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Bilingual hike to highlight behind-the-scene efforts

In an ongoing public dialogue about catastrophic wildfire prevention, when terms such as forest management and fuels reduction come up, it’s not common to mention the workers.

“What often gets missed in ... conversation is really the people who do the work, who are not seen because they’re up in the backcountry,” said Marko Bey, executive director of the Lomakatsi Restoration Project. “Oftentimes, that workforce is invisible.”

The work he’s referring to includes debris clearing from the forest floor, tree felling and prescribed burning, all of which Lomakatsi, a nonprofit, and other commercial contractors oversee in Southern Oregon forests.

This Saturday, however, the public has a chance to learn more about the people doing the labor-intensive and often dangerous work that’s directly tied to recurring smoky summers.

KS Wild and the Northwest Forest Worker Center are also helping to coordinate the hike, which is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. at the Lower Red Queen Trail in the Ashland Watershed.

The Northwest Forest Worker Center since the 1990s has advocated for improved working conditions for laborers in the forestry services industry, including fair wages and health insurance. It also trains workers, many of whom are Latino and Southeast Asian immigrants, on job safety and their legal rights.

Carl Wilmsen, executive director, said the center has long been internally focused: maintaining trusting relationships with workers vulnerable to abuse and wage theft, conducting research on labor practices and lobbying policymakers.

“In terms of the general public, we’re trying to beef that up and increase our visibility and general knowledge about forest-worker issues,” Wilmsen said.

He added that awareness about agricultural worker conditions have spread more rapidly, echoing Bey’s assertion about the invisibility of forest workers in the public psyche.

To spread greater awareness, Saturday’s event will accommodate Spanish-speakers interested in learning what it takes to prevent smoke from choking the summer skies.

Martha Valle Hernandez, one of the Northwest Forest Worker Center’s promotoras de salud who leads safety trainings for workers, will present information in Spanish. Other presentations delivered by KS Wild and Lomakatsi staff in English will also be translated.

The hike presentations won’t focus only on the negatives within the forestry service industry. Lomakatsi will highlight its efforts to establish a more equitable model for the work, referring to the crews that work in the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project as examples.

Andres Marquez, operations support coordinator with Lomakatsi Ecological Services, has seen the ugly side of the forest-service industry, he said.

“With Hispanic people, the crew bosses or management knew they were vulnerable, so they took some sort of advantage of it,” he said. “People are not getting paid ... because you are Hispanic, you don’t get paid the same as if you were American.”

Now, working with the nonprofit since September 2018, Marquez said he’s been able to be part of treating workers well: the nonprofit offers health insurance and a 401(k) plan. Marquez also tries to show the workers how their jobs could link to a career trajectory, such as becoming a burn boss or getting a fire science degree.

Marquez builds trust with the workers through his similar background; he moved to the United States six years ago from Quito, Ecuador. He speaks Spanish and Portuguese, but had to learn English when he immigrated.

Marquez began forest work as a wildland firefighter. Later, he became involved with forestry services.

With Lomakatsi, he oversees the progress of crews that carry out prescribed burns, a critical part of the 10-year Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project.

Education is a central arm of all three organizations, which is the heart behind the slow-paced hike in the Ashland Watershed. Bey said participants “can see it, touch it, feel it, smell it and actually see the work and have it articulated for them.”

“It’s a lot more tangible when you’re on the ground with people that have done it,” he said.

The “Hands that Touch the Land” hike is scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 8. It will begin at the Lower Red Queen trailhead, located at the intersection of Ashland Loop Road and Terrace Street. Participants are encouraged to bring snacks and water and to wear sunscreen.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Lomakatsi worker Braulio Cortez, of Talent, falls a tree near the top of Tolman Creek Road as part of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project's aim to reduce wildfire risk in the Ashland watershed. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Chris Chambers, forestry division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue, walks through a controlled burn to reduce wildfire hazards in the Ashland Watershed on Thursday. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune