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Lomakatsi secures $2.6 million for wildfire work

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ASHLAND — More than $2.6 million has been awarded for a wildfire mitigation project called the West Bear All-Lands Restoration Project, which aims to reduce wildfire risk and improve ecological health from west of Medford to the Jacksonville foothills.

The Lomakatsi Restoration Project led the way with a funding proposal to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which granted the money as part of a competitive national process.

Eighty-five public-private partnerships nationwide were granted a portion of $330 million in awards this year, dedicated to addressing climate change, improving water quality and soil health, combating drought, supporting wildlife habitat and protecting agricultural resources.

Locally, the funding will support 2,600 acres of restoration work over a five-year period. By leveraging other funding sources, West Bear project partners aim to treat an additional 1,160 acres, according to Lomakatsi.

Overall, the West Bear project focuses on 20% of a 27,000-acre area abutting the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship project, threading together fuels-reduction and ecological health efforts across the Rogue Basin, said Lomakatsi Executive Director Marko Bey.

The latest science shows that wildfire intensity can be effectively reduced by treating 20%-30% of a landscape strategically, said Ashland Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers. Specific treatments help to form a “shadow effect” that reduces the severity of the fire, prevents fire from burning into tree canopies and supports suppression operations by offering first responders better access to active fires, he said.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program is bolstered by an estimated $3.5 million in matched co-investments, including $490,000 granted to Lomakatsi from the Oregon Department of Forestry and a $2 million philanthropic donation through Sustainable Northwest.

A donor (who wishes to remain anonymous) approached Sustainable Northwest with a long-term personal and professional interest in the West Bear area, said Dylan Kruse, director of government affairs and program strategy for Sustainable Northwest.

After multiple years of severe fire seasons and detrimental impacts on the basin, the individual offered to commit resources to paving a new path forward — something “larger and catalytic” with a cohesive template for landscape management and wildfire risk reduction, Kruse said.

“[We] presented on this opportunity and said let’s put together a project that actually moves the dial and shows a meaningful difference, and gets us away from this random acts of conservation — this shotgun approach that often gets taken by agencies,” he said. “It’s a different way of doing business and proving that it can work.”

The West Bear project is scoped by data collected from a 2015 Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative quantitative Rogue Basin Wildfire Hazard and Risk Assessment, which used fire behavior modeling to identify high value resources. The assessment showed that houses and northern spotted owl habitat are at greatest risk of harm from wildfire.

Based on weather patterns and where fire is projected to originate, West Bear represents a significant vulnerability for the Ashland Watershed and community, Chambers said.

The assessment and the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy marked West Bear as an area with seven of the top 30 most at-risk communities in Oregon, with more than 56,000 homes susceptible to wildfire. Over one generation, fire season has grown 78 days longer, and an estimated $12.7 billion worth of homes statewide are considered at risk.

“This landscape is part of a region which harbors some of the most biodiversity on the continent, providing habitat to a variety of threatened and endangered species,” according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The region has also experienced socioeconomic challenges following the decline of the timber industry and is attempting to sustain quality stewardship and manufacturing jobs, while developing new recreation and tourism-oriented opportunities.”

As fire events escalate annually into “giga fires” over millions of acres, effective planning necessitates looking far beyond city limits and the Ashland Watershed, Chambers said. The West Bear project will contribute to protecting Talent, Phoenix, Jacksonville and their rural surroundings.

Landowners who were waitlisted on the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship project may be picked up in the West Bear footprint, he said, creating a seamless patchwork of treated terrain.

“The ultimate goal of all this is managing entire landscapes,” Chambers said. “We want to see landscapes restored to a resilient state where they can persist through the stress that’s being put on our forests right now, whether that’s fire or climate change, drought, insects, diseases — all of that is going to benefit from the work that takes place.”

