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Elevating the role of the forest worker

This week, Oregon legislators discussed how to address the increasing frequency and severity of wildfire. Legislators, including Senator Jeff Golden of Ashland, are advocating for an increase in funding for wildfire mitigation through forest restoration.

Carefully implemented, ecologically based thinning is known to reduce the risk of severe wildfire. Restorative ecological forestry can also make forests healthier and enhance wildlife habitat.

I hope we’ll see more funding for this important work. It is entirely necessary. And if it comes, you can bet that the state will be looking to Ashland and the Rogue Basin as a model for large-scale forest restoration projects.

Here, the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project has restored more than 11,000 acres in and around the Ashland Watershed since 2010. Part of what has made this such a successful project is the people on the ground.

Working in the woods is not easy. Restoration crews carry chainsaws and gear up steep slopes to thin dense forests and carefully implement prescribed burns. They work in the heat, and they work in rain and snow. Our crew members will tell you it takes a full two or three months to get your body conditioned to this work.

In addition to endurance and skill with a saw, this highly technical work takes knowledge. I like to call our crew members “botanists with chainsaws.” It’s not far from the truth.

Though they don’t have degrees in botany, many of Lomakatsi’s crew members can tell you the name of every tree and shrub they come across. Most have been working with us for years — some upwards of 15 — and they’ve mastered the art of restorative ecological forestry with an eye for protecting old-growth trees, retaining species diversity, and enhancing wildlife habitat.

Consistent funding for restoration work can be hard to come by. Lomakatsi works with tribes, agencies, other nonprofits and private landowners to create projects that keep our crews on the ground year round. Long-term employment — combined with a living wage, benefits and a culture of respect — is what keeps our skilled, experienced team members around.

Unfortunately, this is not the industry standard. The Medford-based Northwest Forest Worker Center has researched and documented many cases of worker abuse around health and safety, wage theft and lack of rest breaks.

That’s why I hope an increase in state funding for this work is accompanied by increased value placed on forest workers, and investments in workforce training programs.

It’s an opportunity to shift the paradigm, because the need for restoration will never end. It will only grow stronger. So let’s invest in the people who are getting it done, and factor that investment into the economics of forestry.

Fortunately, it’s already happening. Last week Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition and the Ecosystem Workforce Program organized a two-day workshop entitled “Fostering Your Forest Workforce.” Lomakatsi supported this effort as a host and co-organizer. The event brought together nonprofit community-based forestry leaders from around the Pacific Northwest (and also southeast Alaska and New Mexico) to share best practices around managing restoration crews, workforce development, youth crews, prescribed fire and social equity.

Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition, composed of more than 80 nonprofit, public and private organizations, promotes balanced conservation-based approaches to the ecological and economic problems facing the rural West and the nation. The Ecosystem Workforce Program, a joint effort of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at the University of Oregon and the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, supports the development of a high-skill, high-wage ecosystem management industry in the Pacific Northwest.

They share our commitment to elevating the role of forest workers, and they are doing great work through applied research and policy development.

“There has been a lot of dialogue in Oregon about the need to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration,” said lead workshop organizer Emily Jane Davis, EWP’s associate director. “But there has not been enough recognition of who does this work and under what conditions. Lomakatsi is unique in its approach to training a skilled ecological restoration workforce that can meet land management needs around Ashland and the larger region.”

As part of the workshop, Lomakatsi led a half-day tour of AFR’s work in the Ashland Watershed. We met up with one of our 10-person crews and discussed our ecological workforce training model, which prioritizes training, worker safety and professional development.

“People choose to stay at Lomakatsi because of the pay and benefits,” said Braulio Maya Cortez, lead restoration crew manager. “But also because they believe in making the forest healthier and reducing wildfire risk to the community.”

This is a model that works. Let’s give all the great people who spend their days in the woods making our forests and communities more resilient the recognition and treatment they deserve.

A Lomakatsi crew member thins brush to reduce wildfire risks on private land in an Ashland neighborhood.