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BLM plans to salvage log 346 acres of Obenchain fire area

The Medford District BLM plans to salvage log 346 acres of its 14,792 acres that burned in the 2020 South Obenchain fire. Most of the burned acres are off limits to logging or made up of oak and grasslands. Photo courtesy of BLM
Most of burned BLM land to remain unlogged

The Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management plans to salvage log 346 acres of 14,792 acres of BLM land that burned in the South Obenchain fire between Butte Falls and Shady Cove.

"Our total salvage sale is only going to be about 346 acres. That's what we have currently under consideration. So it's going to be a much smaller area," said BLM Butte Falls Field Office Manager Jared Nichol.

The public has until 4:30 p.m. Monday, May 10, to comment on the proposal.

The September 2020 fire burned 32,671 acres, including on private timberland. It also destroyed dozens of homes.

Although 14,792 acres of BLM land burned, not all of those acres are eligible or suitable for salvage logging, BLM officials said.

Much of the area is oak woodlands and grazing areas without a high volume of commercially valuable conifers. Also, most of the BLM land is set aside in reserves such as old-growth reserves, agency officials said.

Only 1,542 acres of the nearly 15,000 acres of BLM land that burned are designated as harvest land base, meaning they are used for timber production and harvest, according to BLM documents.

Now burned trees on that harvest land base acreage are dead or dying, according to BLM.

“In the harvest land base, these areas are no longer on a trajectory for sustained timber yield. Timely salvage is critical to capture remaining merchantable timber values before further deterioration occurs,” BLM said in a newly released environmental assessment detailing its salvage logging plans.

Logging those trees would allow BLM to recover some economic value from the timber, plus help the agency meet its timber harvest targets. The standing trees could feed future fires, and hazardous trees along roads could fall and endanger people, BLM said in its environmental assessment.

BLM hopes to carry out the salvage logging in July.

“Stands of economically valued species, such as Douglas-fir, were burned in the South Obenchain fire. As time progresses these fire-killed and fire-injured trees lose economic value due to insects, staining and checking (cracks in the wood that occur as the burned wood dries). By winter of 2021, at least 30% of the economic value of these trees could be lost,” BLM said in the assessment.

Salvage logging sets the stage for replanting or natural regeneration of the next generation of trees, BLM said.

In January, BLM requested preliminary comments before it began making plans for salvage logging. It received three letters.

People raised concerns that logging the area and replanting would create dense, fire-prone tree plantations.

BLM said both planted and naturally regenerated areas show increased fire hazard in the short term, but it said brush and small-diameter trees are cut from plantations ― reducing fire danger over time as the trees mature.

Some people raised concerns about cutting standing dead trees that are needed by cavity-nesting birds and other wildlife.

BLM said the acres proposed for salvage logging represent a fraction of the burned area, so habitat options would remain plentiful for wildlife.

Some people who commented raised concerns about erosion from logged areas and roads harming fish habitat.

BLM responded it plans to help prevent erosion through steps like covering exposed areas with slash, straw or mulch. Road construction and logging would not occur in sensitive areas such as riparian zones.

In the aftermath of the fire, BLM has already been carrying out emergency stabilization and rehabilitation efforts. Burned grazing allotments will be rested for at least one year, officials said.

BLM also hopes to log 201 to 230 acres of live, unburned trees in the South Obenchain area. The fire burned with mixed intensity, leaving some areas untouched and wiping out trees in other spots.

Before the fire, BLM had sold 271 acres of trees through its Obenchain Timber Sale. But many of those trees were burned, damaging the economic viability of the timber sale. The buyer and BLM mutually agreed to cancel the contract, Nichol said.

The Obenchain Timber Sale and South Obenchain fire got their names because of 3,609-foot Obenchain Mountain in the area.

Comments on BLM’s plans can be mailed to Bureau of Land Management, Attention: Butte Falls Planning, 3040 Biddle Road, Medford OR 97504, or emailed to blm_or_md_mail@blm.gov with the subject line “Attention: Butte Falls Planners.”

Comments can also be submitted through BLM’s National Register ePlanning website at https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/89055/510.

Questions on the proposed project should be directed to Justin Kelly, planning and environmental specialist, at 541-618-2317.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.