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Makeover proposed for Big Butte Springs watershed

Mail Tribune File PhotoThe Big Butte Springs watershed emanates from the base of Mount McLaughlin and ultimate provides water for 140,00 Rogue Valley residents.
The principal source of Medford’s drinking water is an need of restoration

Less than an hour outside Medford flows the Big Butte Springs watershed, namesake of the city of Butte Falls and main source of drinking water for 140,000 people in the Rogue Valley.

The Oregon Department of Forestry recently has awarded $100,000 for a restoration project in this vital area to protect the health of the forests, integrity of the water and possibly increase its flow, and to reduce a growing wildfire risk.

The Snowy Butte Landscape Restoration Project covers not only the Big Butte Municipal Watershed, but nearby areas Little Butte Springs watersheds and the Fish Lake Recreation Area. The project is as yet a proposal ready and waiting for public comment, it is now in the public scoping phase for the project. In this formative phase the project is something like wet clay — waiting for hands.

The authors and designers of the project, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, a division of the U.S Forest Service (USFS), in collaboration with the Medford Watershed Commission, are requesting public input on potential problems, impacts, or alternatives that could be considered for the project.

Anyone who wishes to comment can visit fs.usda.gov/project/?project=62126 by June 6, when the first public comment period ends.

The Butte Falls watershed begins as glaciers on the western slope of Mount McLaughlin. Snowmelt from the mountain percolates through volcanic soils to emerge again as a clear spring of cold, clear, low mineral content water.

In the nearby forest, decades of fire suppression focused forestry practices have created a forest in an artificial and dangerous position, according to Craig Harper, watershed administrator for the Medford Watershed Commission.

The trees in the area are thick and dense. The thick press of trees creates a multifaceted problem. Snow and rain drop onto and around them, the trees absorb the moisture. Some droplets never reach the ground and can’t seep or flow into the watershed.

There are also ecological and zoological problems, Harper said. Some species of plants and animals enjoy this environment, others would prefer the forest the way it used to be. This congested forest also poses a much higher fire risk.

The Snowy Butte Landscape Restoration Project plans to mechanically thin trees, by moving in with trained hands using chainsaws, carefully choosing which trees will be felled and which ones will remain.

“We’re going to try to leave an uneven age of trees, leave some area dense for habitat and open up some areas with big meadows. When we look at old historic photos, they show the forests used to look like that,” Harper said.

“It’s what you do to keep the birds and the Bambis happy in the forest,” Harper quipped.

Thinning the trees will allow more snow and rain to reach the ground and thereby the watershed. The project holds promise for increasing the 25 to 35 million gallon a day flow of the Big Butte Springs watershed. Thinning the trees also protects the area against wildfire risk.

In 2020 the Obenchain fire came within three miles of the watershed. Wildfire in this area is a risk Harper didn’t want to think about.

“Hopefully the Forest Service would get the fire out early, but if that didn’t happen – it could result in catastrophic problems,” Harper said.

When there is more room between trees — when the natural balance between meadows and clusters of trees has been restored — there are fewer ladder fuels, brambles and branches giving fire a ladder to eat its way into the canopy of the trees where it can burn hotter and faster. When forest fires eat along the ground, they can clean out a forest like a good spring cleaning in a garage.

Even better then cleaning out the old and making room for the new, fires can provide nutrients for a forest to grow. If the fire doesn’t burn too hot. For this reason prescribed burns would be the ideal option for the land, except that the trees are too dense to burn safely, Harper explained.

The project will be considering recommendations from the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Project, a science-management partnership between several Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Parks Service, and the University of Washington designed to thoughtfully and productively weave climate change resilience into forestry projects.

The project also proposes replacing two toilets at the Whiskey Springs campground and one at the Willow Prairie Horse campground.

Despite the importance of the project, boots on the ground are not expected for an estimated two years.

“There are procedures built in for public input, and those procedures take time,” Virginia Gibbons, Public Affairs Officer for the USFS explained.

Gibbons was excited to state that the funding for this project, through the ODF and in conjunction with support from community partners like the non-profit Blue Forest Conservation and the Medford Watershed Commission dovetails with engagement from the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative (SOFRC), the Nature Conservancy, Lomakatsi Restoration, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the American Forest Resource Council.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.