Brookings might be able to learn a thing or two about forestry management from its neighbors over the pass in Ashland, who have for eight years been managing the forest by thinning and burning.

Ashland is trying to protect its only water source from contamination that occurs after a wildfire.

Brookings, while it has an eye on the Chetco River’s headwaters for contamination after the Chetco Bar Fire, also got a reality check when that wildfire crept to within 5 miles of city limits last fall.

Ashland’s plan

Ashland’s success was the result of collaboration, citizen input, some good timing and a little luck.

Realizing it needed to protect its only water source, the city of 21,600 people launched a Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project in 2009 in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and a local habitat project group.

Initially, they thinned trees, putting people to work and keeping mills open at the height of the Great Recession. Now, they’re finishing up with controlled burns and maintaining brush.

By the end of 2019, the group expects to have 10,800 acres burned and thinned, according to Chris Chambers, forest division chief for the city. Not only will the work better protect the community from catastrophic wildfire, it will protect the city’s water source from contamination.

A how-to map

Ashland, a liberal enclave, fought hard with protesters protecting old-growth habitat and the spotted owl in the 1990s, as did almost all Oregon’s lumber towns.

Through education — and bringing in the Nature Conservancy to allay fears — the group convinced citizens there that a little bit of logging wouldn’t hurt, and that the idea wasn’t a logging plan in disguise.

“From the very onset, it was not just an agency representative riding in on their white horse and saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’” Chambers said. “It was the agency inviting the public to become engaged.”

Brookings residents arguably don’t need that convincing, many agree, as the economy has yet to rebound from the heyday of clear cutting trees; the proximity of the Chetco Bar Fire might have convinced any naysayers.

In 2003, the federal Healthy Forests Restoration Act allowed local governments to draft community wildfire protection plans as alternatives to the practices in its region at the time.

In designated wilderness areas, fire is often permitted to mimic nature’s natural cycles. On other lands, suppression was the rule, and that led to dense growth under older trees. Short of another catastrophic fire — and between climate change and drought, the fires are burning more acreage throughout a longer season — the only way to reduce the danger is to cut and thin.

That’s one method Curry County Commissioner Court Boice would like to copy.

Since last fall, he has met with numerous stakeholders to try to figure out a way to better manage the forests.

Boice is well aware his group is on a tight deadline, with fire season approaching in a scant four or five months. But he’s also on a tight leash, as much of the land that burned belongs to the forest service, which is only now opening its ears to listen to the community, or is protected as a designated wilderness area.

But it worked in Ashland, Chambers said.

“The forest service helped this fresh opportunity to convene people and develop a community alternative,” he said. “They recognized there had been a hard time in getting along with the community in managing the forests.”

Ashland got lucky, too. Just as it was getting the program rolling, the Great Recession was in its second year, and the Obama administration was offering grants to create jobs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Ashland was shovel-ready, and was awarded $6.2 million to get to work. Seventeen people now work in the forest and about 90 others have indirect full-time employment related to the work they do.

Challenges

It wasn’t without difficulties, including the expensive requirements to use helicopters to haul larger trees out — a situation Curry County could face in some areas of the backcountry.

Old growth trees were off limits; the average tree was only 13 inches in diameter.

But the project has created more than $5 million from wood products sold from the thinning work, most of which was used to make plywood.

The heavy logging — thinning — is done on almost 7,600 acres of federal land. All that’s left is some controlled burns and brush clearing on fewer than 1,000 acres.

In subsequent years, the partners secured nearly $14 million in state and federal grants — and residents agreed to provide matching funds through a $1.29 monthly fee on every water customer. This generates about $175,000 annually, Chambers said.

All this — reducing fire danger, protecting water and salmon sources, boosting the economy — could be realized here, Boice said.

The last piece of the puzzle will be to see how it works in Ashland, and they admit they won’t know until the next fire strikes.

“From the very onset, it was not just an agency representative riding in on their white horse and saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’” Chambers said. “It was the agency inviting the public to become engaged.”

Brookings residents arguably don’t need that convincing, many agree, as the economy has yet to rebound from the heyday of clear-cutting trees, and the proximity of the Chetco Bar Fire might have convinced any naysayers.

In 2003, the federal Healthy Forests Restoration Act allowed local governments to draft community wildfire protection plans as alternatives to the practices in its region at the time.

In designated wilderness areas, fire is often permitted to mimic nature’s natural cycles. On other lands, suppression was the rule, and that led to dense growth under older trees. Short of another catastrophic fire — and between climate change and drought, the fires are burning more acreage throughout a longer seasons — the only way to reduce the danger is to cut and thin, many said.

That’s one method Curry County Commissioner Court Boice would like to pursue.

Since last fall, he has met with numerous stakeholders to try to figure out a way to better manage the forests.

Boice is well aware his group is on a tight deadline, with fire season approaching in a scant four or five months. But he’s also on a tight leash, as much of the land that burned belongs to the forest service, which is only now opening its ears to listen to the community, or is protected as a designated wilderness area.

But it worked in Ashland, Chambers said.

“The forest service helped this fresh opportunity to convene people and develop a community alternative,” he said. “They recognized there had been a hard time in getting along with the community in managing the forests.”

Ashland got lucky, too. Just as it was getting the program rolling, the Great Recession was in its second year, and the Obama administration was offering grants to create jobs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Ashland was shovel-ready, and was awarded $6.2 million to get to work. Seventeen people now work in the forest and about 90 others have indirect full-time employment related to the work they do.

Challenges

It wasn’t without difficulties, including the expensive requirements to use helicopters to haul larger trees out — a situation Curry County could face in some areas of the backcountry.

Old growth trees were off limits; the average tree was only 13 inches in diameter.

But the project has created more than $5 million from wood products sold from the thinning work, most of which was used to make plywood.

The heavy logging — thinning — is done on almost 7,600 acres of federal land. All that’s left is some controlled burns and brush clearing on fewer than 1,000 acres.

In subsequent years, the partners secured nearly $14 million in state and federal grants — and residents agreed to provide matching funds through a $1.29 monthly fee on every water customer. This generates about $175,000 annually, Chambers said.

All this — reducing fire danger, protecting water and salmon sources, boosting the economy — could be realized here, Boice said.

The last piece of the puzzle will be to see how it works in Ashland, and they admit they won’t know until the next fire strikes.

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