Oregonians experiment with a new model to prevent megafire

A collaborative community-based project tackles overgrown forests.

 

A chainsaw whines as twigs hiss and smolder in the low-burning fire creeping through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest outside Ashland, Oregon, this May morning. The 100-acre prescribed burn is a training ground; 42 people, from biologists to land managers to career wildfire fighters, are here to learn about fire behavior or gain certification.

Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, operations manager, heads into the fray, clad in fire-resistant Nomex. “The only thing better than smoke,” she tells the trees, “is the smell of avgas, ’cause that means choppers” — and choppers mean serious thinning.

A century of overzealous fire suppression turned southern Oregon’s forests into dense stands of Douglas fir and madrone ripe for devastating blazes. Today, Ashland and other communities around the West are tackling the threat through selective thinning and controlled burns, all done with an eye to local biology and wildlife habitat.

Ashland represents a new approach to Western megafires; it’s not merely participating in but profoundly shaping forest restoration and fire management. Since 2011, the city has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and Lomakatsi Restoration Project, a nonprofit that restores watersheds in Oregon and Northern California, in the Ashland Forest Resiliency stewardship project (AFR).

AFR spans city, federal and private lands to reduce megafire risk, protect Ashland’s reservoir from ash and sediment, and diversify plant species, returning forests to healthier densities that can safely welcome milder, beneficial periodic fires. Its collaborative approach and shared funding make it easier for federal agencies and local governments to work together across jurisdictions. “AFR is a model for Forest Service projects across the country,” says Darren Borgias, The Nature Conservancy’s southwest Oregon conservation director. “Not just because of the need for restoration, but because we can get things done more effectively with partners.”

A Lomakatsi Restoration Project forestry crewmember thins the forest around Ashland, Oregon, to help improve forest health, reduce crowding of older trees and lessen the possibility of damaging wildfire in the watershed.
Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project

Ashland’s forest management used to be a lot more contentious. In the late ’90s, activists upset with what they saw as excessive logging chained themselves to trees; extremists even made bomb threats. Ultimately, a ski-masked contingent stormed the local Forest Service office to deliver a letter threatening uncompromising resistance “if one tree falls.”

The besieged and underfunded agency tried to meet the demand for better forest management — driven by ecology rather than economics — by establishing a new model, the Ashland Water Protection Plan. But the timber industry wasn’t interested in the small trees being felled, and the model languished until the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 allowed Ashland to create its own management plan.

Five years of meetings among concerned citizens, environmentalists, and a slew of foresters and ecologists resulted in AFR as a restoration alternative that was acceptable to the Forest Service. It took time to educate the community about what the forest truly needed, but eventually, nearly everyone agreed it was time to thin the watershed and return fire to the landscape. “As a community, we have a culture and a value system that says, ‘There’s a problem here, what can we do to fix it?’ ” says Sandra Slattery, executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, who participated in the process.

In 2015, the city council voted to implement a residential water tax that kicks $175,000 annually toward restoration work. The project’s partners match funds under a stewardship agreement, bolstered by an additional $11 million from the Forest Service and from selling culled timber.

AFR hopes to treat 7,600 acres around the city over 10 years; since 2010, it’s treated more than 4,000. The project has trained some 200 workers in Ashland and generated 17 permanent local forestry jobs and 150 seasonal positions. Community outreach is integral to its success, in the belief that swaying public perception about fire’s natural role is crucial to solving the megafire crisis. Through Lomakatsi, 2,000 local students have had the chance to work with fire in the field. “This is the real product of AFR,” says Mayor John Stromberg, “these kids and the change in their consciousness.”

There’s been surprisingly little criticism; in fact, Borgias says, some want even more aggressive thinning, and the amount of treated acreage could increase tenfold. Other Western cities have taken notice: Communities like Flagstaff, Arizona, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, have also invested financially and philosophically in forest treatment, though in all cases the Forest Service retains the final say-so within federal boundaries.

Mild fire suppression in well-managed forests is considerably cheaper — about 125th the cost per acre — than battling huge blazes in untreated areas. The AFR says Ashland has already saved upwards of $20 million by preventing big fires in its watershed.  

The results are visible on the ground, too. On a May afternoon, Borgias and Chris Chambers, Ashland’s forestry division chief, survey a unit in the lower watershed that was burned in 2015. Today, the forest sprouts a new carpet of Lemmon’s needlegrass, lilies, reseeded black oak. The ponderosas remain vigorous. “That’s cool to see,” Chambers says. “When you put fire back in, fire does the work for you.”

Nick Davidson is a Santa Fe, New Mexico-based writer who covers the outdoors, adventure, and environment.

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