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What once divided us, brings us together

For 32 years I’ve worked in the forests of the vast West. Put me in the woods with my hands touching the land and I’m the most at home.

In three decades I’ve seen change. Today, while we may perceive that we are polarized on forest issues, we aren’t. The positive unintended consequence of severe wildfires and climate change is a decision to solve the impacts to our forests and loss of whole communities.

It’s bringing us together.

In my own lifetime I’ve seen public lands forest management go from clearcutting old forests, followed by the creation of monoculture tree plantations in rows across thousands of acres, to where we are now.

Over the past 20 years an ecological forestry approach has been emerging and gaining traction. Today we retain and protect the large old trees. We carefully thin overly dense, fire-suppressed forests, maintaining a diversity of species to copy the natural mosaic of how vegetation is arranged by the fire cycle. We combine science and the traditional ecological knowledge of tribal people as a place-based model to care for these fire-adapted forests.

We have been building a restoration culture and economy, developing zones of agreement with diverse partners across the spectrum from the environmental community to the timber industry. Doors are kept open to communication, collaboration and action.

Recently the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative, The Nature Conservancy, Lomakatsi and partners, did something that I don’t think could have happened 20 years ago. We brought together federal and state agencies, community organizations, industry and 11 different tribal leaders to talk about how to create resilient forests and protect communities.

At one time these disparate groups could not have seen themselves in the same room. Now they are collegial and concerned, rolling up their sleeves for the benefit of their communities and the world at large. We don’t agree on everything, but we are finding common ground.

Our place, the Rogue Basin, holds ecological treasures. There is no place like the Cascade-Siskiyou. From conifer forests to oak habitats with diverse flora and fauna, to cold rivers running with salmon, these cherished ecosystems are life giving.

These places are essential, and we are determined to care for them while balancing ecology, economy and social wellbeing.

“It’s so gratifying to see leaders in the Rogue Basin take up collaboration, share their vision and recognize that there is no going back to the old ways of clear-cut and burn,” Terry Fairbanks, executive director of SOFRC, said of the conference held in Medford where a plan is being birthed. “There’s a growing understanding that in the past, fire was so frequent on the landscape, large trees were able to survive 1- and 2-foot flame lengths. There is even a story from up north of a forest ranger managing a fire while on horseback 100 years ago. You couldn’t do that now. “

We intend to carefully treat thousands of acres across the Rogue Basin building upon the ecological forestry approaches implemented as part of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project. There we created methods and best practices — protecting old trees and sending some smaller diameter trees to local mills as restoration byproducts. We follow with carefully applied prescribed fire to reduce fuel hazards and recycle nutrients back to the soil.

We were joined by private landowners who were inspired by our work and wanted to expand these efforts across all lands. And we did this through the hiring of hundreds of men and women of all backgrounds. Rural timber workers, Latinx, tribal members, scientists and firefighters all scaled up to address the need of healthy forests and healthy communities.

For years I’ve kept this alive in my work and partnerships. Lomakatsi’s been a part of the movement toward green job creation and the building of a restoration economy as a part of our mission since its start.

But we didn’t do this alone. That’s the point.

Eventually, we as humans living on this planet have to find something that’s bigger than the things that divide us. Through keen observation, nature has taught us that all systems are connected.

Now we, together, are listening and acting.

Marko Bey is executive director and founder of Lomakatsi Restoration Project.

Mail Tribune file photo{ } Sen. Jeff Golden (right) and Marko Bey make their way through Strawberry Hald Park in Ashland, where teams are clearing brush into burn piles.