Over 10 years, the AFR project has spent $30 million in similar awards — this type of work is often brought to life by piecing smaller grants together, Chambers said. Remote areas with sensitive soils that require helicopters to access are more expensive to treat. West Bear partners should see greater value per dollar for treatment activities than in Ashland, he said.

The city of Ashland is not directly involved in the West Bear project, but will assist where possible, he said.

“The way I see it, we can’t work fast enough these days to get ahead of climate change, and I’m really encouraged to see projects like this that are connecting big landscape treatments together so that we have a really defensible, big area moving into a hotter and drier future,” Chambers said. “The more that we burn ahead of the fires, the better off we’re going to be.”

Bey credits regional partnerships for making the West Bear project possible, using decades of mutual experience, months of planning and a more than 50% co-investment with the RCPP award.

“Without the highly functioning partnership, the representation of public-private nonprofit organizations, support by tribes, this wouldn’t come to fruition,” Bey said.

Many of the landowners Lomakatsi will be looking to recruit into the project have inherited previously logged land with beneficial ecological attributes worthy of preservation, as well as dense vegetation that costs roughly $1,000-$1,600 per acre to treat, he said.

The West Bear project emphasizes home defensible space, tactical access for first responders, ecological and infrastructure resilience and opportunities for future prescribed burning and maintenance. The project also furthers Lomakatsi’s goal to create jobs and retain a local workforce, Bey said.

Lomakatsi crews work October through July on restoration and wildfire mitigation projects, then fight fires through the summer, including the South Obenchain fire in 2020. After the Almeda fire, Lomakatsi crews were dispatched to protect salmon habitat.

The majority of the boots-on-the-ground workforce is composed of Latino and tribal community members, he said — the “champions” protecting communities and forests from dawn until dusk.

As part of the RCPP proposal, Bey highlighted Lomakatsi’s effort to recognize those crew members for their oft under-recognized contribution to preserving landscape by offering attractive benefits and compensation — furthering a standard of fairness and workforce retention across the industry, he said.

In addition to Lomakatsi’s 60 employees, the nonprofit is leaning on the for-profit sector to get urgent work done through contracts and subawards. Among Lomakatsi’s 15 active projects in Oregon and California, West Bear is a high priority, he said.

“That’s why we call it ’all-lands,’ because fire knows no boundaries, we’re working on private lands, and this is going to benefit public lands as well,” Bey said.

Each funding source flowing into the West Bear project has different eligibility criteria for how it may be applied, he said. Lomakatsi is developing a landowner intake process to organize which properties suit which funding streams and what cost sharing will look like for landowners.

“We’ve got years of collaborative forest restoration and fuels engagement under our belt, now we can take a lot of that capacity we’ve been building over the last several decades, especially the last 10 years, and begin to move across the landscape,” Bey said.

“We are in a forest health crisis,” he continued. “As fires become more intense and fire seasons become longer, the importance of this work both for the community and the ecosystems that we care about and depend on is going to be essential.”

The project will officially launch this fall. The public can expect to see smoke from burning hand piles on steep slopes. A minor amount of smoke over a short time will help mitigate long periods of smoke during active fire seasons, Bey said.

Trees felled during radial understory thinning will be small-diameter “ladder fuels” that carry fire into tree canopies. Crews will preserve fire-resistant, healthy trees like black oak and Ponderosa pine, Bey said.

A landowner might use felled trees for firewood or they will be chipped or burned in the wet season. Different sizes and ages of trees will be preserved to maintain a healthy forest into the future, he said.

“It’s thinking about, ‘What does a healthy forest look like, when it was under Indigenous stewardship?’ … and writing ecological prescriptions to help get the forest back to those conditions,” said Lomakatsi communications director Tom Greco.

West Bear project partners include Rogue Forest Partners, Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative, Lomakatsi, Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy, Sustainable Northwest, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon State University Extension, Klamath-Siskiyou Oak Network, Inter-Tribal Ecosystem Restoration Partnership, Jackson County Fire District No. 5, Jacksonville Fire Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.