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Restoring the landscape

Braulio Maya, Lomakatsi Restoration Project crew boss, clears brush and small trees Friday in the Upper Applegate Watershed, part of an ongoing wildfire mitigation project. [Andy Atkinson/Mail Tribune]
Multiple agencies kick off long project intended to reduce wildfire danger in Upper Applegate Watershed

On a rainy Friday morning in the Upper Applegate Watershed’s Beaver Creek area, Lomakatsi Restoration Project crew boss Braulio Maya fires up his chainsaw and goes to work, slicing through small Douglas firs, manzanita and small shrubs.

Maya’s work is part of an initiative targeting about 27,815 acres within the watershed called the Upper Applegate Watershed Restoration Project, which kicked off this week. The work, which will take several years to complete, is intended to make the 52,000-acre area more resistant to flames, better protect nearby communities, and enhance forest ecosystems.

“We’re doing ecosystem restoration with a lens toward reducing the risk of fire,” says Shane Jimerfield, Lomakatsi Restoration Project program director. “To not only the ecosystem, but the community itself.”

About 3,500 acres of the project will focus on hazardous fuels removal, said Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest public affairs specialist Virginia Gibbons. Other projects will include riparian restoration, pollinator and sensitive plant habitat improvement, and restoration of recreation areas.

Crews have an initial target of completing about 273 acres before fire season is called on Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest lands. The Oregon Department of Forestry’s Southwest Division declared a start to fire season on lands it protects last month.

The undertaking is one of several projects funded with $6 million from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, with $4 million more from a variety of agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Multiple groups and government agencies are collaborating on the project, including theForest Service, BLM, Lomakatsi, ODF, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, and the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative. Even the Klamath Bird Observatory is involved, its role to monitor and study the effects of the restoration work on bird habitat.

“We really think that, given the work that’s been promoted, we can really have a landscape effect,” says Terry Fairbanks, executive director for Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative. “This will be a watershed that, if fires start in this area, they’ll be easier to fight. The stands will also be healthier.”

The project is a large undertaking. Excessive fuel buildup, combined with drought and climate change, have made fires more severe. Now, forestry agencies and organizations are trying to reintroduce some stability back into the landscape. Making it stick will mean additional work for years to come.

“Historically, fire affected this landscape out here probably about every seven to 15 years down here in the valley,” says Robert Marshall, district fire management officer for the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District on Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. “So to bring it back to something similar to historic nature, we’re going to have to be pretty aggressive and treat it over and over. It’s not just a one-and-done kind of deal.”

Much of Lomakatsi’s role is the actual work itself, Jimerfield says, either with its crews or outside agencies it contracts with. Those thinned fuels will likely be burned in the fall.

Afterward, forestry crews could follow up with underburn treatments intended to spread low-intensity fire across the landscape to take care of any remaining fuels, Marshall says.

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanpfeil.