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Since You Asked: Why the blackened trees are still standing

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Readers want to know what’s to become of all the dead snags left from the Almeda Fire
Dead trees line the Bear Creek Greenway near Blue Heron Park in Phoenix. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Parks planner Dave Jacob shows long-term plans for renovating Central Point's section of the Bear Creek Greenway. Jacob says there are short- and long-term plans to winnow down the numerous dead trees since the Labor Day 2020 fires. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
A blue heron takes flight at Espey Pond along Central Point's portion of the Bear Creek Greenway. Central Point has many parks, but the Greenway offers natural areas that other city parks don’t. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Dead trees that line the Bear Creek Greenway, like these in Blue Heron Park in Phoenix, provide habitat for many kinds of wildlife, including bats, birds, insects and fish. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune].

It looks to me that more than 80% of the trees along the Bear Creek Greenway between Ashland and Phoenix are standing dead and not coming back. What’s to become of them? Likewise, there’s another bunch of burned trees from Medford to Central Point. A few old snags provide habitat, but so many are awful-looking.

— Mike B., Ashland

Are there plans in the works to remove the dead trees along the Greenway? I have seen many limbs fall, and they are a big hazard to users.

— Judy V., Talent

Whether by nature or nurture, those dead trees won’t stand forever, Mike and Judy. We picked your letters to start our questioning of local experts about how many snags are too many snags, but you are not the only two who have broached this topic.

That said, the leafless reminders of the 2020 fire season won’t fall away before the second anniversary of the Labor Day 2020 conflagration, and plans to remove the tree snags are firmer in some areas than others.

There’s no single agency responsible for the 25-mile bike path that runs from Ashland to Central Point, and thus no one-size-fits-all answer. Each city is responsible for its own section of the Bear Creek Greenway. As such, different cities are in different phases for handling them.

In some cities, such as Central Point, there are plans to winnow the trees down as part of a planned overhaul of their section of the Greenway. For others, such as Phoenix, the trees are still standing because of the cost to remove them.

Phoenix City Manager Eric Swanson said the city has recently reached out to Oregon Emergency Management and Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking funding to help the city remove the trees left standing after the massively destructive Almeda Fire. They haven’t received a response.

“It hasn’t really gone beyond that,” Swanson said.

Swanson said the costs are too great for the Phoenix Public Works staff to remove them alone, so the city has little choice but to leave the numerous tree snags as they are.

Phoenix is focused on replanting and restoration and takes guidance from agencies such as Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Bear Creek Restoration Initiative, but without a major influx of resources, Swanson said, all that can happen to the tree snags is that, over time, they will blow down.

“If you look at the entirety of the Almeda burn scar, it’s pretty significant,” Swanson said. “In the meantime, we’re just prohibiting any (off-trail) activity.”

The first cuts

Immediately after the Labor Day 2020 fires, ODFW, Oregon Department of Transportation, Jackson County, and the Rogue River Watershed Council cleared hazard trees within 50 feet of the Greenway, according to fisheries biologist Ryan Battleson.

“Anything that was going to fall ... those things were felled,” Battleson said.

Generally only trees located near homes, outbuildings, access roads and other structures were removed, and most trees within the fire zone were not deemed to be hazardous.

Battleson said ODFW asked that large snags be left in hopes the trees ultimately would either fall into Bear Creek or the flood plain.

“The value of large wood on a flood plain or in the creek is really important when it comes to healthy aquatic systems,” Battleson said.

Right now they’re providing some shade, but once they fall, the large woody debris provides a host of ecological benefits. It helps to slow down water flows, causing spawning gravels for salmon and steelhead.

Big wood on the flood plain helps stabilize the banks, and as the wood breaks down, it’s a source of macroinvertebrates, which Battleson said is the food base for juvenile fish.

“Years ago we used to remove wood to the point where we’d lose habitat complexity and structure,” Battleson said.

Seeding the ecosystem

According to Elva Manquera-DeShields, of the Klamath Bird Observatory, the burned-out trees are key to restoring an ecosystem after wildfire.

“After a high-intensity wildfire, you lose a substantial amount of vegetation,” Manquera-DeShields said. “That’s essentially the habitat that’s left.”

After a wildfire, the tree snags first attract insects and fungi. That attracts a variety of bird species, including white-breasted nuthatches and woodpecker varieties such as northern flickers, red-breasted sapsuckers and downy woodpeckers that use the snags as habitat and eventually work to break them down.

Some bird species perch at the top of the snags and scoop out insects from the top, while others peck at the sides of the tree snag.

“Slowly, over time, those will be eaten away and turned into fertile soil,” Manquera-DeShields said.

It can take years after wildfire for bird populations to return, and the bird species that frequented an area before the fire often aren’t the same as the ones that come after.

How the fire will impact bird populations along Bear Creek long term is a question that KBO is still working to answer. Since January last year, it has conducted community-powered bird surveys in partnership with Rogue Valley Audubon Society, the Watershed Council and Southern Oregon Land Conservancy.

