Enviros with chainsaws
ASHLAND — Marko Bey vividly remembers scaling more than 100 feet up fat Douglas fir trees in Northern California one day in 1991 to pick seed cones for the next generation of industrial tree farms that didn't look or feel like a real forest to him.
"Then the next day, you're in a tree in another unit and you'd see those trees from yesterday getting logged," Bey says. "It was very strange."
This all-or-nothing approach to forest management didn't mesh with a Hopi word Bey was fond of using, lomakatsi: "life in balance."
So Bey and partner Justin Cullumbine struck out to tip the scale by using the very forest workers who could no longer rely on the cut-and-plant industrial forest model.
The Lomakatsi Restoration Project was born in Ashland in 1995. Twenty years later, the nonprofit has become a go-to organization for public and private forest restoration work designed to empower communities to improve their watershed's health and reduce wildfire risks and get local boots back in the woods while still getting the right logs to mills.
"It became about how we can take this to the next level, to restore ecosystems and get away from monoculture," Bey says. "We wanted to retool and retrain the workforce from the ashes of the big-tree economy and get these people back in the woods."
Lomakatsi has worked with hundreds of private property owners to restore their forests while taking on large-scale projects for federal land managers and, recently, Native American tribes. It has designed and executed restoration plans on more than 35,000 acres, restored more than 13 miles of salmon streams and planted more than 300,000 native trees and shrubs.
Lomakatsi projects have delivered 6.5 million board feet of timber to local mills while helping reduce wildfire danger in the sensitive Ashland watershed and keeping a light-handed reputation that garnered support from the city's protectionist ilk, many of whom were resistant to forest disturbance.
"They've gotten people to see that intervention is a good thing and that's been very big," says Chris Chambers, Forest Division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue.
"Many times I've heard them called 'environmentalists with chainsaws,'" Chambers says. "Funny, but very accurate."
Lomakatsi now supports a $3.4 million annual budget forged through state, federal and private grants and donations, with almost $1 million earmarked for contract workers. It boasts a year-round, full-time staff of 20 and employs 200 others in the woods annually.
Lomakatsi's role in a nearly $15 million project to treat nearly 12,000 acres of public and private lands within the Ashland watershed is not only helping curb wildfire danger, but also providing a model for collaborative community work in forest interfaces where just treating federal lands alone won't do the job.
"We absolutely couldn't be doing this without (Lomakatsi's) support and work," says Erin Kurtz, district conservationist for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is helping bankroll and oversee the private lands' portion of the Ashland watershed work.
"It's been a natural partnership with them," Kurtz says. "They're doing a really good job of taking the lead, steering the ship in the right direction."
There wasn't much wind at all for Lomakatsi's sails in those early days at the end of the region's timber wars, when small, forest-dependent communities were struggling for new identities in the aftermath of big clearcuts and large reforestation contracts that replaced complex forests with single-age tree stands.
"It's no judgment," Bey says. "It built our churches, our schools, our communities, but we were looking for another way."
At that time, Bey had his eye on a 100-acre tract of logged-over and largely ignored private land that became the early template for the Lomakatsi model.
While state law required the land to be reforested, Bey thought it needed "something better." He secured Lomakatsi's first grant — $2,000 from the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation — and approached the landowner to kick in some money and get this better project done together.
"It's like an incentive program," he says. "We're working each side of the bridge, so to speak."
Lomakatsi really cut its teeth in 1997, when the New Year's Day flood left large swaths of Bear and Ashland creeks with demolished riparian habitat. Bey and a cadre of volunteers had been conducting some public tree plantings along the creeks a year earlier, and a few landowners along Tolman Creek asked them for rehab help.
While restoring individual properties would stabilize those portions of the creek, its value would be limited if the rest of the creek was not rehabbed. So Lomakatsi organized other private landowners along Tolman and other disturbed creeks, raised money and garnered grants, thanks to their nonprofit status.
They bought native plants from local nurseries and hired local crews to replant large portions of those creeks at less cost to landowners than had they done it alone.
"That's where the for-profit model couldn't generate that kind of success," Bey says.
But Lomakatsi was still largely just Bey, now 46 and executive director, and Cullumbine, now 41 and co-director and chief financial officer. With a handful of projects, largely in the Williams area, the pair honed their pitch and their craft.
"We didn't have a 10-year plan," Bey says. "It was just learn-as-you-go."
As new federal National Fire Plan grants started reaching local communities in the early 2000s, Lomakatsi was positioned to land them to hire crews to thin stands and clear and burn brush in larger and larger projects that for the first time stabilized the organization.
"Our success started to materialize at that point," Cullumbine says. "That was a big turning point."
As the Fire Plan work grew, so did Lomakatsi in more than just size.
"At the beginning I thought they were a little bit green, but they had a solid conservation ethic and were in tune with the local ecology," Chambers says.
Chambers says Lomakatsi since has added foresters and ecologists who help create much more sophisticated, science-based prescriptions that belie some of those early days.
"They've become a highly skilled workforce that continue to keep that connection to the ground," Chambers says. "That's impressive."
Now Lomakatsi's approach to community-based restoration has been absorbed by federal agencies such as the BLM and Forest Service as well as Native American tribes that have signed Lomakatsi on for large-scale, multi-year projects that make that first fix on that 100-acre wood 20 years ago seem like child's play.
Bey says he didn't envision the Lomakatsi of today 20 years ago and he won't predict the Lomakatsi of the future.
But he knows there always will be forested watersheds and their local communities in need of balance.
"This kind of work doesn't end," Bey says. "Stewardship is forever."