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BLM, proponents of plan cut their teeth at Pilot Joe

The answers to be gleaned from the Pilot Joe logging project in the Applegate Valley will not be forthcoming anytime soon, cautioned Norm Johnson.

"That's because it takes so long, a rotation, to learn from these projects," explained the forest ecology professor at Oregon State University. "We will continue to apply the latest ideas and work back and forth to improve things as we go along.

"But I don't think we will have a definitive testament for at least a generation."

Jerry Franklin, his counterpart at the University of Washington, agreed.

"Fundamentally, what we are doing is thinning the forest to retain the largest and oldest trees," Franklin said.

"Our goal is to improve the vigor of the trees while reducing the potential for stand-replacement wildfires and insect outbreaks (associated with droughts). This will improve the resilience of the stand."

Meet the proponents of the forest-restoration pilot project on U.S. Bureau of Land Management forestland in the middle Applegate Valley. Pilot Joe is the first sale in the pilot project. In addition to improving forest health, the project will provide timber for forest-dependent communities, the professors note.

The two scientists also have been working on the project with Loren Kellogg, a professor of forest engineering at OSU.

The Pilot Joe unit, where logging began in late December, is a work in progress. The BLM will learn from it and make adjustments to future pilot sales now being planned, observed John Gerritsma, manager of the federal agency's Ashland Resource Area.

"There are some things in the layout and design of the logging that we are already looking at adjusting," he said.

That includes the "skips" — patches of trees left intact — which are difficult to work around with cable systems, he said.

"We want to figure out how we can better integrate our logging engineering with our skip design," he said.

Moreover, the agency may re-examine the timber sale contracts that have been in existence for decades, he said.

"Maybe those are not conducive to this adaptive kind of logging, where you have different kinds of considerations," Gerritsma said. "It would be worthwhile to look at the contract to see what we might be able to recommend for change.

"There is a lot of interest in adapting the principles here in other projects."

Craig Brown, the BLM's sale administrator on Pilot Joe, also sees a future for the forest-restoration approach.

"With the compromises we've made and everybody coming together in collaboration, I think it is going well," said Brown, the son of a logger.

"With each turn, you may not be getting as much volume as you would (with conventional logging methods). But, as far as logging, it is basically the same. You are putting your corridors in and yarding out trees."

Last August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in a biological opinion on the Applegate pilot project that it could harm a pair of owls at one site, but determined it would be a long-term benefit overall to spotted owl habitat in the region. The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to consult with the service when their proposed actions could affect a species listed as threatened or endangered. The spotted owl is listed as threatened.

In addition to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the BLM is working with the Southern Oregon Small Diameter Collaborative, Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council in designing and monitoring the project.

Joseph Vaile, campaign coordinator for the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, is cautiously optimistic that a new way of logging could emerge from the project. He also is a member of the Southern Oregon Small Diameter Collaborative.

"This has put a big spotlight on how to approach forest management from the perspective of restoration," he said. "We are trying to save big trees and protect clean water."

However, he believes the system works better in relatively dry forested areas than in sites where the water is near the surface. The logging activity has a negative impact on the wet soil, he said.

"The key is to prioritize the places that really need the work," Vaile said. "We need to look at forest thinning from the perspective of ecological need, instead of where we can get the timber."

Both Johnson and Franklin say the goal of restoration forestry is to produce a mosaic of trees that are characteristic of forests found in a relatively dry climate such as the Applegate Valley.

Similar approaches are being tried on the Malheur National Forest in Eastern Oregon and at least two national forests in Washington state.

"Everybody is dealing with these kinds of dry forest issues, so they are picking up on the restoration approach," Franklin said.

"We call our approach a demonstration in which we are able to demonstrate our ideas and move forward with that," Johnson said. "It's really a network of people working on it, but we feel we've made a contribution."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.