They’ve logged more than 30,000 entries on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird bird tracking website, according to literature on the program supplied by KBO.

Manquera-Deshields said it’ll take several years of findings before they can develop takeaways. And it could be more than a decade before the ecosystem returns to some semblance of what it was prior to the fire.

When asked whether the Bear Creek riparian area’s landscape will be forever changed, Manquera-Deshields said, “It’ll be forever changed, but I think in 10 to 15 years, we’ll probably see some similarities to what it used to be.”

The clearance of invasive plant species from the area, namely blackberry bushes, is one way Manquera-DeShields sees the area as rebounding.

“Hopefully restoration work that’s being done will make it better than it was before,” Manquera-DeShields said.

Central Point plans

Nearly two years after the Sept. 9, 2020, Table Rock fire, dozens of blackened and leafless trees abound within Central Point’s section of the Greenway. They’re remnants of fires that raged the day after Almeda — when hot, dry winds carried flames from burning blackberry bushes to nearby trees from Table Rock Road north along Central Point’s portion of the Greenway.

According to Central Point parks planner Dave Jacob and parks Director Matt Samitore, there is a long-term plan for what will happen to the snags.

“We’re not going to keep these forever,” Jacob said. “We’re going to winnow those down.”

Samitore said the tree snags will stand for at least another 18 months while the city works with ODFW on a planting plan and landscape architecture for the riparian area near the Greenway.

“We’ll coordinate with ODFW and our council,” Samitore said. “I’m sure some will remain, but not all of them.”

A master plan for the area will be developed next year as part of a planned renovation of Central Point’s portion of the Greenway. The long-term plan calls for a mix of “passive and active systems,” with active-use park areas such as dog parks and disc golf along the bike path, and passive systems protecting riparian areas such as those along Bear Creek and Elk Creek.

“We need to make sure the natural habitat is kept safe,” Samitore said.

The master plan’s guidelines for planting won’t begin until the new year, and Samitore said right now they just have a “thousand-foot view of what it may look like.”

“We’ll continue to monitor them before they get to the full construction project,” Samitore said.

According to Jacob, construction isn’t slated to begin until 2027, but some renovation pieces will arrive much sooner. A new bird-watching gazebo overlooking Espey Pond already has arrived thanks to FEMA funding and is slated to be installed in August.

In the meantime, safety is key, according to Central Point arborist Mark Brindle.

Immediately after the Table Rock Fire, Brindle said the city targeted trees that were a hazard. They removed any burned trees that had a diameter of less than 10 inches, but kept up larger tree snags at the request of ODFW.

“Everything that was an imminent risk to life or property we removed right off the bat,” Brindle said.

Brindle inspects the upright tree snags at least four times per year for safety and routinely conducts spot checks after storms. He’ll do so until the planting plan is finalized and implemented. He described holding off on tree removal until the plan is an efficient use of resources.

“We want to do it all at once,” Brindle said.

During a tour of Central Point’s section of the Bear Creek Greenway, Brindle pointed out ways the dead trees are fostering life.

Within the gray remains of a cottonwood tree, Brindle pointed to tree bark separating from the tree snag. He said the bark typically is used by bats seeking shelter and shade.

“There’s all sorts of holes from woodpeckers and nesting holes,” Brindle said, highlighting another tree.

Watching Elk Creek

Elk Creek along the Greenway is another area closely watched by ODFW, according to Brindle and Jacob. Because Elk Creek is a steelhead-bearing creek, Central Point parks officials say ODFW is particularly interested in the health of the small tributary. The snags provide some shade, and when they eventually fall into the waterway, they reduce stream velocity.

“Even though Elk Creek doesn’t look like much, it does provide that,” Jacob said.

Brindle described the cut-down vegetation along the stretch as a “night-and-day” difference from the dense thicket of blackberry bushes that defined the area before the Labor Day 2020 fires. He remembers how the bushes would attract homeless campers who weaved the thick vegetation into shady shelters.

“It was just nuts,” Brindle said.

Central Point parks’ current focus is keeping groundcover “really low” and maintaining fire breaks cut since the Labor Day 2020 fires and the 2018 human-caused Peninger Fire in Central Point.

To prevent blackberries from growing again, Central Point uses a combination of spot spraying and mechanical soil agitation. Other than digging up blackberry roots, Brindle said, spot spraying is the only way to get rid of the invasive species.

Despite cut-down vegetation, Brindle described the area as home to a variety of wildlife. He pointed out a blue heron in Espey Pond near the bike path and described recent sightings of sunning turtles and a family of river otters living in the pond.

After the fire, Brindle initially was concerned the fire had killed the roots of willows near the pond, but he noted their recovery.

“The willows seem to have rebounded really well,” Brindle said.

The pond is among sites being tracked by KBO and the Audubon Society, according to Jacob.

Because of the interconnected wildlife in the area, Jacob said, the Greenway is a standout in Central Point’s parks system.

“In the city, we don’t have any place like this,” Jacob said. “We have a lot of parks, but no real natural areas.”

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; or by email to youasked@rosebudmedia.com.