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Forest Service approves Ashland thinning

Some 7,600 acres of forestland outside Ashland will be thinned to help protect against wildfire under a project approved by the U.S. Forest Service.

Called the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, it includes portions of the Ashland watershed, source of the city's municipal water supply, and land next to homes in the urban-wildland interface. Work could begin as early as this spring, according to a Forest Service spokeswoman.

"Obviously, it's huge for us and the preservation of the watershed," said Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns. "I've said that's one of my number one concerns for this community. We can start getting back to a healthy watershed."

Federal stimulus money totaling $2 million already has been earmarked to help carry out the multi-year project, whose approval was announced Friday.

The project on Forest Service land was devised with input from the city of Ashland, local residents, the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Pacific Northwest Research Station and others.

The Nature Conservancy won a $43,600 grant so that conservation groups, the city of Ashland and others could monitor the treatments to see whether they have the desired effects.

"It's been a very collaborative process with the community," Karns said. "I'm anxious to get it started. There's a pledge from my office to do everything we can to keep it a transparent process and to keep all the stakeholders involved."

The Forest Service authorized the preferred alternative as described in the final environmental impact statement without modification. That alternative originated as a plan submitted by the community, which was then adjusted to become the preferred alternative.

"It's a good, science-based and collaborative project," said Darren Borgias, manager and ecologist for The Nature Conservancy's southwest Oregon office.

Russell Hoeflich, Oregon director of the Nature Conservancy, said dry forests in Southern Oregon need active management to remove overgrown brush and small trees and to allow for the safe use of controlled burns.

"The payoff for Ashland and all Oregonians will be clean water, greater public safety, healthy habitats for fish and wildlife, and forests more resilient to wildfire, insect damage and the impacts of climate change," Hoeflich said in a press release.

The final environmental impact statement on the project was released in September 2008.

The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project will reduce risks for severe wildfire in the watershed, fire in tree crowns and infection and disease in trees, Forest Service officials said.

It will protect legacy trees and improve wildlife habitat for old-growth related species such as northern spotted owls, the Forest Service said. The project includes roadside treatments to remove ground and ladder fuels around Forest Road 2060.

Ladder fuels are brush, small trees or other materials that can carry ground fires into tree crowns, where the fires become more difficult to control.

Because the project is being carried out under the rules of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, opponents of the plan cannot file administrative appeals with the Forest Service now that the record of decision has been issued.

Those who have already filed objections with the Forest Service can, however, file lawsuits in court.

One of them is Ashland City Councilman Eric Navickas, who said he objects to thinning in riparian areas and the McDonald Peak Roadless Area and said the plan allows for construction of too many helicopter pads.

"It's a real disappointment," Navickas said. "I was hoping under the Obama administration the Forest Service would be willing to give up the more aggressive components of the project."

Navickas said he will read the Forest Service's approval of the project before deciding whether to file a lawsuit.

Except for Navickas, an Ashland City Council majority voted to endorse the project in October 2008.

The Forest Service plans to collaborate with the city of Ashland and the Nature Conservancy to prioritize treatment areas and to work out details of the vegetation treatments, said Patty Burel, Forest Service spokeswoman.

For more on the project, visit www.fs.fed.us/r6/rogue-siskiyou/projects/.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.