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Helicopter logging planned on city forest land

Long-delayed forest thinning on city-owned land in the Ashland Watershed is moving forward thanks to grant funding, an improved market for timber and a neighboring thinning project on U.S. Forest Service land.

Back in 2009, the Ashland City Council approved a plan to thin wildfire fuels on the 160-acre Winburn Parcel, an island of city property in the middle of U.S. Forest Service land that makes up most of the watershed.

On Tuesday, the council unanimously approved a contract of up to $335,000 for Columbia Helicopters to remove thinned trees from the site.

Trees will likely be cut in March, with helicopter removal in April, said Ashland Fire & Rescue Forestry Division Chief Chris Chambers.

Columbia Helicopters is also doing work on the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, a multi-year effort to thin thousands of acres of Forest Service land in the watershed. That project is a partnership between the Forest Service, the city and The Nature Conservancy.

Columbia Helicopters has gained valuable experience working in the watershed and can do the city thinning project more efficiently by pairing it with Forest Service work, Ashland Fire & Rescue officials said.

Chambers said the improving economy and a federal grant that came to Ashland via The Nature Conservancy also make carrying out the Winburn Parcel project possible now.

With more construction going on, demand for timber is rising.

"When this grant opportunity came through The Nature Conservancy, we said, 'Here's a chance to do this Winburn Parcel that we've been talking about for three or four years now,' " Chambers said.

He estimated the value of the trees to be removed will be about $230,000 to $247,000.

In past years, the trees to be thinned would likely have fetched $195,000, he said.

The city will negotiate with local mills next week over prices, Chambers said.

Grant money will make up the difference between the log prices and the total cost of the project, he said.

Chambers estimated the cost at $353,400 for tree cutting, helicopter removal to a landing site, hauling with log trucks, tree limb and top clean-up in the forest and administration.

Chambers said he is optimistic that extra grant money will be left over. If so, it will be used to reduce wildfire fuels on private land bordering the watershed and in Siskiyou Mountain Park, and to conduct prescribed burning on city forest land.

Chambers emphasized that no trees will be removed from the Winburn Parcel just to make money.

The thinning plan for the parcel calls for removing the smallest, weakest trees to reduce fire hazard and to curtail competition with the largest, healthiest trees.

About 100 log trucks worth of trees will travel down Granite Street and then head to a mill in the area, Chambers said.

Former City Councilor Eric Navickas, who has long been opposed to the Winburn Parcel thinning plan, said the area is ecologically important and shouldn't be used as a site for extraction of trees that are large enough to have commercial value.

"It's 160 acres in the middle of the watershed that is far from anyone's home. From a fire management perspective, it's not significant, but from an ecological standpoint, it's a critical area," Navickas said.

Navickas has a lawsuit pending against the long-term Ashland Forest Resiliency Project on Forest Service land, but has not sought an injunction to block that project.

Navickas said he and Jay Lininger, who is also part of the lawsuit, may seek an injunction if the Forest Service moves forward with logging of commercially valuable trees in the upper watershed.

If an injunction is granted, he said that could also block the Winburn Parcel project because Columbia Helicopters would be unlikely to move forward with helicopter logging of the small site alone.

Chambers said thinning the Winburn Parcel now will help protect its ecological value far into the future by reducing the risk of intense wildfire.

Darren Borgias, program director for the southwest Oregon field office of The Nature Conservancy, said forest thinning projects should be done on land that is owned by different entities — not just federal land managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

"That's a more cohesive way to protect clean water, communities and habitat," Borgias said.

The Nature Conservancy has promoted cross-boundary projects at 12 sites across the nation, including thinning work in the Ashland Watershed, he said.

Borgias said The Nature Conservancy was able to channel federal grant money to Ashland for the Winburn Parcel thinning because of the partnerships formed for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project on Forest Service.

He said the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project has been widely praised.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.