The Lomakatsi crew’s work this day is the fruit of a new wave of collaborative agreements on timber in Oregon. Instead of locking horns in expensive court battles that often delay work for years, collaborative groups of environmentalists, timber leaders, agency officials, and local residents negotiate long-term agreements that provide a little something for everyone.
In Ashland, the stakes are high for area businesses. In 2013, smoke from nearby fires forced the Ashland Shakespeare Festival to cancel several shows, and the Rogue Valley’s outdoor recreation sector reported losing more than $100,000 per day during the blaze.
In economically depressed communities around the state, local leaders are betting on collaboration as a solution to the gridlock. The project in Ashland has emerged as a model for success. Learning from its failed HazRed initiative, the Forest Service worked with community partners and local residents to develop a plan for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project.
The ten-year stewardship agreement helps protect a community of 20,000 residents from catastrophic fire by cutting back overgrown forests — work that has also created as many as 150 seasonal jobs and provided timber to local mills.Restoration projects are designed to minimize these disruptions, and they can bring an economic boost, especially for the rural mills that purchase their logs.
After closing in 2013 due to uncertain timber supply, the Rough & Ready mill in nearby Cave Junction re-opened last year after redesigning its mill to better handle the small-diameter logs that are harvested in restoration projects. For the investment to pay off, mill president Link Phillippi says, thinning projects must begin to move past the planning stage. “Instead of just talking about it,” he told Oregon Business, “we need to start doing it.”
The problem: like most models, the Ashland project is built to scale. Its 7,600-acre footprint represents only a tiny fraction of the 1.4 million acres in the Rogue Basin alone that forest ecologists say are in need of treatments. The work around Ashland is also expensive, about $1,200 per acre, and federal agency budgets for this type of project have been shrinking since the Great Recession.
But project collaborators say the costs of inaction in Oregon’s forests are even greater. As fires become increasingly severe, suppression costs will rise and more homes and lives will be lost. Local economies will experience disruptions from lingering smoke, and residents’ health will suffer. And what economists call “ecosystem services” — costs we largely take for granted, like forests’ natural filtration of water — will go up in flames.
While restoration projects may offer hope for better results, scientists say treatments must cover a significant portion of the landscape to truly be effective. That takes money, either from federal agencies or timber sales — or both. “In the long run, there are savings,” Bey says. “But we need money to pay for the work.”
During the Northwest’s record-setting fire season in 2012, southern Oregon’s Barry Point fire took only 22 days to blaze across 145 square miles of private and federal forestland, reducing thousands of Ponderosa pine trees to blackened skeletons. This wasn’t your grandfather’s forest fire, either. Unlike the low-severity burns that used to arrive every 10 to 20 years in these forests, the Barry Point fire burned extremely hot, resulting in tree mortality rates above 75% on nearly half its footprint.
The kicker: the fire burned across 67 square miles that were scheduled to be partially restored under a proposed 14-year collaborative effort to reduce fuels in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Crews were set to begin restoration work within months, but fire beat them to it, torching thousands of acres of private timberland, killing ranchers’ cattle, and costing the Forest Service $23 million to suppress. (Later studies showed that fire intensity decreased in areas that had previously been restored.)