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Lomakatsi: The art and science of forest restoration

To some, the sound of a chainsaw in the woods may be jarring. To me, it is a comfort.

Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy the peace and tranquility of nature as much as the next person. Maybe even more so — after all, I choose to reside in a timber-framed cottage in the outskirts of Ashland.

But I also recognize that many of Southern Oregon’s forests are in dire need of restoration, and a good chainsaw in skilled hands can make a difference.

So when this year’s late summer rains prompted the Oregon Department of Forestry to end wildfire season restrictions on working in the woods, I was excited to get our Lomakatsi crews back on the ground.

Two weeks ago, we kicked off our fall forest restoration season by working with private landowners in the Elkader neighborhood of Ashland. At sites like this, where houses are located in and around forest lands, one of our primary objectives is to do ecologically based thinning to lower the risk of severe wildfire. We also design our prescriptions to enhance wildlife habitat, increase the overall health of the ecosystem and meet the needs of the landowners.

After the thinning, Lomakatsi’s multicultural crew — led by Braulio Maya Cortes, our Lead Restoration Crew Manager — piled the slash from the smaller diameter trees and shrubs so it can be burned once it dries out.

The Elkader effort is part of the larger Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project (AFR), a collective between the City of Ashland, Lomakatsi, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service that has conducted science-based forest restoration treatments across nearly 11,000 acres in and around the Ashland Watershed since 2010. Private lands are an important part of the equation, and with additional funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) we have been able to expand our work in that direction.

Over the next two years, AFR will conduct restorative thinning and prescribed burning on several thousand more acres. The ultimate goal is to treat 14,000 acres, strategically selected from within a 53,000-acre footprint of federal, city and private lands. Studies suggest that if we achieve this 25% threshold of restoration, we can significantly reduce the risk of severe wildfire and create healthier conditions for the forest ecosystem, making our communities more resilient.

As people observe this work taking place around Ashland, one of the most common questions we get is, “Why would you cut down trees? Isn’t that bad?” I’ll take a moment to explain.

You see, for thousands of years, fire occurred regularly in Southern Oregon’s ecosystems. Lightning-caused fires and indigenous burning shaped the thriving woodlands, grasslands and forests of the West. But over the past century, when prescribed fire frequently applied by Native peoples for resource benefit was removed from the land, and natural resource managers began to practice near complete fire suppression, the landscapes changed.

Walk through a neglected forest and you’ll see hundreds or even thousands of small trees densely packed on each acre, when a healthy forest might only have dozens — many of them large, old trees growing in a mosaic of groups and clumps. The overabundance of trees means that when a wildfire does come through, it will likely burn much hotter and could destroy large old legacy trees that might otherwise survive frequent, low-intensity fires. Overly dense trees also are weakened by competition for nutrients, sunlight and water — and are therefore more susceptible to damage from insects and disease.

That’s why Lomakatsi and our partners use science-based ecological thinning and prescribed fire to greatly improve the overall health and fire-resilience of the forest.

AFR has become a national model for building fire-adapted communities, protecting old growth habitat, and safeguarding valuable ecosystem services like Ashland’s municipal water supply. Now, we are excited to take this model and apply it at a broader scale through the Rogue Forest Restoration Partnership.

Funded by OWEB with matching co-investments by partners, this ground-breaking collaboration between state and federal agencies and NGOs will restore 6,200 acres across the Rogue River Basin over the next six years. In the process, we’ll support hundreds of local jobs and advance the ecological health and community safety of our region. At Lomakatsi, we look forward to our role in project management, technical and program support, and putting boots on the ground to get the work done.

I believe that ecological restoration is truly an art.

When our restoration forestry teams visit a new project site, they’re looking into the past for insight on how the landscape might have looked under indigenous stewardship and regular wildfire intervals. They’re looking into the future to consider how threats like climate change or invasive species may impact the site over time. And in the present, they’re drawing on years of expertise and a deep knowledge of the natural world to design prescriptions that will make our forests healthier and our communities safer for years to come.

Marko Bey is executive director of Lomakatsi Restoration Project (lomakatsi.org) and his columns appear monthly in the Tidings.

courtesy photo A Lomakatsi restoration crew member drops a smaller diameter tree to protect an old growth legacy tree in the Ashland Watershed.