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West Bear project a much-needed effort

As the region braces for what promises to be another hot, dry fire season, plans are underway to launch an ambitious project that should set an example of the kind of forest restoration work that is long overdue.

More than $2.6 million in competitive grant funding from the USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program will combine with other funding sources, including a state Department of Forestry grant and a $2 million gift from an anonymous donor to finance the West Bear All-Lands Restoration Project, stretching across more than 3,000 acres of land from the northern edge of the Ashland Watershed to Jacksonville. Spearheaded by the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, well known for its work in the Ashland Watershed, the project will emphasize fuel reduction to create defensible space around homes, provide better access for first responders in case fires break out, and conduct prescribed burning and maintenance.

This is exactly the kind of forest restoration work that is most needed to reduce the threat of wildfire where people live, not in remote forests. The West Bear project draws on a Wildfire Hazard and Risk Reduction assessment conducted in 2015 by the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative. That document identified needed restoration work across the Rogue Basin to improve forest health and reduce the severity of wildfires.

The West Bear project will focus on lands to the west of Talent, Phoenix, Medford and around Jacksonville. It notably does not include logging of commercially valuable timber, but targets undergrowth and small-diameter trees that act as ladder fuels, carrying flames into the forest canopy and turning low-intensity fires into raging catastrophes.

Not only will the project help restore forest lands where fires are most likely to threaten homes, it will provide jobs, employing forest workers from October through July who then fight fires during the summer months. That transforms seasonal firefighting work into permanent, year-round employment.

The project also will enlist private landowners who want to help treat their properties as the project progresses.

The West Bear project will launch next fall and is scheduled to go on for five years. It’s ambitious and much needed, but it’s only the beginning. The Forest Restoration Collaborative’s 2017 Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy called for mechanical thinning and fuels reduction on 1.1 million acres over 20 to 30 years.

The West Bear project is a comparatively small but hugely important contribution to that vision.