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Fighting wildfire with youth

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Where a group of teens looked to restore a section of Ashland park land closer to its natural state, an Oregon legislator sees a way to reduce wildfire risks across the state.

Making his announcement as he neared a team of seven youth forestry workers gathering branches into burn piles Saturday afternoon at Strawberry Park, State Sen. Jeff Golden announced plans for a statewide youth forestry corps.

Golden described the youth workers behind him as a model of a collaborative program he believes can be expanded. The youths, many of them from Chiloquin and members of Klamath tribes, are being paid to clean up overgrown sections of forestland funded through a partnership between the nonprofit Lomakatsi Restoration Project and the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project.

“What’s great is that all the work has already happened so we can see how it actually plays out,” Golden said.

Golden said overgrown forests — stemming from decades of wildfire suppression that “broke a natural cycle” — are a controllable factor in the “growing phenomenon” of summer wildfires that ravaged northern parts of Redding and Santa Rosa and destroyed the town of Paradise, California.

“We need it to go on soon and focus on probably millions of acres,” Golden said.

Golden’s proposal is among several responses from state elected officials working to address the growing frequency and severity of wildfires, and the choking smoke they leave behind. Gov. Kate Brown appointed a Wildfire Council to produce a report this fall that Golden described as “really trying to take a broad look” at various statewide health and economic impacts from wildfires, while State Rep. Pam Marsh has held a series of forums connecting firefighting officials with the public and last week made a $6 million funding push for the Oregon Department of Forestry that would include funding more air tankers based in Southern Oregon.

Golden said his proposal is still in its infancy, details about the program haven’t been determined, and securing state and federal funding for a statewide youth corps takes time. Specifically, Golden said he’s planning a meeting to develop a report for the Legislature’s short session in 2020.

Golden also said the issue of wildfires has the Legislature’s attention because it’s no longer limited to Southern Oregon. Portland and Salem are also experiencing smoke.

“We have general attention in a way we’ve never had before,” Golden said.

Further, Golden described Lomakatsi is a “national model” of how to go about restoring forests.

“Lomakatsi is doing the work we want to do, but they don’t have the resources to do it on a large scale,” he said.

The nonprofit has spent the past decade and a half pairing youths with ecological restoration, according to Lomakatsi Executive Director Marko Bey. At Strawberry Park, the youth crews are tackling about 27 acres of overgrown forest sections abutting large homes.

Funding Lomakatsi’s workers involves the city of Ashland through the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project and tribal funds, meaning Bureau of Indian Affairs funds directly benefited Chiloquin teens through wages and work experience, as well as Ashlanders who live near the park, Bey said.

“It’s everybody’s problem,” Bey said, adding that the nonprofit also involves the private sector by hiring 30 contractors such as Grayback Forestry of Merlin and Timber West.

“It’s all hands on deck.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSenator Jeff Golden witnessed the efforts of teams clearing brush into burn piles atStrawberry Hald Park in Ashland Saturday.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Golden witnessed the efforts of teams clearing brush into burn piles at Strawberry Hald Park in Ashland Saturday.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune