material which can allow the contractor to make money, said George McKinley of Ashland-based Mountain Millworks.

But (the contract) runs the risk of looking more complicated than it needs to be and might make it difficult for (the stewardship concept) to proceed as far as it could.

Unlike timber sales, making a proposal for a stewardship contract involves writing a narrative on how the contractor plans to meet the agency's objectives and providing past performance references.

Instead of looking largely at price, the agencies grade each stewardship proposal through a technical review.

It's more of a hassle than a timber sale in the hoops you have to jump through, said David Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association.

The red tape could result in fewer proposals, which could mean higher prices for the agencies and thus, taxpayers, Schott said.

BLM and Forest Service officials say they hope the contracts will become less intimidating with time.

The Forest Service is on a learning curve in marrying timber and service contracts for the first time, said Patty Burel, spokeswoman for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Once we get a couple of these contracts through, things will go more easily.

The BLM holds workshops on each stewardship project to help contractors through the technical aspects of the contract.

Another concern is the profitability of the contracts in a market where timber prices can change at a moment's notice. Stewardship contracts can last for up to 10 years.

It's always a risk when you buy federal timber and bid against other timber companies, Schott said. You can never guarantee that you are going to make money.

With a traditional timber sale, at least you know what you are getting into, whereas stewardship contracts are relatively new.

The Forest Service and BLM often estimate the amount of timber in a project differently than contractors and timber mills.

For example, Bohn said the Plantation Thin project would yield his company about half of the timber the BLM projects would. The reason is the BLM counts any tree that's at least five inches in diameter at the small end as a log. Bohn sells to a mill that accepts nothing smaller than six inches. The remainder, Bohn said, would essentially be waste.

I would be paying the BLM for firewood, Bohn said.

On the Bobar stewardship project in the Applegate Valley, one of the first in the country, the timber yield so far has fallen short of BLM estimates, said contractor Rick Barclay of Jacksonville-based 2-B Forests.Despite the difficulties, agency officials and timber industry representatives say stewardship contracts are beneficial overall.

Because stewardship is multi-year and long-term, there is a fair amount of steady work, Barclay said. With other contracting, it's catch as catch can.

Stewardship projects also take a more holistic approach to forest health, including fire risk, wildlife, water quality and soil moisture, agency officials say.

They focus on what's left on the land, not so much what's removed, Burel said.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4496 or e-mail Stewardship contracts might be a hard sell"pachen@mailtribune.com.Procedure authorized by Congress Congress authorized the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to award stewardship contracts in 2003. Previously, the Forest Service operated a pilot stewardship program.

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is awarding five stewardship contracts. They are Wooden Rock No. 1A and Wooden Rock No. 1C projects in the Powers Ranger District; the Little Applegate project in the Applegate Ranger District; the Ashland Watershed Protection project in the Ashland Ranger District; and the Biscuit Fire Recovery project in the Illinois Valley District. Two are tentatively set for 2006.

The Medford District of the BLM has awarded two stewardship contracts, the Bobar project in the Little Applegate Valley and the Penny Stew project in Williams. Three more are planned in 2006, including the Plantation Thin project near Ashland.