County seeks grant for forest champion

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer December 06, 2013 10:37 pm

The Curry Healthy Forest Collaborative is looking for a champion.

Someone who can do everything from lead meetings to bring about compromise among 90 stakeholders, many of whom are fiercely protective of their interests, be it in logging, wild rivers, fisheries, forest health or the much-contested spotted owl.

That’s the description the county commissioners have outlined in a $46,678 grant request to the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Program. 

Officials hope to use the money to begin work on 1,200 acres in the 28,500-acre Shasta-Agness Planning Area.

The planning area runs in a north-to-south swath in the forested valleys north of Illahee, down through Agness and on to the headwaters of Lawson Creek and the Illinois River.

The grant, which is proposed to be matched by $10,000 cash from the Wild Rivers Coast Alliance and $30,000 of in-kind ends from the U.S. Forest Service, would pay for work in the 2014 calendar year.

County commissioners and others from the collaborative late last month trekked through the Shasta-Costa section of the forest near Agness to “practice” how consensus would be reached on the ground. While some were focused on the health of the river and worry about the fish within, others were looking at the marketability of the surrounding forests, contemplating how much a stand of trees might bring to the bottom line.

In the mix must be compromise, or the mission will fail, noted County Commissioner David Itzen, who has spearheaded the coalition as an idea to jumpstart Curry County’s economic situation.

Ironically, that stagnant economic situation started in the woods, in the 1990s when the spotted owl was placed on the endangered species list and subsequently halted all logging in the state to protect its habitat. In Curry County, 68 percent of the land is federally owned, leaving very little forested lands from which to eke a paycheck.

But the plans to save the owl have failed, many now agree.

“The U.S. Forest Service recently acknowledged this method of managing forests and habitat protection has been challenging,” the grant request reads. “Furthermore, the primary goal of increasing the number of threatened and endangered species, including the spotted owl, has not been achieved.”

Additionally, the end of timber harvesting since 1990 has resulted in homogenous stands of trees susceptible to pests and disease and a forest full of flammable material — both of which have become rallying cries in local to national proposals to get loggers back in the forests.

The problems have trickled from the forests into town, as well, the grant notes, pointing out that 62 percent of students here are eligible for subsidized lunches at school, and that Curry County has a graduation rate of less than 60 percent.

“Living wage jobs are difficult to find, resulting in a community that’s become increasingly disproportionately populated, with retirees living on entitlements or pensions,” the report reads. “Employed individuals are usually underemployed or working seasonal jobs, collecting unemployment in the off-season.”

The proposal

The goal of the collaborative is to protect late-successional forests — old growth — manage threatened and endangered species and improve watershed health, all while focusing on decreasing catastrophic fire danger while producing a marketable commodity, and creating recreational opportunities in the forest.

 Buy-in and consensus are key to success, the grant proposal reads.

The first job would be to clear invasive weeds from watersheds to improve river health, restore oak savannas and meadows where tree stands have encroached, get hazardous fuels to market — specifically to 3D Timberlands, a new company near Ophir that proposes taking duff from the forest floor and through pyrolysis, transforming it to material for use in agriculture.

Noxious weeds need to be removed from riparian areas, native species must be revegetated — and hopefully, the success of the mission can be replicated throughout other forested lands.

“We expect to improve ecosystem resilience, create greater pollination opportunities, greater plant and animal diversity, enhance water quality and the nutrient cycling,” the grant proposal said.

A key challenge will likely include the control of Sudden Oak Death, which is making a slow, steady march north and northeast through the county. The pathogen is transmitted primarily in the air, and when it contaminates commercial crops — even if it doesn’t affect that particular crop — the marketplace takes note and will not take shipments, further hampering the local economy.

To further engage the community and enhance the economy, the grant proposes the work would need local employees, could involve youth, would encourage local forestry businesses to participate, and could extend to the extent that forestry courses are offered at Southwestern Oregon Community College.

The facilitator — what the collaboration is calling its “champion” — would be paid $30,000, plus $4,328 in food, lodging and travel stipends. The rest of the money, which totals $86,678, would be provided by the Wild Rivers Coast Alliance and as in-kind funds from the forest service for supplies and work on the land.

The grant proposal has received letters of support from a variety of organizations related to river health, fisheries and others.

“This is integral to reducing the wildfire risk and implementing forest and riparian health projects in a more coordinated, efficient manner,” wrote Robert MacWhorter, forest supervisor for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. “The economic revitalization objectives outlined in the proposal are especially important in Curry County were economic conditions are declining at an unprecedented level.”